“You know this is making me very uncomfortable, right?”
I said this in the car recently on the way to a shoot. My drive time at work usually consists of reflection. As a multimedia journalist, I produce stories by myself, which means I rarely ride with someone in the passenger seat. I spend most of my time thinking about either that day’s story or my overall outlook.
But this time was different.
This time, I was accompanied by an intern.
And that intern had questions.
And those questions forced me to speak aloud about my career, my journey, and my job in a way I seldom do.
Summer brings into the newsroom a unique atmosphere. Colleagues take vacations, which leads to smaller staffing. Our viewers take vacations too, which usually means fewer story ideas and a reduced audience. The enormous May ratings period gives way to a less pressurized environment, and the June and July heat brings its own challenges in the field.
The season also brings interns — usually a handful on summer break from college.
I always appreciate the infusion of young, enthusiastic eyes in the newsroom; their presence triggers my own memories of internships. I spent my post-sophomore summer at New York’s CBS affiliate, logging major league baseball games and even getting to interview some of my MLB and NFL heroes. I interned the following summer at News 12 New Jersey, shadowing reporters and putting together my own stories (not for air, of course). Those experiences absolutely helped to prepare me for actual employment, largely by showing me the numerous responsibilities facing modern-day journalists.
I can see the current crop of interns learning those same lessons. One young man recently shadowed me through the story-gathering process, all the way through a frenetic hour of editing a package for the 5 PM newscast. While editing, I took the occasional glimpse back at the intern to see if he had any questions; instead, he showed a shell-shocked facial expression, overwhelmed, he’d later tell me, by the speed of the process.
But news looks different on the inside, in a professional newsroom instead of a college classroom. Most journalism classes give students a week, maybe two, to produce stories from start to finish. A professional must do that in a day — and then do it all again the next day, and the day after, and two more days after that before reaching the weekend.
An internship, thus, is its own education … but not just about the job day-to-day.
I often point out how this industry offers little opportunity for introspection. Journalists are faced with repeated deadlines that demand immediate action; they must make an extra effort to incorporate long-term reflection into their workflows.
Interns have a way of changing that.
Whenever one shadows me, he or she peppers me with questions about how I got started, how I developed as a reporter, how I made it to a large market, and whether I like what I do for a living. I love to self-reflect, but I am rarely asked to voice my reflections.
I also struggle to determine the right balance to strike in my answers. I want to inspire our interns, to offer the same veteran encouragement that helped buoy my own spirits years ago. If I desired, I could present a rosy vision of the field, distilling a career’s worth of accomplishments into a comparatively brief car ride. (See the above exchange from Seinfeld, where even the hapless George Costanza can rightfully claim, “If you take everything I’ve accomplished in my entire life and condense it down into one day, it looks decent!”)
But I also feel the need to provide a realistic, unglamorous vision of a business that saps wide-eyed youngsters of their precious enthusiasm. The fact is, this is a very, very difficult field, where opportunities are few and success is not guaranteed. Even in a market like Atlanta, most journalists possess lifestyles that are anything but ordinary, from the unusual hours to holiday workdays to the pressure-cooker environment.
Many of my college classmates ultimately steered away from journalism, and their lives did not suffer. That said, many did choose to enter the field and at least give it a shot; some got out after a few years and went on to different careers, but others plowed through to great success.
I honestly cannot fault someone for staying in journalism or leaving it behind; people ultimately make life decisions based on numerous factors. But I can do my part to provide as much insight as possible to those who have not yet officially chosen this path.
So what, exactly, made me so uncomfortable?
The question brought discomfort because, on a general level, I really do not enjoy bragging about myself. If I do accomplish something of note, I would much rather let the accomplishment do the talking. The idea of, in this case, calling attention to humility seemed particularly awkward and counter-intuitive. (Isn’t that what spawned the concept of #humblebrag in the first place?)
I stumbled through about a minute-long answer that may not have made a whole lot of sense. I failed to rise to the challenge of articulating my thoughts. Only later, after reflecting alone, did I realize how the answer to the intern’s question is actually quite simple:
It’s easy to stay humble. In fact, I have no choice.
My job will be forever grueling — a day-to-day slog that takes a mental, emotional, and physical toll. I am constantly confronted with officials who won’t answer questions, viewers who look down at the media, and — as a do-it-all reporter — interviewees who ask, “How come you don’t get to work with a camera-guy?” Succeeding in journalism requires constant attention, focus, and passion — the same traits that can make it thrilling. If I even momentarily turn away from these qualities to celebrate myself, I immediately make myself less potent and relevant.
That’s TV news: an industry where extraordinary highs pair with often ferocious demands. It is different — sometimes in a great way, but definitely in a unique way.
That is the biggest lesson I want interns to receive.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.