In the midst of the internship conversations blanketing mainstream media lately, I figure it’s topical to speak of my own internship experience with the National Post; although first I’d like to make a distinction for those of us who have worked for free before. Volunteering your time with a non-profit, or an NGO is one thing; working, unpaid, for a national, for-profit media organization is quite another. This is a difference I can speak of from experience.
Here’s my take; firstly, it’s harder to justify the “unpaid” aspect of working for a profit-making company, especially when you know the resources are there. You are doing the same work, maybe slightly more menial, than those around you, but for nothing. Postmedia Network Inc. even displays on their website: “Postmedia Network Canada Corp is the largest publisher by circulation of paid English-daily newspapers in Canada, representing some of the country’s oldest and best known media brand.” Secondly, there are compromises that come with working at a national paper. ‘Towing the party line’ is one of them. There are subscribers, advertisers and shareholders to please so, as an intern, sacrificing some of your beliefs for the sake of a particular story angle is compulsory and inevitable.
And then there is the age old question, well why do we do it? In fact, there are a number of reasons:
1. To learn. Personally I have never gone to J-school and don’t see it as a necessary expense. I have life experiences that have given me some depth, I am inquisitive and I can write. Just throw me on the floor and give me a week or two for adjustment and I’ll be good.
2. To access the audience. Laid out clear across the postmedia.com front page, “Reaching millions of Canadians every week…” Millions of Canadians? Having your voice heard by that many people, albeit under the banner of the national post, is a wonderful thing. And now with twitter I can take my followers with me after leaving the position.
3. To earn credentials. In another industry where it’s all about who you know, reaching that many people is a great way to build your name. And let’s be honest, we do this work so we can buff up that resume. I’m flaunting, no boasting the articles I have written with the National Post, because to others, there is a lot more meaning and substance behind them than writing on my own blog.
My internship was 6 weeks and started on June 9th 2013, just before graduation. At this point newspapers are quite obviously not flourishing amidst the expanding online news environment, and that is apparent my very first day on the job (for the sake of ease, that’s what I will call it, despite the fact that having a job implies ‘accruing income’). Many desks are empty, journalists are working on two sometimes three stories a day, editors sit right in the bullpen with everyone else, and a good portion of stories in the print edition are credited to Canadian or Associated Press. My editor and distant-overseer shows me and one other intern around the floor in stereotypical senior writer drags: khaki pants, some variation of a Hawaiian shirt, coffee mug in hand.
As we explore, I immediately notice the things they highlight in movie shots of newsrooms: the 6 or 7 clocks ticking away different time zones, the news notification board, the writers typing frantically, making phone calls. The prospect of becoming a part of this is exciting and daunting.
We come to our desks. Two computers face a large wall-length window. The blinds wouldn’t be open, even on the sunniest afternoons, while we worked there. The excitement and intimidation wears off after half a day of sitting at our desks with no assignment, bringing with it the reality that there is no “internship coordinator,” no one directly responsible for our utility. We discover that we are here to fulfill an obligation. This obligation that prestigious universities must provide experienced young graduates to the workforce simultaneously raises the standards of entry into the newspaper industry, while unquestionably affirming the same age-old practices of journalism. While everything changes, nothing really changes.
Of course good journalism still exists, but besides the odd case it does seem unbelievable, in the dying age of print journalism, how important credentials have become – yet how little improvement there has been in the credibility, quality, or depth of journalism. In the fifties my Grandfather, Bruce Garvey, started his journalism career at 16 as a copy boy and by 28 had worked his way up to Washington Correspondent for the Toronto Star. He was a renowned journalist and one of two reporters at NASA’s Mission Control when the crew of Apollo 13 clamored, “Houston we have a problem.” Meanwhile, in 2013, media conglomerations merge and expand, and print newspapers lose funding. The number of paid employees is downsized, which consequently cuts back the depth of their reporting, and I can’t even find free work following my Post internship. I’m skeptical whether I’ll ever find employment as a writer.
So how did I get to the Post in the first place? Begrudgingly, I’ll admit that my internship was an offer of privilege granted by the status my grandpa, one he obtained working as a Columnist with the Post. I was the only non-grad student to sit in the internship seat, which at times may have seemed like a setback but was definitely not a disadvantage. And, besides all that I have to say, I am grateful for the opportunity.
