Internships are for more than just connections

It’s intern season, which means that offices everywhere are filled with an uncharacteristic number of young people seeing what office life is all about. No wonder record numbers of young people want to start their own businesses!

In all seriousness, I did a number of internships back in the day at media outlets. I still write for two of them (Fortune and USA Today). Since I’m still in the business, I sometimes get asked if these internships were useful.

The answer is yes, and not just for connections (there’s some of that, but a lot changes over in 15 years). At USA Today in particular I developed a skill I still use daily.

One of my duties on the USA Today op-ed page was to deal with the late Al Neuharth’s weekly column. Neuharth founded USA Today and kept writing a weekly column in his semi-retirement. It was very classic USA Today: short, always bullet points. And then, in keeping with USA Today’s desire to show all sides, he wanted two quotes from other people on the same topic he’d written about. The quotes could agree or disagree (disagreeing was better) and they needed to be from as big of names as possible.

As you can imagine, this was kind of a thankless job, finding famous people and getting them to comment on someone’s column. Naturally, it fell to the intern. He’d turn in his column on Wednesday and the quotes went in Friday’s paper. So I had approximately 24 hours to figure it out.

The first iteration was rough. My editor had to rescue me. But within a few weeks I had it down to a science. In Neuharth bullet-style, this is what I had to do:

  • Quickly familiarize myself with the topic. It could be anything; I think Mr. Neuharth liked to think of himself as a gentleman with many interests, and if he shared his ideas with the editors ahead of time, no one ever told me.
  • Identify experts. Who could plausibly be considered a quotable source on a topic? There are the obvious sorts, but I liked to exercise my own creativity here too. For a column on the World Series, I got a Chicago congressman to give a quote speculating that it could be an “L series” (or “El series”?) with his local teams.
  • Hunt down expert contact info. I became a big fan of people who make their email addresses accessible. This was in 2001, so people were starting to be better about this, but even many people in PR still had one main phone number you had to call, which struck me as so inefficient. Email let me explain the whole thing without putting people on the spot.
  • Manage inventory. I needed two quotes but really couldn’t run more than that. So if I got 3 big names responding, someone (or someone’s PR person) would be annoyed. I tried not to leave on Wednesday without one quote in hand. I’d figure out the order in which to contact people; a smaller name I was sure I’d get could wait until I learned a bigger fish wouldn’t be coming.

I was thinking of this process this week as I found myself hunting for sources for four diverse pieces. Granted, I came up with the topics, but I’ve been trying to expand my list of sources lately. I also have a compressed workweek, not dissimilar to the 24-hours I had for finding the “Feedback” quotes on the “Plain Talk” column. I figure out who would be quotable, and how to reach them. I aim for a certain number of sources per piece, but I don’t want to overshoot and not be able to use something I spent my and my source’s valuable time gathering. At least these days I can stick my name on the finished product.


A version of this article originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website