Making journalism work experience work

There was the one who did tai chi in the office, the one who cried at the end of her stint because she’d enjoyed it so much, and the boy and girl who tried to get off with each other.

And let’s not talk about the ones who turn up for a day and then never return, the one who fell asleep at her desk, or the ones who need daily business clothing etiquette advice.

Wherever you go in newspaperland, you’ll stumble across work experience students.

And the examples I’ve quoted are just the tip of an extensive – and potentially highly amusing – iceberg.

In five minutes in one office today, I heard enough work experience stories to suggest there is probably a book to be written should I ever find myself with time on my hands.

Workies (is ours the only industry which calls them that?) can be a source of immense joy and satisfaction – or a soul-destroying, energy-sapping, time-consuming pain.

So how can we get more of the first type, and fewer of the second?

It’s clear that we need to have a system that weeds out people whose heart ain’t going to be in it.

There’s some sense in accepting placements only from folk who are already on a journalism course.

But such a policy would have disenfranchised some promising reporters with whom I now have the pleasure of working.

They got their jobs after excelling while on work experience – even before they benefited from any formal training.

One answer is to set work experience applicants some kind of test: whether that be coming up with some story ideas (stressing these must be new and doable), posting a report online, or showing evidence of blog-writing.

I see little point in inviting anyone under 18 into the newsroom, either, as this immediately cuts down where you can send them and what they can do.

I think by trying to go for quality over quantity, we can set ourselves up for more successes than failures.

It grieves me when I see workies that clearly haven’t been spoken to for hours (although to my eternal shame I did once try to go a whole day without talking to one particularly useless and reticent one).

But maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

If you’re the sort of person who sits in a corner silently minding their own business while showing the initiative and imagination of a block of wood, then journalism’s probably not the job for you.

And planning is also the key.

Having a structured week for your workie rather than making it up on the hoof every day should also help turn it into a more worthwhile exercise all round.

But you do need to ensure they are challenged as well – to find stories, to make cold calls, and to use their research initiative.

We took on the best reporter I have ever worked with after she had spent a week with us on work experience.

I knew she was going to be brilliant after watching and hearing her in action for less than a day.

In my new job, I’m desperately keen to strike up good relations with the best journalism courses in the country.

Because, when the planets are in alignment, a work experience placement can provide a life-affirming breath of fresh air, leaving us with a warm glow and the student with a positive image and a huge sense of satisfaction.

And – without wanting to sound like one of those driving school car messages – remember when you started out in journalism, and what that felt like.

I remember an enthralling and busy week at the Herald in Plymouth, being made to feel welcome – and being bitten by a bug that still has me in its grip.

So you’ve got someone coming your way on work experience next week, I hope the experience works. For both sides.


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