Turning the pain into gain

the right management, the work experience student taking up space in
the newsroom could actually be useful, as Esther Walker discovers

IS THERE ANYTHING more annoying than having to look after the work experience kid? Not according to the people who have to do it.

When asked, comments ranged from “They’re a pain in the arse” and “I
don’t know why we bother having them” to the frankly unprintable.

face it, you have to show them where everything is, teach them how to
switch on a computer and then make sure that they’ve got enough to do
without setting fire to anything during their short and boring stay
with you.

But hang on! Does it have to be this way?

work experience be a good thing? In principle, interns should be able
to do some of your work for you while also providing a constant stream
of young talent for editors looking to fill entry-level jobs.

nothing else, it’s a spot of free editorial assistance and getting the
most out of it requires little more than forward planning.

the bar high Be honest, what do you want work experience people for? Is
it because you want a steady stream of low-calibre people who can open
the post and get through a mountain of photocopying? Besides being
ethically unsound, you might be missing a trick.

If you raise
your expectations of what someone on work experience can do, you could
find that they will be a real asset. Even the best and the brightest
teenagers, for example, can require an awful lot of babysitting.

The Independent’s example and look only at postgraduate candidates who
are at or have completed a journalism course. They are more likely to
have mastered the basics of working in an office and are less inclined
to be either hopelessly overexcited or completely overwhelmed.

look for evidence on their CVs that they are showing a commitment to
journalism. If the only thing they did last summer was work at Sock
Shop, they might not be ideal.

Interview them They’re a crafty
lot, these young scamps, and you can be sure that the majority of the
CVs and letters you receive have been at least tweaked and at most
completely rewritten by someone else. Even if it hasn’t, how much can
you tell from an identikit CV and a covering letter?

The only way
to weed out the undesirables, who will sit around picking their noses
for three weeks, is to get them in front of you for 10 minutes. Watch
as they swiftly deselect themselves by saying things like: “Who is John

The Harborough Mail, which views work experience
positively, takes on interns as young as 15, but only after
interviewing them. “We’ve had no disasters,” says news editor Maria

“Because we’ve interviewed them, we know what we’re getting.”

Times, which does not interview, has made misjudgments in the past.
“Sometimes a boisterous letter means the writer is interesting,” says
Nancy Durrant, who processes applications. “But sometimes it turns out
to mean that they’re really ghastly.”

Get them in for a long time
The benefits of keeping work experience people on for a while are huge;
their usefulness will increase with every day they stay there. They get
to know how to do the job. You get to know them.

If you’ve
followed the rules above, you should probably have a reasonably helpful
and likeable candidate, so having them around the office shouldn’t be
too much of a hardship. However, if you have them in for more than
three weeks, advise the Periodical Publishers’ Association (PPA) and
think about paying their travel expenses at least.

Give them a
project Now you can put your intelligent and helpful intern to work. If
you give them a project, or a set of daily tasks, instead of looking
bored and preying on your conscience they might turn out to be useful.
At the Financial Times, some interns are expected to write full pieces
from the first day, especially if they have some experience of a
certain financial sector. The Harborough Mail also expects young
interns to bring in at least one story. Have some kind of project –
like coming up with ideas for, and writing, a short feature. There
should be an interesting, ongoing project that the intern can go back
to when they have finished other daily tasks. That way they become
self-sufficient and don’t need to be cosseted.

It also means that they get a better idea of what it is like to work as a journalist.

This is the bit that no one wants to do, but it is the most important.
The PPA advises giving people on work experience a mentor who can offer
advice and listen to problems. It is important that this is not the
person that they are working for, because that is the person they might
be having problems with. As with an employee, if you just prop them up
in a corner with only the briefest of instructions about what they are
supposed to be doing and what your expectations are, you won’t get a
stunning piece of work in return. It is important to check their
progress every now and again to make sure they’re on the right track.

of nepotism One senior tabloid newspaper executive says interns are
generally useless – and taken on with great reluctance, under pressure
from staff hoping to give their younger relatives a leg-up. Any
organisation that doesn’t have a formal process for recruiting interns
could find itself with a steady stream of sons, daughters, nephews,
nieces and godchildren of various executives filing through the office.
This is unfair on keen work experience candidates who don’t have the
contacts, and on the office itself. The risk of low enthusiasm and
nose-picking among wellconnected interns is also probably higher.

The main advantage for employers of having work experience people in,
says Brian Dodds, editor of the Harborough Mail, is that you can hire
from their ranks. “We only take on locals for work experience, who have
local knowledge,” he says. “We can spot talent early and take them on
as reporters. In that respect, for a small, community newspaper, work
experience is invaluable. It’s worth going through all the health and
safety rigmarole, which can be a pain, and I know it puts other editors

The Independent agrees – there are currently four journalists on the newspaper that started on work experience.

is a similar story over at The Times, where the majority of entry-level
staff have been recruited from current and previous interns.

this industry, which lacks a formal recruitment process, work
experience might at times be a burden, but if done right, it is a great
way to snap up young talent before someone else does.

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