My Summer Internship at the Economist

With Vijay Vaitheeswaran

My summer internship with the Economist, though challenging, was incredibly fun. Throughout the length of the internship, I felt energized to start the workday and was so satisfied with my accomplishments at the end of each day. I told all my friends that my boss paid me to learn; I could not have asked for a better job.

Removing Oneself From the Data

The most valuable lesson that I learned during the internship was to step back from the data and really think about the story I wanted to portray. My professors at Berkeley taught me where to find data, and how to clean, analyze, and visualize data with all kinds of tools. The professors, however, never taught me what to do with the story itself. Before the internship, my thought process was to establish a story idea, look for any useful data and then think about how to present the data accordingly. I produced “wow” charts, which were interactive and pretty. I was used to that kind of “superficial” work. People may have liked these charts because they are very refreshing and “cool” but besides that, these charts didn’t impress anyone with the content alone. Looking pretty isn’t good enough. How to present information in the most effective way should always be a journalist-designer/journalist-developer’s first priority.

Paying Attention to Detail

Being a data researcher/ analyst requires patience and one must aim for perfection. I admit I have OCD when trying to obtain an answer. There was not a sole easy task from my boss, Vijay. For a lot of the tasks it was difficult to even know where to begin to retrieve the answers. I did, however, still take away some key points, especially the fact that you should never say no, as you never know how far you may get. I paid quite a bit of attention to the numbers, so in the end, I frequently got some answers. Many times, I read every report I could find and then turned to my boss and say no to disappoint him. But that learning process was still very rewarding.

Being a data researcher also requires attention to detail. Every number has to be correct and up-to-date. I literally triple-checked my numbers every time I compiled an excel sheet for my boss. I aIso asked myself the following questions: are the units correct? Did I forget a source? Did I check if there were any updates? Even asking myself these questions each time, I still made several mistakes. Luckily, my boss had eagle eyes.

I also learned to be organized. This was my first time handling such an enormous project. I felt proud of myself when my boss asked for data in the end of the project and I sort among tons of reports. I also kept a list of contacts and it was super helpful when doing fact-checking and asking for updates.

Challenges

My favorite part of the internship was the opportunity to meet with Vijay. At first, I was simply stressed. I thought it was intimidating talking to someone with a much greater intelligence than me. He was able to identify every problem in my research, could tell me what data was better, and if any other presentations could have done a better job in a matter of 30 seconds. Additionally, he asked me about every detail of the data. After the first meeting, I learned to be prepared to answer all questions he might ask: What’s the source? Any better sources? What does this measure mean? What’s included/excluded in the numbers? Am I sure they used the correct way to do the statistics? What story is told? I never looked deeper into a simple measure even if it was just GDP per capita. Was it based on PPP? Is it by current USD or constant USD or LCU? If it were not for this internship, I would have never noticed small details such as “there are actually three types of patents,” and “China and OECD have different classification of patents.”

The most challenging task was writing a memo to challenge Nicholas Lardy and the use of his data sources and methodologies. He also asked me to revise the Sinodependency Index. It sounded super unrealistic for me, as I deem myself an incapable intern, knowing how famous Nicholas Lardy was. I did read his book very carefully and thought for a long time about the mistakes he might have made, which provided me with tons of lessons.

Reliability

Deciphering what’s behind China’s official economic data is always more of an art than a science. Doing journalism in China is hard. Getting people to talk is hard. Finding numbers is even harder. Even if you find the numbers, you need to discover whether or not they are reliable. The discussions with experts on different versions of Chinese official data sheets were very meaningful to me. Keeping an eye on what is reliable data is another important lesson I learned during this internship.

Modesty and Prolonged Growth

You never know how limited your knowledge is until you converse with others. In my internship cover letter, I wrote, “I know China’s economy.” After completing this internship, I wanted to take back these words. I came to realize that my colleagues are super smart and modest people. They read a lot and can digest information quickly. The most intelligent and successful people usually are modest and humble. My boss told me over the phone during our last chat that he still has a lot to learn about China. I think this internship was the best journalism and economics lesson I’ve ever had. Ultimately, this internship confirmed that this is what I enjoy doing and made me realize I have much more to learn in the field of study.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Fan Fei’s story.