by Wenhao Ma
Having an internship is a great way to test and craft the skills that you learned from classes. Do not get deluded by the high grades you may have gotten in school. In the real world, things are quite different.
During the summer of 2016, I interned at Times Beacon Record Newspapers, a community newspaper located in Setauket, just a few miles from campus.
One thing that clearly showed me the difference between schoolwork and real life journalism was the workload. At school, JRN 320 was the most challenging course I had ever taken. Professor Pablo Calvi had required each of us to partner with another student on one story every week with photos, captions, videos and infographics. But at TBR, I alone was often assigned three stories per week. Sometimes, I had to work on five stories at the same time.
I learned to think carefully before conducting an interview. One of my editors asked me to cover a town resolution to request money from the state government to fund a local anti-blight project. I called the town’s spokesperson and asked what the project was and why the town was requesting money. I wrote my story and submitted it to my editor. When he asked me how the money would be spent, I realized that I never asked the spokesperson that question. I did not have the habit of writing down every single question that I needed to ask in preparation for an interview. But now, I do.
My editors did a great job of editing my stories. When I wrote for Stony Brook Independent and other student publications, the student editors often did little editing on my stories. At TBR, the editors sometimes completely changed the structure of my stories and told me why the changes were made. The published version of my story may look totally different from the one I wrote, but it’s clearly better.
As a reporter, I had to face unusual situations. On my third day as an intern, I was assigned to cover the funeral of a deceased firefighter in Wading River. It was something I had never done before. I went to the church where the funeral was taking place, but I was too scared to ask anyone questions because they all looked sad and as though they didn’t want to be bothered. I did not talk to anybody until after the burial when most people were gone. I forced myself to talk to a woman standing next to the grave. Luckily, she was nice and introduced me to three firefighters who hadn’t left yet. Eventually, I got everything I needed.
One of the most important things that I learned from the internship was how to start calling people when I couldn’t interview them in person. At school, I loved using emails to interview my sources because I felt uncomfortable talking to them without seeing their facial reactions. But when I was doing three stories a week as an intern and didn’t have the time to wait for all my sources to get back to me via emails, calling them directly became the most sensible option. At first, I got nervous when making phone calls. But the more calls I made, the more comfortable and confident I became. This, I believe, will benefit me a lot in the future.
As an international student, I had probably spent 99 percent of my time on campus. This internship let me get to know more about the local communities around me. I met some amazing people I would have never met otherwise and learned some interesting things that textbooks won’t tell me. I recommend every international student in our journalism program to get an internship off campus. Besides making you a better journalist, it will definitely broaden your horizon, and you will see a much larger world.