How your internship is not like your school paper

By on August 13, 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.

Student publications are fantastic places to learn the basics of reporting, editing and publishing, but an internship at a professional news organization is a whole different ballgame.

While some students will slide easily into their new roles, others likely will go through a bit of culture shock. The transition from working with your peers in an educational environment to sitting next to people you’ve idolized for years in a professional newsroom can be rough.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you make the shift from student to professional:

1. Expectations

At most college publications, students rely on each other for nearly everything. Stories are reported, written, edited and published by fellow students who are likely doing some, if not all, of this for the first time. Once you enter the world of professional journalism, you’ll be working with people who have decades of experience under their belts and expectations — understandably — will be higher. If the internship is a good one, people will be available to guide and coach you, but that profile you wrote about your roommate’s friend for the school paper probably won’t cut it. Expect to be challenged

2. Know your role

While you may have been top dog at your student publication, you are likely nothing more than a pup in a professional newsroom. Act accordingly. Don’t come into your new internship with a chip on your shoulder or any misgivings about what role you will play. If you prove your worth, big stories will come your way. If you try to take on more than you should before your time, you run the risk of coming off as pretentious and egotistical.

3. Play your role as best you can

With the above caveat, embrace the role you do have. Yes, you are an intern, but that doesn’t mean you can’t aggressively pitch to your editor. It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to as many people in the newsroom as possible to get story ideas and forge connections.

4. Act like you’ve been there

Because student newsrooms are filled with — you guessed it — students, there is usually quite a bit of fooling around. Late production nights on college publications often lead to pranks, jokes or other shenanigans which usually don’t have a place in daily newsrooms. Working in a professional environment means that you should act like a professional. Don’t shrink away from opportunities to make jokes with your coworkers (humor is a great bonding mechanism), but think twice before you decide to put a tack on your editor’s chair or rearrange the desk of a co-worker.

5. You may be an intern, but your time is still valuable

Depending on whether you’re being paid, there are some pretty specific rules about what your employer can ask of you. Familiarize yourself with the regulations surrounding unpaid internships and make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of. If you find that you’re spending the majority of your time picking up dry cleaning or fetching coffee, something is wrong. There have been some notable cases recently of interns suing former employers for failing to comply with these regulations. Internships are intended to benefit the intern. Make sure that is the case. If you are being paid, buy a drink for one of your unpaid cohorts.

6. Pretend that you’ll be there forever

While most internships will only last for a summer or semester, act like you’ve been given a job that will last for the rest of your life. If you carve out a niche for yourself in the newsroom, that niche will be empty when you leave and your employer will likely be looking to fill it. Who better to fill it than you! Parlaying an internship into a job isn’t an easy thing to do, but it is possible. If you act like you’ve already been hired throughout the course of your internship, the chances that you will increase exponentially.

Kale Williams is a metro intern at the San Francisco Chronicle. Formerly the editor-in-chief of the Golden Gate Xpress, the student publication of San Francisco State University’s Journalism Department, he has also interned at 7×7 Magazine and Paradigm Productions. Get in touch at @shortleafkale or