Local editors, publishers should hire journalism students stuck at home for summer internships

It’s been hard in recent weeks to deliver my usual pep talk about journalism to the college students whom I teach. For one, we are not in the same physical space. I’m engaging with students online in bursts and have been since late March. Even so, I can sense their grief, sometimes in their silence and sometimes in their failure to reply to a simple email that would typically get an answer. It would normally be the perfect time to lead them in a cheer about the importance of holding the government accountable and why credibility is essential more than anything else. But these aren’t normal times even though all that matters, especially now.

Students read through best practices for using Twitter before a social media assignment at the Chicago History Museum in the author’s fall 2019 “Reporting 2” course at Columbia College Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Spinner).

My photojournalism seniors, the ones who were in the middle of producing short documentaries when the pandemic disrupted everything, have been the hardest to console. Like their peers, they’ve lost graduation and all of the typical celebrations that come with it. But while the writers and editors have mostly been able to adjust to working remotely, the photojournalism students chose this profession because they want to be up close and on the scene. This is harder to do safely at the moment, especially when doing so can put other family members in shared housing at risk. I’ve been begging them to participate in a ritual end-of-the-year showcase of their work that draws thousands to our urban campus. It will be a virtual event this year, and I only managed to get four of them to send in their work and only after a lot of prodding. I get it. They’re juggling the demands and pressures of remote learning with being away from friends, with being at home again just as they were officially almost out the door. Some of them have lost internships and job prospects. Some are completely alone. They are hurting.

In the years since I started teaching journalism, the industry has weathered numerous knocks of disruption, but I’ve always been able to frame it as an opportunity. It wasn’t difficult to do. I truly believed in what I was saying. There are few callings as essential as this one, I’d tell them. If you can learn to be flexible, if you work hard and don’t settle for mediocrity, if you are willing to go anywhere for the story, if you don’t give up, journalism will never feel like a job.

Some day, I’d tell them, you may be the only one paying attention. You may be the only one in a room when someone is holding a gun to a man’s head. Even amidst the cries of fake news, you will know that you told the truth and pursued objectivity, I remind them. You will know that your work mattered.

My students are part of the demographic that many news organizations are chasing, and they believe enough in what’s ahead to stake their college tuition on it. For a profession sometimes short on hope and faith, they delivered it to me every time they showed up for class.

Right now the most I can do, besides continuing to show up myself to teach them, is to assure them that the upheaval won’t last forever, although I suspect that the news industry will look drastically different on the other side of this. I know that your own fears about this are likely keeping you up at night. The prospect of losing even more of our community publications is a difficult one to grasp.

I don’t have the answers. Nor do I have a prediction about what we might be left with after this. In the absence of that, I hope local editors and publishers will consider investing in the future, whatever it holds.

Hire these journalism students for internships this summer. Many of them are living at home now, back in your communities, and they are anxious to practice the skills they have learned at college. Many of them may be working other part-time jobs so you will need to be flexible about their schedules and what you expect from them. But they just want a chance to do journalism, and you can give them that.

Most will not need to get paid if their college or university offers internship credit. Local editors will have to take on a bit of paperwork in exchange. But I know many of my students willingly would work for the experience. They know whatever the job market looks like in the coming years, that they will not be employable without experience and clips.

I worked for The Oakland Tribune (RIP) for two years when I was in graduate school; I didn’t get paid. I’m not here to argue that the system that allows this is fair or unfair. I got what I needed from the Tribune, which was real experience and bylines and photo credits on the front page of a major city newspaper. After landing a coveted internship at the San Diego Tribune another summer, the newspaper rescinded the offer because of budget cuts. I talked the editor into letting me come anyway to spend my summer there without getting paid. It was hard. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a sublet in a retirement community that summer, but I had bylines. One winter, at home on break in Central Illinois, I spent two weeks covering the courts for my hometown newspaper. These experiences instilled in me a passion for community journalism that I carried with me to The Washington Post; I would not have landed at the Post without these unpaid experiences. 

Let these students bring ideas that help you better connect with your younger readers. In exchange, edit them and mentor them. Let them propose stories you might not have thought of. Assign them stories they can do remotely and guide them for how to keep themselves and their subjects safe if we are still social-distancing.

I’ve been pushing these kinds of partnerships well before the pandemic, encouraging my students to go home and work for their community newspapers. I have asked editors as I’ve met them to consider hiring local, reaching out to college students home for the summer.  It isn’t always easy to convince my students. I teach at an urban college, and some of my students would rather stay in a large media market, even if they can’t land a job, than head home for a summer with their parents. But many of them already are now home. They need opportunities for bylines and production credits, and local editors and publishers need a pipeline for the future. 

Let’s make it happen. 

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

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