More than making coffee runs: How to build a quality internship program
At 6AM City, interns are an important part of our workflow, and they provide meaningful contributions to our product, especially because each team is made up of only two editors.
We are intentional about how we hire + utilize our interns because the last thing we want is to make more work for ourselves by hiring someone who isn’t up to the task or to do a disservice by not providing a valuable experience.
If you come to work as an intern at 6AM City, you won’t be taking coffee orders. (Okay, so, sometimes our interns do pick up coffee but that’s because that’s an essential need, and we all take turns doing it.)
All joking aside — companies should be asking themselves how to make the most of their interns’ time, and we’ve got some best practices for you.
1. Make a good hire and then throw them off the deep end.
Much of the work needs to be done during the interview process. We expect to train interns on the inner workings of our business, but — on a high level — they should be able to come in on day №1 and be ready to contribute.
So, don’t sleep on the interview process even though it might be one more thing on your long to-do list. Treat it like any other employee interview. Set the bar high, even for college students. The ones you want to hire will rise to the occasion.
Our editors look for:
- People who aren’t afraid to ask questions
- Someone who has concrete examples of a strong work ethic
Enthusiasm, passion, and gratitude are also traits you want to be on the lookout for. When those traits are present, you won’t be able to overlook them.
Someone who is grateful, enthusiastic, and passionate is going to work harder, take pride in the product, and want to be a part of the team.
There are also some red flags to look for that can be applied to any industry:
- Lack of knowledge about the product
- Reciting seemingly perfect talking points
- Someone who has no questions during the interview
When you’re hiring, don’t look for perfection. Look for potential that you can help cultivate.
ProTip: Be on the lookout for interns outside the application process. The person who approached you at a professional networking event is worth remembering when you’re hiring. You want the kind of intern who takes extra steps, like attending industry events. We have one editor who is also an adjunct college professor and spots potential interns while teaching.
2. Pay them.
We’re proud to pay our interns — and even give them raises when warranted. The days of the unpaid internship are still here, but companies that can pay should pay.
We’re a startup and we know that struggle, too. So, if you can’t afford to pay actual money, work with local colleges or departments to get students credit for their work.
Don’t ask people to work for free, especially if you’re going to demand quality work.
ProTip: If an intern can stay longer than one semester, and you can use them, keep the same person on for at least two semesters. It means less turnover, less training, and more overall value to both the intern + company.
3. Have a plan for meaningful work.
Again, this is a situation in which work on the front end will save you later.
At 6AM City, we have both long and short-term goals that are outlined at the beginning of the internship. This provides clear expectations both for managers and interns.
We’ve created a weekly task list that’s published on an employee training platform called Trainual. We outline everything from basics, like getting familiar with Google Drive and setting up their email, to more in-depth tasks that contribute to our daily newsletter and social media strategies.
Editors also create daily lists and use diverse communication methods (when working remotely, like during a pandemic) to guide interns.
Having daily lists, in addition to the more formal, progressive information on Trainual, helps editors and interns keep track of all the balls they juggle. It also provides accountability because there shouldn’t be a situation in which an intern isn’t sure what to work on.
Do not immediately give an intern a task that will hurt you or the company if it isn’t completely perfect on a tight deadline. But do expect them to contribute right away.
4. Communicate intentionally + often.
Having open communication channels and being able to communicate with interns in the ways they are used to is also important. You may prefer phone calls, but let us tell you that your intern probably prefers to text. And whether you like it or not, it’s good to adapt to new technology and ways of communicating. We aren’t saying don’t call your intern, but often some form of text is more effective.
The majority of our communication with interns (when not in the office together) comes in some form of text chat, whether that’s an actual text or another tool, like Slack.
Practice being clear and specific in your directions. Be open and available for questions and if someone isn’t asking questions, check in to make sure they don’t have any.
Here’s an example.
Unclear text to intern: Please go take a photo to go with today’s article on COVID-19 tests.
Clear text to intern: Please go to “X” location and take a photo for today’s article on COVID-19 tests. Get both close-up and wide shots. Get people in the photo but avoid taking pictures of their backs. Take at least 50 photos from different angles or with different framing so we have plenty to choose from. What questions do you have?
ProTip: Instead of saying, “Let me know if you have any questions,” sometimes it’s helpful to frame it with the assumption that there will be questions. This can make people feel more comfortable asking for help.
5. Remember, they are here to help.
We have a relatively young staff, some of whom are just out of college and are tasked with managing people in college, who still feel like peers. But no matter your age, managing interns can feel overwhelming — if you let it.
It’s important to remember that interns are there to help the company and its employees, and when managed well, interns should rise to the occasion and make life easier.
Keep the following in mind:
- You’re a team so work together. If possible, divide up bigger tasks into smaller parts that interns can have a hand in. Working on a large task together shows the intern you are invested in your role and in them. At 6AM, interns contribute to our daily product that’s seen by thousands of people.
- Even though it’s important to have processes + workflows, avoid getting bogged down by them. Instead, focus on what you need done immediately, and find a meaningful way to include interns. And, no, having them make a coffee run so you can stay up and do all the work isn’t what we’re talking about here.
6. Be there to guide + teach them.
This might be the most important point. It’s a disservice to ourselves, our interns, and our company if we don’t take this task seriously. It’s also a disservice to our local economy and our industry as a whole if we don’t help create the next generation of storytellers + journalists.
What this looks like daily includes:
- Celebrating wins + letting interns know when they’ve done good work. Always include why it was well-done. That way they can apply it to future tasks.
- Two-way communication + feedback. Not only should you be giving interns insight into what they are doing well, how they can improve, and how their work is important, you should also be getting their feedback. Learn from them. They are likely up on important trends you aren’t. In addition, managers must be open to hearing constructive feedback, concerns, and ideas for improvement from interns.
- Teach. On a more granular level, this includes avoiding taking the easier route of correcting an intern’s work without discussing it with them. In journalism, there are what feels like a million tiny details in each article or newsletter. When interns contribute, it’s inevitable that there will be something small that’s not done just right. It’s easy, and maybe even a habit, to just correct it quietly, but this doesn’t help anyone. Find a way to show interns their mistakes, even if they are small. When warranted, have them go back and correct the work. This provides incentive to get it right next time and allows them to practice doing it correctly.
- Lead + communicate with care. It’s a privilege to have help from interns, and it’s a privilege to contribute to a young person’s professional growth. Treat the situation as such and take the responsibility seriously. Be kind and conscientious in your leadership and communication. Be supportive. Be available. You never know if you’re helping to mold the next industry great.