Why Editors—and Publishers—Should Love Interns

By Jack Limpert

With interns in the news—Conde Nast cancels its internship program—here’s a note today from Sophie Gilbert, arts editor of The Washingtonian, followed by a post I did earlier about The Washingtonian’s intern program for the City and Regional Magazine Association.


From Sophie Gilbert:

I was one of the unlucky ones who ended up paying more than $5,000 to intern at Conde Nast because I was doing it for college credit. It didn’t feel that substantive at the time because I was mostly going on Starbucks runs and doing other admin, but in hindsight it really let me see first-hand how a magazine puts out its pages each month. I think it’s an enormous shame that magazines would rather get rid of their internship programs all together rather than pay young people at least a token wage for the grunt work that they do. Not to mention not having access to an enormous pool of talented young people to hire from. I worry it’ll make magazines even less democratic than they already are.

Are interns really invaluable to a magazine? It depends what you have them do. If, like Conde, you have six or more editorial interns taking up space and jostling for work, it might be more trouble than it’s worth to manage them. But at Washingtonian they’re enormously helpful, and that’s because they’re hired to do a job, not just help out with chores editorial assistants are too busy to get done.


The Valuable Role of Interns

An intern program can play an important role at a city magazine—at The Washingtonian, we’ve had about a dozen editorial interns a year for the past 30 years, and a third to half of the editorial staff is made up of former interns. When you’re looking for good people, it’s one thing to look at resumes and clips and interview someone for an hour; having that someone in the office for three or four months tells you a lot more about what kind of journalist he or she might be.

The Washingtonian’s intern program is now run by Denise Wills, a senior editor. Here’s how she does it:

“We usually get a couple hundred applications. We sort them into yes, no, and maybe piles. Maybe essentially means no, but having that pile makes the sorting process go faster.

“Then we ask the best candidates to write a 300-word review of something—a restaurant, movie, book, museum exhibit, whatever. We pick the best ones and interview those people. Too many choose to write about restaurants; if they don’t have any special background in food it makes me wonder if they think that’s all we do. I prefer it when they review something they have a genuine interest in.

“The most useful interview question: Do you have any story ideas for our magazine? Even if their ideas are terrible, I want to see that they’ve given it some thought. A lot of them seem surprised: “Not off the top of my head” is the most common response. Their answers help me figure out whether they understand what kind of magazine this is. Michael Gaynor, now one of our young editors, probably had the best reply; he pitched me an idea that became a feature.

“I ask them to tell me about the best thing they’ve ever written, the story they’re most proud of. What I most want to hear is some passion.

“I ask what they’re interested in writing about. The most common answer is music. Too many just want to write reviews; I prefer candidates who are excited about reporting. I ask who their favorite writers are. The most common answer is Susan Orlean—probably because they read The Orchid Thief in college. Most of the candidates have had previous internships. For some reason, those who have worked at USA  Today are all terrific.

“When our interns leave, most say their favorite things were that they did substantive work and made a contribution, and that they enjoyed the intern talks with individual editors.”

Thoughts from Chicago Magazine
Dick Babcock recently stepped down after 20 years of editing Chicago magazine. Here are some of his thoughts about the intern program there:

“Interns are a valuable piece of Chicago’s operation. We typically have five or six for three-month programs. All are paid the minimum wage. Many come from Medill here in Chicago, but we also get them from around the country. Over the years several have stayed with the  magazine—or returned—and moved into editing positions. They play a key role in our fact-checking and they occasionally contribute research and short items to the magazine or web site. What’s more, they bring a regular infusion of fresh faces and enthusiasm. And they help office-bound editors keep in touch with what’s going on out in the wider world, particularly the realms of nightlife and pop culture.

“I rarely got involved in selecting them, but left that to the editor in charge of fact-checking. Usually there were many candidates. She would call in the most promising for interviews. If someone tried to clout his or her way into the program through me, I would say: Feel free to mention my name, but the choice is up to the hiring editor.

