Set internship goals

Mar 3rd, 2009 | By | Category: Preparation


As an intern, you have a lot going on. You may be a student as well as someone who is expected to do a professional job.

As college has growing numbers of options for study and travel, and as journalism conventions and training opportunities are multiplying, new journalists find more and more reasons to interrupt their internships.

One intern asked if he could leave his internship for a week to attend a prestigious, invitation-only seminar. I agreed. Then, he asked whether he could leave for a few days to attend a journalism convention. I hesitated, but agreed. When he asked for a third interruption, I said no.

He went over my head—all the way to corporate—to complain that I wasn’t being flexible. The bosses said I was doing the right thing. By  the end of his internship, he agreed. He said that the time away distracted him and hurt his internship, which was really the most important part of his summer. The other options were just add-ons. Nice, but not as important.

An intern was selected for a prestigious internship and went into its accompanying training program with plans to spend part of his time training for the internship and part of his time on schoolwork. His instructor rightfully concluded that the intern wasn’t focused or serious enough to do his best work. The intern was sent home from the training program and lost a highly coveted and highly paid internship.

Before coming to the Free Press, an intern asked whether he could take a summer course during his internship. “What will happen if the summer’s big story breaks and you have to leave for a 7 p.m. class? What will happen if you have the chance to work on a big news day, but need to be in class?” He chose to focus on his internship, had a great time and learned a lot.

Now, newsrooms need to accommodate the balanced lives that people want to live. But balance implies equal weight on both sides of the scale. Family is important, so is career and so is commitment.

If you promise to take an internship, make it your top work-related priority while you’re there. Family concerns may intervene, and most editors will help you with those, but interruptions for a second job or a summertime course send the wrong signal. Let’s make one exception: If you are working an unpaid internship, you may have to make a higher commitment to another job, and you may have to let that get in the way of journalistic opportunity.

Set goals
If you’re planning to go nowhere, that’s exactly where you’ll wind up. Go into your internship with a map in one hand, a compass in the other and an itinerary in the—oh, never mind.

Goals teach you to accomplish objectives and give your career momentum and direction. Without goals, how are we to know whether we have accomplished anything?

Set just a few goals. Twenty is unrealistic. Ten, too.

Set a few goals that will require you to stretch, that are important to  where you want to take your career and that are more or less in your control.

Have reasonable expectations. A lot of interns expect to earn 30 bylines. Or 40. Or 50. Others pledge to commit no errors. Or to turn the internship into a job. But internships are not measured in bylines or job offers or absolute perfection. Here’s a more reasonable expectation: Plan and work to improve as a journalist. Learning from practice and experience is the real purpose of an internship, so put your goals there. You’re not being realistic and you’re missing a key point if you build your goals around earning a certain number of bylines or a job in a newsroom where, perhaps, you have never set foot. Set learning goals, and measure your experience by demonstrating new skills. Be open. Success may come in ways you did not expect.

These can be useful goals, depending on what you have already done and the type of job you are working toward:
“I will cover a trial.”
“I will use the Freedom of Information Act to report a story.”
“I will improve my leads to the point where two-thirds of them are used essentially as I wrote them.”
“I will become better at pitching my own story ideas and will pitch at least one story every week.”
“I will try to work with a team of reporters on a big story so that I can see how they work together.”
“I will go totally digital with my photography.”
“I will write something every day.”
“I will develop a system that helps my accuracy. My goal it to have no errors in the paper, and none that editors have to catch.”

These goals are more qualitative or experiential than quantitative and require you to acquire and apply new skills. Are they totally within your control? Not all of them. The photo director may not want to have everything shot in a digital format. But by discussing goals with your editor, the two of you can craft achievable goals. And when you enlist your editor as a partner, you are working on those goals together. This lends much more meaning to an internship than setting a production number that is, in many ways, uninformed.

Think of this as a free sample. You can find more internship strategies in “Breaking In: The guide to Newspaper Internships.”

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