How to soldier through when things get confusing

By on August 7, 2013

This is one in a series of posts offering quick internship advice by students wrapping up their summer programs. Read the whole series here.

My internship with The Seattle Times has been a fun, interesting learning experience. Just like any internship should be.

I’m interning on the business and metro desks at the Times this summer, with my first few weeks spent with the business folks. I’ve always lived by the idea of jumping right into opportunities as I see them, but doing so in an informed manner.

From day one of my internship, my editor had me diving headfirst into company profiles for the section’s Northwest 100 list, which highlights some of the top companies in the region. The first company I wrote about was Cascade Microtech, which specializes in the design, development and manufacturing of machines that electronically measure and test semiconductor devices. Researching the company’s historical stock prices on Yahoo! Finance was nothing. Braving the Bloomberg machine to look up stock analysts to interview was a little difficult, but I powered through it. Trying to find a way to explain a “wafer” and a “semiconductor” made my head hurt.

But where there’s a deadline, there’s a way, so I got creative with finding information and understanding — for myself and the sake of my readers — what the company does.

1. Ask the “dumb” questions

I was direct with my sources that I had no idea what a semiconductor was and that the only wafers I had ever known were the Nilla Wafer cookies near the bananas in the produce section. I understood what they did for their industry, but didn’t fully understand the products they worked with. I told them I wanted to write about this subject with some sense of authority and accuracy and needed their help (and patience) to do so. They were happy to help, simply because I asked — and they knew it would only make for a better story for them.

2. Use Wikipedia for background info

I spent a little more than an hour on the phone with an interviewee as he tried to explain how semiconductor devices, integrated circuits and wafers worked. I tried to explain back to him what he told me and every time he would pause and have to tell me “no, not quite right …” Internally, it was wrenching. He then directed me to Wikipedia and we sat on the page about wafers as he explained what was in the photo and how it worked — light bulbs truly started to go off for me. I didn’t quote anything from the Wikipedia site directly, but it at least gave me ideas for follow-up questions to ask and excellent visuals.

3. Ask sources to put things in “normal people terms”

My notes looked garbled as I tried to somewhat frantically write down the industry-speak on semiconductor industry. It wasn’t working out. At one point I realized if I was confused, I was definitely going to confuse my editors and, more importantly, my readers. So I asked sources to simply describe these in the most basic way possible.

An example of this concerns industry size standards for wafers getting bigger. I asked, “How big, exactly, is 450mm? Like compared to what?” My source paused and then said, “it’s like the size of a medium-sized pizza.” It’s all I needed to know and the descriptive comparisons helped move the story along.

The key thing with internships — and reporting in general — is not to be afraid of what you don’t know about a new topic and, most important of all, not to be afraid to ask for more clarification and help. That’s what sources are for.

Marissa Evans is a recent graduate of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University in Milwaukee. A San Diego native, she’s interned with The Washington Post, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, U-T San Diego, The Star Tribune, and is alumna of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, Chips Quinn Scholars program, National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Student Projects and ONA Student Newsroom. In 2013, she was named NABJ Student Journalist of the Year. After The Seattle Times internship, she will be a Kaiser Health News web reporting fellow in D.C. Find her at @marissaaevans or