“From the intern point of view, I think fact-checking is wonderful training. It helps you see where information comes from to produce a heavily reported story, how an article is organized, the difference between fact and opinion. At both Chicago and before that at New York magazine, many of the interns with whom I worked went on to have thriving careers in journalism.”

Candidates with Connections
Dick mentions intern candidates with connections. Washington is a networking city, and every year we had candidates who had a connection to the publisher, the ad director, one of the editors. Picking interns was a little like college admissions: You want to pick mostly on merit, but there are times when a candidate’s connections are important to the magazine. Sometimes we offered those candidates a two or four-week internship and had them work with just one writer or editor. Sometimes we give especially good interns a second four-month stay at the magazine if they don’t have to go back to school or don’t have a job.

As editor, I always looked at resumes of the 10 or 12 top candidates of each class. I liked to focus on what they did during their summers—if they had the initiative to find interesting summer work, that was a big plus. I liked to ask candidates about their favorite books, favorite magazines, favorite writers.

We also pay interns the minimum wage. The only exception allowed by the wage-and-hour authorities is college credit—if the candidate is getting college credit for the internship, they don’t have to be paid.
The growth of the magazine’s website has opened lots more writing opportunities for interns. Ten years ago, we told candidates that the only way they’d likely get into print was with a sidebar to a story. Now the website makes extensive use of reporting and writing from interns.

Immersing the Interns
As Denise said, the interns especially like the intern talks. Most of the key editorial people—plus the publisher, design staff, head of production, etc.—sign up to spend 40 minutes or so with each intern class, telling them how a magazine is put together.

I’d second Dick on the virtues of having interns do a lot of fact-checking. It gets them talking to writers about how the story was reported. Like Chicago, The Washingtonian always has been heavy on reporting. Readers want useful and interesting information from a city magazine that they can’t get anywhere else.

Finally, it’s always interesting to talk to interns about how a city magazine is different from other magazines. Interns often ask why we’re not more this or that—more liberal, more aimed at a younger audience, more aimed at an urban audience, etc. We explain that national magazines draw from a population of 300 million people or 115 million households—if you can get one percent of those households, you’ll have a circulation of more than a million. But if your magazine is aimed at a metro area of, say, three million people or 1,150,000 households, that one percent gets you a circulation of 11,500 households, not likely to be enough to be successful.

Most city magazines need a market penetration of 5-10% of households to be successful. That means a city magazine needs lots of different kinds of readers—liberal and conservative, people in their 50s and 60s as well as people in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, city readers and suburban readers. If they’re magazine readers, the city magazine wants them, no matter their politics or age or where in the metro area they live. That means a city magazine may not be as hip or urban as many interns would like. Welcome to the real world of magazine journalism.

(From the City and Regional Magazine Association newsletter of March 2012.)


  1. Michael Gaynor says

    As the current head of the intern program at The Washingtonian, I would definitely add to what Dick Babcock said about fact-checking: I’ve always thought that fact-checking is kind of like following in the writer’s footsteps. The intern is talking to a lot of the same sources, looking for the same documents— basically reverse-engineering the story and getting a glimpse into how it’s reported, structured, and put together. And that’s true for 10,000 word feature stories down to quick sidebars and blurbs— it’s an enormously helpful learning experience.

    The selection process is still much the same as what Denise said. I’d add that unlike Chicago magazine and Medill, our interns don’t tend to come from a local college and in fact the majority arrive from way outside the area. That means a lot of them coming in for interviews haven’t seen the print edition and know us more by the website. So it’s important in those interviews to make sure they have an understanding of the magazine and what type of stories we run. Questions like “Do you have any story ideas for the magazine?” and “What topics are you interested in writing about?” test this— anybody who says they want to do music reviews must not know that that’s not our thing. We encourage interns to report and write for us as much as possible, but if they don’t have a good understanding of the magazine before they get here, they’ll never be able to contribute in a meaningful way.

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