How competitive is it to get into The New York Times newsroom summer internship program? It is, statistically speaking, 10 times easier to gain acceptance to Harvard. It’s 20 times easier to earn a prestigious slot at West Point. And it’s almost 60 times easier to get admitted to my beloved alma mater, Boston College.
The newsroom received some 5,000 applications for 25 slots for this summer’s program. That means our newsroom internship has an acceptance rate of 0.5 percent — lower than any college in the United States.
We love seeing so many students who are clearly inspired by the power of journalism. But the numbers drive home an irrefutable reality: Even as excitement about our profession rises among passionate young people, starting a career in journalism seems more difficult than ever.
Young journalists see a changed terrain from even three years ago. The traditional newspaper pathway (small paper => medium paper => large paper) is less viable because of cutbacks. And while new paths have opened, the trail ahead for the next generation might as well resemble a boiling pot of spaghetti.
As recruiters navigating this shifting landscape, we also have a responsibility to seek diversity in our pool of candidates. And that means changing some of the ways we approach our search for new talent.
My supervisor, Carolyn Ryan, assistant managing editor, and I spend most days literally obsessing over ways to recruit and develop diverse talent given these new industry realities. We’re thinking about innovative approaches to our internship program. One idea, copied from the Boston Globe, is to hire a writing coach to help mentor and provide another layer of feedback for our interns. Another is to coach managers in the art of providing constructive feedback.
And, later this year, we’ll be announcing a new early-career newsroom fellowship that will start in early 2019.
We’ve made inroads. Two-thirds of our summer interns this year are students of color, with much of the credit going to Rich Jones, the former intern director. He spent much of his time painstakingly following the careers of so many young people. My colleague John Haskins, meanwhile, will soon introduce a diverse class of talent for our Student Journalism Institute, a two-week, all expenses paid journalism boot camp that we run with help from the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
It’s not enough, though, to bring students to us. We have to spread our recruiting efforts to places we might not have gone before. For example, I was just in Austin at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, where I met scores of students from Texas and beyond. They were hungry to start careers in everything from international reporting to augmented reality.
Certainly, we still have work to do. My company recently published a diversity report offering a window into our newsroom and the long-term vision we hope to achieve.
Meantime, we’re trying to think strategically about how best to break the habitual patterns that tend to bring us back to the same industry pipelines.
Years of newsroom cutting have had the side effect of concentrating many paid newsroom internship opportunities along the East and West coasts, and especially in New York City and Washington, D.C. This puts students who are not based in the Northeast or who do not have the option of taking an unpaid internship at a disadvantage (The Times pays its interns).
In addition, the dominance of a few top journalism schools among the top internships (think of it as the News-Industrial Complex) seems to have grown.
The most prestigious J-schools churn out candidates with credentials that are almost engineered to appeal to recruiters. Students speak digital journalism’s lingua franca (Habituation! Recirculation! Aggregation!). And those institutions leverage large existing newsroom alumni networks, giving their students a significant edge.
I’m not knocking those excellent schools, nor am I discounting the hard work of smaller journalism programs. But the playing field is akin to, say, major college football. Beyond the occasional outliers, only a few elite institutions are able to vie for the top prizes.
Also, newsroom jobs have grown so specialized, and career paths for specific roles so divergent, that even striking the right tone on a resume is tough. (What tried-and-true advice do career counselors have to give for those seeking jobs in audience development? Search engine optimization? Serial podcasts?)
The most popular question I get from students is: “What skills do I need these days?” It’s a commentary on our ever-changing business that this question often comes from J-school upperclassmen who should be long past fundamentals.
The answer? Develop both news and digital skills, and quickly. You can’t be a journalist these days without at least understanding, if not mastering, digital tools and audience. But you also can’t be a journalist without reporting and writing skills, and sound judgment.
The second question I get is: “How do I make my resume stand out?” First and foremost, I look for a commitment to journalism. I don’t care what school you went to or where you came from. But I do want to see evidence that you’ve made the very most of every opportunity that you’ve been given. For instance, did your school have a campus newspaper? If so, were you on the staff? Did you become a staff leader? Did your work there truly make an impact? I want to see a persistence in your enthusiasm.
Another question that we get: “What happens beyond that summer internship?” The answer, really, is to think methodically about your career after school. It amazes me how many students thoughtfully plan their college application strategy, only to jettison that thoughtfulness when they hit the job market. Have a plan. Build relationships. Apply to a range of journalism jobs. Give yourself options. Don’t just apply to us, The Washington Post and CNN.
Moving forward, we’ll continue to put a great deal of thought into career development, because we have to.
We should not set diversity goals without a mind-set that is empathetic to young journalists from a variety of backgrounds. We need to take a hard look at our pipelines. We need to forge relationships with new schools and groups and seek talent beyond the same names and faces.
We need to invest in management training and in soft skills as simple as giving good feedback. If we’re serious about cultivating the next generation, the days of sink or swim newsrooms are over.
Most importantly, we need to stand with the legions of would-be journalists whom we deem talented but least likely to make it in this business. And we need to ask ourselves: How can we help?
A recruiter shares what he looks for
Here are four things you need to do to make your resume stand out:
Be committed. Take advantage of every opportunity given to you (scholarships, campus newspapers, internships, fellowships, freelance gigs, journalism groups, career fairs). If you have a passing interest in journalism because you “like to write,” newsrooms in 2018 don’t have time for you.
Get newsroom internships. This is a no brainer, but even in 2018, it’s the best way to gain real-world experience. Most of the people we seriously consider for our internship program already have at least two internships under their belt.
Write for your campus publication (or local community outlet). A lot. You need to learn how to write and report basic news stories and build up good news judgment. The more practice, the better. You can see it in clips. I cannot stress this enough.
Think about your narrative. If you came to journalism late and dabbled in other careers or held non-journalism jobs, that’s okay. Just make sure that your story makes sense to recruiters and shows your progress as a journalist and as a person. “Yes, I worked at Trader Joe’s when I was younger to make ends meet, but my real passion has always been journalism. Actually, I found that working at a grocery store gave me the chance to interact socially with all kinds of characters. I’ve really leaned on those skills in my current internship at XYZ News.”
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