One especially noteworthy moment of those six weeks was a conversation I had with a National Post editor. I’ll leave out the name to protect at least a fraction of the opportunity I might salvage eventually. In mid-June, Obama announced that girls under the age of 16 would have access to emergency contraceptives (like Plan B) without a prescription. To make it relevant to the Post, I worked on a story about access to emergency contraceptives in Canada. I interviewed industry professionals and non-profit organizations. I talked to people across Canada, those against emergency contraceptives and those for it. The article, which was never printed (but later published on my blog), is a women’s rights issue, so I thought the input from an academic in the field would be essential. I interviewed Laura Cayan, a researcher of sexual health information online and advertising trends for contraceptives at the University of Western Ontario. The quote in my article read,
“She [Cayan] believes “that although women have unprecedented access to sexual health information online and to products, (if they can afford them) which allow them to make informed choices about their health and their bodies, the reality is that there are really only a few “right” choices that women are able to make without otherwise facing consequences or stigma. Ms. Rochon Ford thinks along the same lines. She says “conversations surrounding women’s sexuality, especially in an environment with such a current anti-abortion sentiment, are very controlled.’”
To my shock, my editor blatantly disposed of the quote. He responded to it with (and I paraphrase) “while I may be an old, middle class, white male I just don’t see this being the case.” To him this just wasn’t a reality and he proceeded to delete the excerpt from my article. I should have replied, “yes you are a privileged white man, how could you possibly know?” but instead sheepishly looked down and said nothing. My apologies.
Another incident occurred a few days before World Refugee Day. Using the backdrop of doctors protesting revoked health care benefits of refugees in Canada, I pitched an idea of refugee success stories to offset the constant talk of devastation and poverty. I even found people willing to tell their own story. As a legitimate human rights crisis in Canada, the story was timely, newsworthy, and nationally relevant. My editor was generous in his explanation for dismissing the story. He could have just denied the story but instead divulged media’s most obvious, yet hidden truth. Paraphrasing his words he said, “Honestly Kyla, The National Post just doesn’t run stories like that. We have an audience to please and that story just wouldn’t interest them.” He proceeded to say that they preferred scandal and crisis, and that if I wanted human-interest stories I should go to the Toronto Star. I protested only slightly more than the last time, claiming that we should at least mention the striking doctors; otherwise it would be the omission of national news. But we all know what direction that conversation took.
On that note, I want to mention that I had many wonderful opportunities with the Post and had articles published almost daily, however insignificant. While oftentimes I was more of a burden in the busy pressroom than anything, I also encountered helpful editors who took the time to explain their edits. I started off writing a 100-word story on a blue lobster, published on the first day of my internship. The story took me all day to finish and was completely rewritten by the time of publication. But I ended the internship with substantial stories that required legitimate research and interviews published on Guantanamo Bay, the leaked NSA slides, and the death of a child in an illegitimate Vaughan daycare.
Probably the most shocking experience of all was how my internship ended. A seemingly anticlimactic last-day, I shyly said goodbye to the editors in the office and walked out the doors for the last time. I headed to my cottage for a month-long hiatus from life and when I returned, one straggling article, that hadn’t made it to print during my internship, was in the papers and turning heads. As I read the article, I was shocked at how much of it was my original writing. I had come a long way from my first blue lobster story.
The story was entitled “As fire department looks to recruit women, sexist tweets suggest some firefighters may not be so welcoming.” The story highlighted the contradictions of misogynistic tweets made by firefighters in the wake of a report that called for diversity in Toronto Fire Hiring Practices. While I was shocked at the attention the article received, I was more surprised at the reaction one month later, when the fire department released the product of a month-long investigation into the employees of Toronto Fire. It was the age-old story of our generation – three firemen had been terminated because of things they had said on social media.
Following the terminations, I was ironically bombarded with what I can only call hate-tweets and irrational anti-feminist dialogue across the Internet. Shocked and repulsed, I chose to ignore it, not wanting to stir the pot.
In the end, I learned a lot about the news industry and about writing. I gained access to a grand audience and I’ve earned a few credentials from having my name in print. Retrospectively, if I were to improve one thing, it would be to to ask enough questions. I allowed myself to be intimidated by the age, experience, and professionalism (kind of) of the office and I shouldn’t have. My advice: don’t accept things at face value. Ask questions and push people for answers. You earned your spot at that internship – now get the most of it.
Kyla Garvey is an MPI graduate and aspiring investigative journalist. She loves debating and listening to a good news radio program. She’s greatly missing her Western classes, honestly she is. She appreciates good writing; She loves Maclean’s columnist’s Scott Feschuk and Emma Teitel, and she’s currently reading Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants.