The Importance of Interns

If conventional wisdom and all the pundits are correct, studying journalism or communications in university these days renders you nuts or divorced from reality. After all, if the media is dying, as so many seem to say, how will any student get a job when they graduate? Or, at least, how will they get a job that they can survive on?

And pity the poor college educators who are valiantly striving to make sure they are educating their students to compete in tomorrow’s media. That is virtually mission impossible when new media trends grows old over the course of a single semester. Twitter goes from hot to old-hat. Facebook surpasses Google in hits. Blogs rapidly morph into old media.

I had a recent conversation with a former student who works in new media for NPR. She told me that I now need to teach a new form of writing: “writing to the swipe.”

The reality is that mobile news requires yet another nuance in how tomorrow’s journalists are going to have to cater to both old demands (no, print is not dead yet) and new ones from technologies not yet even invented.

Which all makes DC a new frontline in media education for so many of those who will make tomorrow’s media. New York may have Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and a wealth of magazines, but DC has the news. And politics. And documentaries. Local journalism. New online news enterprises. Non-profits now putting out their own content. The government.

And DC has the interns.

Welcome to journalism education circa 2011, where the turnover in media is so rapid that a 25-year-old at the new media meteor known as Politico considers himself one of the old guard. The tradition of working your journalistic way up the ladder has largely disintegrated. For many, there is no ladder any more – just a large boulder to try and hop on. And many media companies are using internships today, even more than in the past, as a preferred recruiting tool for good jobs, often new jobs with a future.

“Some places may still have students push paper and get coffee, but the ones that understand what internships can be use it strategically to identify talent. For new media companies it also helps us understand the mentality and ideas of the next generation,” says Brittany Cooper, Director for Recruitment and Corporate Culture for New Media Strategies, one of the fastest growing social media marketing companies in the world.

With one estimate that there are as many as 40,000 interns a year in DC (although in many areas besides media) and many more on the way, DC has become the world’s capital for experiential education, a bridge between traditional media education and the work place, and the passport to that first real job.

Tucker Carlson, of Crossfire/MSNBC/Dancing with the Stars fame, and founder of the newest new media news organization The Daily Caller, admits he was never an intern himself. However, he says, “depending on the office they’re in, they’re apt to learn a lot. Maybe more than in class. Interns have been great for us, not necessarily for the work they do, but because we watch them carefully and hire the smart, hardworking ones. We’ve hired a bunch so far. “

The price for this entrée is that, unfortunately, most DC media internships are unpaid, today often out of financial exigencies but previously out of competition among applicants for these opportunities. The Labor Department’s rules governing internships date back to the 1930’s; they frown on unpaid internships, although there is an ambiguous exemption for internships with academic purposes. But it is a catch-22 where federal regulations would otherwise prevent the very goal of experiential learning and the kind of job creation that students might not otherwise get.

The smartest students often find the best opportunities in less obvious choices. Sirius/XM Radio offers one of the best internship programs in the country, with a program that ensures students get the training and support they need. Nature’s Best Magazine, a private version of National Geographic, offers its interns a magazine experience that will define a career. This very newspaper and its effervescent publisher Sonya Bernhardt have nurtured a decade’s worth of young journalists who have gone on to media success.

Ross Herosian is the Manager of College Programs and HR projects at Sirius/XM, and a former intern himself. “What traditional collegiate academia provides,” he says, “is a very strong base foundation, skills and practices that are ever present, no matter how much media changes. We can build on that and find and nurture the best talent. Today we have a good number of employees who are former interns, who are now mentoring themselves. From my perspective, it is completing the circle and a strong part of our culture.”

So then, perhaps college journalism programs should not even try to keep up with a media evolving so fast that their professional columnists can’t keep up. Instead, no matter how much it changes, the media will always need from their interns what Universities do best: a solid foundation of a well-rounded education. That is something no internship, no matter how good, can provide.

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