When I started looking for journalism internships for summer 2008, managing a web site was not what I had in mind. I envisioned running through the middle of a newsroom – phones ringing, e-mails pinging, faxes buzzing, and editors screaming – trying to get one last interview in before deadline. I pictured going home to a cramped apartment in some vague but eclectic city, seeing shows on the weekends, becoming a newsstand regular – pen and pad in hand and cell phone pressed to my oh-so-important ear as I scrambled through crowded streets to be the only intern who actually scooped someone else.
Luckily, I got to experience all of that this summer at the Charlotte Observer. In 2008, it didn’t turn out that way.
Whoever said that 18 is independence, and 21 is full-fledged adulthood never met my parents. Father Steele had his own ideas about my summer employment. He had just sold his half of a family-owned insurance agency to my uncle, and was starting up a smaller more small-business-oriented office in my hometown of Chester, Virginia. He planned for this new venture of his to include only one other employee besides himself: me. And I couldn’t very well refuse to work for him and live at home since the bills for my Washington and Lee education have his name on them. In this way, my dreams of morphing into the intrepid summer journalist intern fell into musings about the best way to sell term life insurance policies.
Needless to say, when my J-school advisor approached me about the position of web manager for onpoverty.org, the Poverty on Journalism class’ new website, I jumped at the chance. It may not have included all the trappings of a big city newsroom, but it gave me an excuse to continue to cultivate some of the journalism skills I had learned over the course of the year. And it was a job I could do anytime or anywhere, so long as I had my laptop and a wireless Internet connection. The job involved finding stories on poverty issues written by journalists across the country, synthesizing them into two to three sentence web blurbs, rewriting their headlines, and posting them onto the onpoverty.org website, as well as managing an interactive blog where readers could respond to the selected stories.
I am no web guru and I was new to the website, so before I left for the summer I met with my professors and our J-school technology whiz who had managed onpoverty during the school year, for training sessions. They taught me what kinds of stories to look for and what to avoid: we wanted well-written, interesting journalistic pieces on new poverty trends and situations, and we overlooked the hundreds of stories that came across the feed each day with headlines like “Homeless man kills other homeless man.” They stressed that it was important for me to keep in mind that I was providing the website for a primarily professional audience. Onpoverty.org was by journalists for journalists, and the intent was for the site to act as a sounding board for the journalism community. It was to be a place where other reporters across the nation could read and respond to what others were covering in regards to poverty issues. So often in news, journalists look to the big guys – government, institutions, corporations – for stories, and onpoverty was a way to draw attention to those who usually were swept under the rug.
But in order to pursue this vision, I had to become proficient at Adobe Dreamweaver, the program we used to create and maintain the site. I worked daily with Net NewsWire, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Dreamweaver. NewsWire was an RSS feed that, thanks to the poverty folders that the previous web manager had set set up, tagged over 300 stories written about poverty topics each day by netting stories with key words like “subprime mortgage” or “homeless” or “Medicare.” Each week, I would sift through these stories, automatically disregarding ones whose headlines were not onpoverty.org-worthy, and eventually choose six stories to feature on the site. The top two headlines I put on the page were the “bigger,” more complex stories, and they, along with the feature story at the bottom of the home page, had pictures to go along with them. Now, if I got lucky, I could use the pictures already with the original news story and credit the organization underneath. I learned how to re-format the original pictures in Photoshop so they would adhere to our website page style. If I wasn’t so lucky, and one of the bigger stories didn’t come with a visual element, I would have to search the web or AP photo cache for something that would work well enough beside my headline and blurb. It may not seem that difficult, but searching for the right stories and then trying to find adequate pictures to go along with them was time-consuming. Picture searching and formatting was my least favorite part of the internship.
For the six stories I found each week, I wrote web blurbs for the home page of onpoverty.org. These web blurbs synthesized what I judged to the most important aspect of the stories. It was sometimes hard to keep in mind that I was writing for professional journalists – people who probably had much more experience than I did, and who were most likely already covering poverty issues. In school, I had learned to be vigilant about transforming complicated information into comprehensible grafs for an everyday audience. Now, I had to learn how to simplify and synthesize without seeming like I was talking down to people who were more often than not going to be more knowledgeable than I was. At first, I tended to ere on the side of including too much information. I would e-mail my blurbs to my professor for proofing each week, and they would come back to me with sentences slashed out and instructions to write “tighter.”
I also was abominable about adhering to AP style. It was a lot easier to pay attention to the nitty-gritty grammar details when you were in class at school, and professors were ready to mark an ‘F’ on your paper for the slightest sloppiness or inaccuracy. At home, in the summer, sitting in a coffee house in between freelancing for the local weekly paper and selling life policies to senior citizens, it was easy to forget when a comma was needed and when to capitalize a street name. And it was easy to be lazy about it, too. Luckily, my professor was there to nag me about my stylistic issues, and in the third week of summer I bought the AP stylebook and had little trouble with it afterwards.
My experience with onpoverty not have been my dream job, but it was an internship that afforded me the opportunity to learn and brush up on skills that served me well during my BigO internship in a “real” newsroom.