Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

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I was an intern, hear me roar

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Words of wisdom, if from an odd source (Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”).

As we get further into June, so begins that magical summertime stretch of Internship Season. Each year, thousands of high school and college students get experience in their industries of choice. Some get paid, some don’t.

Recently, there’s been a big to do about unpaid internships and the ethics involved in them. Seeing many of my friends go off to their own summer gigs, it got me reminiscing and thinking about my intern days.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my summer work. I didn’t have the time to intern the summers before and after I studied abroad, but the summer after my junior year, I earned a Dow Jones editing internship at the Indianapolis Star. A Dow is pretty much the gold standard in editing internships, and I had a great summer in Indy.

My next two internships — in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from KU and in the summer of 2010 before I came to Canterbury — were also with large, respected newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star, respectively.

I will point out two critical features that all three of my internships had in common: I did actual hands-on, deadline-based work, and I was compensated.

Apart from getting some technical help and one-on-one critiques, I was expected to do the work of anyone else on the copy desk. Often I was responsible for front-page or front-section displays, and at the Kansas City Star, I often had an entire page to put together from the dummy up. After clearing my content choices with the slot, getting it done was on me.

So it’s with some dismay that I now read stories about unpaid interns, desperate to get their feet in the door, who trudge through their summers doing mindless, menial tasks. I was trimming AP wire, editing house copy, writing headlines and cutlines and posting stories to the Web. Many of them are fetching coffee and running the Xerox machine.

I’ve noticed that journalism, particularly the magazine industry (not all magazines, certainly, but many of them), is a career path rife with unpaid and unchallenging internship work. Many outlets apparently think that working for them is enough of a reward in and of itself.

I have two serious problems with this.

The first is that not every college student can afford to go two and a half months without a paycheck. Internships often require you to pull up stakes for the summer (two of mine did). Valuable experience or not, it’s a big burden to bear, needing food, rent and living expenses with no income. This puts more affluent students at an unfair advantage, regardless of skill sets or talent. This annoys the hell out of me; I value fair play.

The second is that I think students should feel that their work is appreciated. A hard-earned paycheck is a great thing to hold in your hand. It is a clear message that your employer finds you valuable. I don’t find anything greedy about people wanting compensation for their work. I do think it’s greedy when employers use unpaid college students to do grunt work and try to explain it away as “valuable work experience.” I received valuable work experience at all three of the newspapers for which I worked; they still saw fit to pay me.

There’s evidence that the tide’s turning away from unpaid internships. Many colleges refuse to list them in career center postings, a position I enthusiastically support. More media attention is focused on them now, and there’s also some naming and shaming going on. I know some people who simply refuse to apply for them.

I think that last point is the key. As long as droves of students sign on for unpaid work — some companies even charge students to get them internships, which I frankly find kind of tasteless — the trend will continue. But if the talent pool starts drying up and students hold out for internships where they’re appreciated and compensated, maybe employers will wake up.