As a part-time journalist at the beginning of her career, I was lucky to be offered an internship at the Beirut bureau of the New York Times last year. Back then, I was still in graduate school, and I was freelancing during term breaks, and in between school deadlines.
Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I contributed reporting, sometimes I was a fixer, sometimes I researched ... Sometimes I worked too much, and other times I sat behind a desk and felt like I had no valuable contributions to make.
I nearly passed up on the opportunity because I was offered a job as an assistant-managing editor elsewhere. It was difficult to choose between a well-paying job, and a badly-paid internship in a leading newspaper. Both jobs allowed me to cover important stories in the Middle East, which is a rare opportunity for anyone beginning a career in journalism.
“Don’t be insane,” I was told by my colleagues, “It’s the New York Times!”, and so I took the internship. Now that the internship is over, and I have some perspective on the experience, here’s an overview of the pros and cons:
The experience was invaluable, but it came at a price. At the time, my tuition at university was fully covered by a graduate assistantship. I was working for the university in exchange for full financial coverage and a small stipend. Taking on the internship meant that I could no longer work, which meant I had to pay my own tuition and expenses. I had to switch to part-time study to limit the expense as much as I could.
I won’t launch into a criticism of the internship culture here because that’s not what this blog is about. But it would be disingenuous not to note that I took this internship because I could afford to take the financial and educational setback. There are many people attempting to build careers in journalism who would not be able to afford an internship like this.
I got to work with some of the most talented and hard-working journalists covering the Middle East, and specifically the war in Syria. Observing how they work helped shape my own work, especially because I didn’t study journalism and I’d switched careers when I was 27. I observed the newspaper’s senior journalists, how they connected small news threads, how they saw stories in the mundane, or found new angles. Working in a bureau and discussing ideas with experienced journalists, instead of working alone as a freelancer, was a vital experience and made my work multi-dimensional.
Wow! Let me tell you what it’s like to have fast internet in Beirut! Calling contacts from a landline! Transportation costs covered! Fast responses from sources! It’s amazing how far “Hi, I’m a journalist with New York Times calling about --” will take you.
CON (& PRO)
This one doubles as both a pro and a con. As an intern, I didn’t have a clearly defined role. I alternated between news assistant, researcher, and reporter. I had to mold myself to the occasion and I often had to guess intuitively where I was most needed. Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I contributed reporting, sometimes I was a fixer, sometimes I researched and monitored breaking news, other times I worked exclusively on building contacts. Sometimes I worked too much, and other times I sat behind a desk and felt like I had no valuable contributions to make. My role was flexible and unstructured, and that was confusing sometimes. But it also meant that I came out fairly well-rounded in all of the above.
Once, I’d been rigorously contributing to a story about racism against refugees. But the story ended up lost under a pile of other articles that required immediate attention. Later on, another newspaper published that story and the moment for us was gone. This is one of the instances where I should have taken the initiative and completed the story, instead of waiting for a green light or for clarity about my role.
Bureau resources. Wow! Let me tell you what it’s like to have fast internet in Beirut! Calling contacts from a landline! Transportation costs covered! Fast responses from sources! It’s amazing how far “Hi, I’m a journalist with New York Times calling about --” will take you.
CON (& PRO)
Everyone is busy. People have jobs to do, and it makes sense that a small Middle East bureau would be insanely busy.
Guidance, mentorship, and feedback were available but I had to seek them out. The feedback was always constructive, sometimes brutally honest.
So was my internship experience with the New York Times better than a full-time job with a good salary at a smaller media outlet? Who knows? But overall, I’m glad I chose the internship: I can see a significant improvement in the quality of my journalism, and the feedback I received will resonate well into my career.
Nada Homsi’s top tips on landing a good internship, and making the most of it
Don’t underestimate the power of your network of contacts, whether it’s social, professional, or a genuine resource like the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network.
If, like me, you didn’t study journalism and began your career later on in life, you may suffer from what I call imposter syndrome. Don’t do that, it’s a waste of time. Keep working until the right opportunity comes along. When you do land something worthwhile, don’t let that syndrome hold you back.
Language skills obviously come in handy for an internship in our region. And if you’re a native Arabic speaker looking to broaden your work opportunities, either as a fixer, news assistant, or reporter, then take courses and improve your English or French skills.
Be willing to identify and work on your weaknesses. Take the feedback of more experienced colleagues and seek it out if it’s not offered.
Take initiative. Ask if you can do more, or simply just do more. Those around you will appreciate it.