Intern area at one of my internships a decade ago

How to help journalism students if you cancel their internships

As a journalism instructor, it’s devastating to hear that many newsrooms are canceling their summer internship programs. It’s already a very hard time for college students — online learning is exposing the huge gaps between those with a personal safety net and those without, and social distancing is forcing students away from their peers and other people who care about them. All of this adds up to an enormous setback for efforts to increase diversity in the journalism industry.

But students aren’t the only ones affected by this turmoil, and running a well-managed internship program is a lot of work. Canceling internships is unfortunately the right call for many newsrooms. I know a lot of newsrooms are extremely disappointed, too.

So, what can newsrooms do for their interns if the internship is no longer happening? In education it’s called backward design when you define the goals and outcomes of, say, a particular course and then work backward to figure out the work and assignments to reach those goals. With an internship, the goals for what interns get out of it are usually some combination of:

  • Practical experience/skills

Maybe you can’t offer everything, but anything that furthers those goals is so helpful. Here are a bunch of ideas that might also be useful for educators and students who are self-advocating.

Give clear guidance about how to list it on a résumé. If the internship is competitive, being selected is still a big deal, but students may feel uncomfortable including it. Maybe it would fit as an award or honor.

Write a general letter of recommendation or support. Students can use this when applying last-minute for other opportunities. Even if they don’t have an immediate use for it, it will be a valuable boost during a discouraging time. At minimum offer to be listed as a reference.

Connect them with their intern cohort. If your organization has a summer internship program where interns interact with each other, formally or informally, missing out on those peer connections is a huge loss. If they give permission, share contact information so they can at least follow up with each other.

Follow them on Twitter and other platforms if they post about professional stuff. Tiny effort, but means a lot. Just don’t, like, stalk them on their private Instagram.

Suggest relevant newsletters and Slacks. Some students are super-connected, but most are still figuring it out. They’ll appreciate your suggestions.

Suggest open-source or collaborative projects. Contributing to a larger project can be great for a résumé and networking, and give students a sense of purpose if they’re trying to define their own goals and projects.

Mentor them on a conference proposal. Maybe there’s something specific that would be a good fit now, or you can offer so the student has a reason to follow up with you later.

Pay for a student membership to a professional group. With a few exceptions, the going rate for annual student memberships to professional journalism groups is about $25–30. Pretty affordable, but still more than many students can justify paying on their own unless strongly encouraged. Suggest groups like: IRE, ONA, SPJ, SEJ, JAWS, AAJA, NAHJ, SAJA, NAJA, NABJ, NLGJA, etc. (Just don’t make assumptions!)

Pay for a subscription to your own publication. Don’t assume they have one or could pay for it themselves.

Give a portfolio or project critique. Don’t offer without being prepared to follow through, but even a 20-minute call can be really valuable.

Give a self-critique. Offer to walk through a recent project you’ve worked on, explaining the process and being candid about what went well and what didn’t turn out as expected. Bonus points if it’s not your best work or involves many missteps.

Offer job shadows or limited internships. How about a one-week internship next winter break? Something short still has benefits, and offering now makes it easier for the student to ask later.

Offer to defer the internship, but realize this forces students to make really hard decisions. Of course it’s nice to offer to have the internship next fall or winter if possible, but know that this is not an equitable solution. Many students can’t rearrange their academic schedules and stay on track for graduation, and the students on the strictest graduation timelines are those with heavy financial aid burdens or visa requirements. This is also an impossible choice for students with leadership roles in student media, or campus jobs that are tied to housing and tuition.

Send them swag. Got any branded lanyards, stickers, pens, etc.? It will go a long way toward making them feel like you really did want them on your team.

You know, if you add up those goals I listed above, what students really gain from internships is confidence. And this is so important in an industry that is not always kind to its workers. Encouragement is cheap and not all that much work, and it’s genuinely possible it will change someone’s life and career.

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