Note to a Young Woman About to Start a Magazine Internship

You asked about how to do well at a magazine. I talked to our new group of interns last week and here’s what I told them.

On the surface, most of the daily life at a magazine may look reasonably polite but underneath that journalism is a very aggressive business. The biggest shortcoming of our interns is passivity—they wait for something to happen to them. They wait for an editor to ask them to do something.

Editors love enthusiasm. We want you to come to us, saying, “I have a terrific idea and I’d really like to do this.” It makes my day when someone has that kind of enthusiasm.

I told them that as a journalist you can call almost anyone in Washington and ask to talk with them and they’ll do it. The editor of the Washington Monthly will do it. A curator at the National Gallery of Art will do it.

There is a line you can cross that goes beyond polite persistence but few interns ever get close to it.

I also tell interns how disorganized most editors are, what short attention spans we have. Interns will send me an idea and I’ll think it’s kind of interesting and then something comes up and the idea gets buried and the intern never follows up. If you query an editor with an idea and you don’t hear anything in a decent interval, give the editor a copy of the original query with a note reminding the editor that you’d really like to do it. And if I turn down an intern’s first five ideas, I’m probably going to feel so positive about that person that I’ll find something for them.

Enthusiasm and persistence—that’s what makes good magazine journalism. Intelligence, too, but you already have that.

This was written in 1998, at the dawn of the digital age, when the young woman was about to start an internship at Entertainment Weekly in New York.


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