Phones, computers, and automobiles

Apr 5th, 2009 | By | Category: Succeeding as an Intern

By JOE GRIMM

You can shoot yourself in the foot with a gun, or you can do it with a computer. Here’s how: Use your office computer to play Solitaire, shop online or IM all your friends: “Yo, CK—am on my summer gig. It’s way easier than I thought, tho. Had orientation yest’day and this old dude spent 45 minutes telling me how to do e-mail. LMAO.”

All newsrooms provide staffers with tools to help them do their jobs. At minimum, there is a computer and a phone on the desk. There might also be pagers, air cards, cell phones, camera equipment, the use of company cars, and reimbursement for expenses. Permanent hires might also get company credit cards.

Not all of us are wizards at keeping track of a lot of stuff. (Has anyone seen my car keys?) But if you’re being trusted like a professional, even in small ways, you should act like a professional. Being sloppy with these tools might be interpreted as a sign that you’re sloppy with your journalism. That can be a career-killer.

Jayson Blair, who disgraced himself by inventing and stealing material for stories in the New York Times, showed similar behavior in the way he handled Times equipment and expenses. Careless disregard for the company car, telephone, or computer might be warning signs that the person has the same cavalier attitude about the rules of journalism.

You work hard to be respected for your honesty, accuracy and integrity. Don’t trash your reputation with a handful of parking tickets, carelessness or petty dishonesty.

Every newspaper has its own policies. Ask what they are and follow them to a T. If you break one, own up immediately and clear your record. Do not try to hide your mistakes. These are policies you might expect:

Computers: Employers have two primary concerns about their computers. One is that the things run smoothly, the other is that they are used just for business. To keep viruses out, the company may have rules against opening attachments or downloading programs that the system administrator has not approved of or purchased licenses for. Do not install anything on the newsroom computer without checking first. Do not even try to install instant messenger programs or log into personal e-mail accounts without asking. Technology editors have found that these can poke holes in the newsroom’s firewall, making the system vulnerable. Imagine how naïve you’re going to look if, while using your mad computer skills, you download the attachment that crashes the newsroom computer system on deadline.

Keep a squeaky-clean line between work and personal pursuits. Anyone walking by can see what is on your screen. If you shop online, people see it. If you play games, people see it. Assume that everything you do on the office computer is being simulcast to your boss’ screen, backed up, archived, and will be permanently retrievable. Because it is. (OK, I made up that part about being simulcast. They probably won’t use that feature.) Do you really want everyone to know that you spend two hours a day e-mailing friends?

I once told an intern to kill a blog, written at work, that implicated her and others in activities that would have been embarrassing for all. If read by a strict publisher, it could have pulled the plug on the internship.

Laptops: Like photo equipment and cell phones, these things can sprout legs and run off. If laptops tend to do that more frequently while they are in your care, expect to go without them. You can also expect to get some evil looks from staff members who need to use equipment you have lost. Keep a hand—not just your eye—on expensive equipment, or keep it locked down. Photographers and videographers, the trunk of a car is not meant to be overnight storage for your gear.

A harried sports writer covering the Olympics set his laptop on top of his rental car, threw his notes and other junk into the rental and drove off. He soon realized he had forgotten to put the laptop inside. He pulled over and checked the top of the car. No laptop. He drove back to the stadium parking lot. No laptop in sight. “Hey, officer, did anyone find a laptop computer out here?”

“Small package in a black case with a shoulder strap?”
“Yes!”
“Out here in the parking lot?”
“Yes, great!”
“Oh. It looked suspicious. The bomb squad blew it up.”
How would you like to explain that one?

Desk phones: Obviously, using company phones for personal business is a no-no. Everyone understands the occasional call about personal business, but chit-chatting with friends around the country or arranging your next road trip is out. In addition to tying up what is meant to be your business line, this indicates you’re not all that serious about your work. Chat on your own time, on your own phone. If you have to make extensive arrangements for something important and can do it only during your work hours, clear it ahead of time with your editor, do it on a break and try to find a place that is more private than the middle of the newsroom.

Cell phones and pagers: Obviously, every call made on or to a cell phone generates a record, and this record goes to the owner of the cell phone—the company. Be ready to answer for every call on your cell phone. These are issued as much to help supervisors do their jobs—by keeping up with you—as to help you do your job. If the company gives you a pager and you never respond to pages, they’ll ask whether something is wrong with the pager—or with you. Keep these charged up or in batteries and keep them near you. It is unprofessional for journalists to be unavailable. Exception: For religious reasons, some people cannot use devices like these at certain times. Explain ahead of time. Most editors will get it.

Company cars: Some companies maintain a fleet of cars that staffers can use to go out on business. Business does not mean grocery shopping or having lunch with friends. Going out to lunch will not seem very businesslike if a reporter who needs a car to go out on a story is caught short. Using a company car means having a valid driver’s license in your possession and it may mean having up-to-date auto insurance. These things are so basic—why do I even need to say them? Guess. Use good manners when you use a company car. The next person in it may be the person who sits next to you—or who signs your time sheet. Do not leave the gas tank empty or the backseat full of junk.

Parking tickets: You can win a Pulitzer Prize during your internship, but it is far more likely that the only citation you get will be for parking. Some newspapers will reimburse staff members for tickets acquired in the pursuit of journalism. If they do, and if that’s how you won those citations, turn them in right away with a note of explanation. Sometimes, prompt payment of a parking ticket brings down the price. It will say on the ticket. If you sit on tickets, they get more expensive. If you get a ticket for being dumb—I got one for parking right outside the front door for “just a minute” and then forgetting to move my car—consider this a course in memory enhancement and pay for it yourself. I was surprised—and not in a pleasant way—when our budget manager told me that an intern, then long gone, had amassed a mittful of parking tickets with company cars and had told no one at the paper. The paper was stuck with tickets and late fees. I had egg on my face and that intern cannot get a positive recommendation from me. It’s not just that he left us holding these tickets. That’s only money. The real problem is that he made me doubt that he is ethical, honest, and responsible.

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