Working with interns, cub reporters, or new citizen journalists?

Have a look at this.

Working with interns, cub reporters, or new citizen journalists?
Cub reporter Andrew Checchia of The Daily Catch in New York's Hudson Valley.

By Alice Dreger

If you’ve ever taken on a journalism intern, odds are you know that what you thought was going to be a boon for your outlet’s productivity can actually be a time and energy drain.

Still, there are good reasons to work with interns: bringing in a fresh, often younger perspective to your reporting; renewing and improving your mentoring and managerial skills; and helping the next generation see first-hand why journalism really matters, even if they don’t stick with the profession.

Just in time for summer internship hiring, with funding from the DJ McManus Family Foundation, our colleagues at The Daily Catch in New York’s Hudson Valley have put out a new free guide: Hiring, Training + Working with Interns: A Handbook for Small Newsrooms.

In a recent phone interview with me, Daily Catch Founder and Editor Emily Sachar noted the handbook also applies to working with cub reporters who will be staying with your operation a year or more.

“So much of the learning and mentoring required with interns is similar to what happens with a brand new reporter just out of college,” she said. 

There’s the problem of how to vet candidates, the issue of needing to help them find housing, “the naivete, the questions about how to do an interview – all those skill-based issues are still the same.”

The handbook was researched and written by Daily Catch board member and retired journalism professor Barbara Selvin, who has known Sachar since they worked at Newsday together decades ago. 

Sachar told me that what Selvin learned from other small newsroom editors in her research validated Sachar’s own experiences in terms of the challenges of dealing with interns. 

“I found it really reassuring that I’m not alone,” Sachar said. “It’s really hard to get good quality interns and yet it’s more important than ever that we try to seed the talent pipeline.”

The guide includes smart, practical information about compensation, training, management, and evaluation, and also points to additional resources you may find helpful, including, for example, a slide presentation on photojournalism basics and recommendations on interview training materials.

The guide also recommends another resource, Earn Your Press Pass, an online training course that will get your interns, cub reporters, and citizen journalists up to speed on interviewing skills, covering a meeting, journalism ethics, and more. It’s solid training you won’t have to provide yourself.

Selvin calls Press Pass “a really fantastic program” and notes it is available for free to members of INN and 22 state press associations. (Contact Press Pass to find out how you can get access.)

Asked if there was anything she wanted to emphasize about working with interns, Selvin called out unpaid internships, which she deemed “inherently unfair.” She seconded the advice from Voice of OC’s Sonya Quick (as reproduced at INN’s page on internships): “If you can’t provide the time and resources to host an intern properly, then you’re not ready to host an intern.”

“To make journalism attractive to young people, unpaid internships are just a non-starter," Selvin said. “It’s not a good practice.”

While you may be lucky enough to find sponsorships or grants to pay your interns – and The Daily Catch's guidebook provides tips on how to find such funding – few sponsorships or grants will pay for the extra editing and mentoring time each intern costs. 

From my own experience, including with East Lansing Info’s summer youth journalism program, I would say you should not attempt to take on interns if you don’t have the capacity to add hours of work to your weekly schedule and you don’t have reporting topics that can move slowly towards publication. We abandoned an internship partnership with Michigan State University that paid the interns well but cost our editing staff more time and energy than we could afford.

Still, if we’re going to keep the profession going – especially at the local level – we need to take on interns as we are able. Sachar says the process of producing the guidebook made her realize “how incredibly important it is that we remember the tactics and tools we used and began to master in our earliest days in this career.”

And again, the new guidebook isn’t just for dealing with conventional internships. You’ll find the content useful for dealing with novice reporters of all kinds. As many of our operations are necessarily hiring string reporters who come without traditional journalism training and experience, this guidebook is a real boon.

Sachar and Selvin encourage folks to download and print as many copies of the free handbook as they need. Find it here.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.