A song to read by: “Sonny’s Blues,” by Gold Star
What I’m reading: “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis
When I was a young warthog …
Several years ago, after I graduated from college, I began working at a small, Austin-based magazine called Study Breaks. I had been hired to run the magazine, but the major caveat was that I had to reinvent its identity, business model, and online presence. I was given little-to-no budget and no guidance, which was a frightening but amazing opportunity for a 22-year-old.
After several months of tinkering with various ideas, I settled on creating a program that would feature the long-form writing of college students from across the country. So, in 2015, we constructed an intricate program that required the student writers to submit one article of 1,000 words a week, as well as three idea pitches, and they participated in weekly writing workshops and monthly individual reviews with me.
The idea was: These student writers give Study Breaks 8 hours of their time a week, and we get them published, improve their writing, connect them with other student writers, and teach them the basics of the publishing industry.
Over time, the program grew into an elegant system that gave a lot of aspiring college writers their first real taste of the publishing industry, and several of those students have gone on to find success in the world of media. It was a sui generis concept through and through, one that I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else and one that aimed to serve student writers and succeeded in doing so.
During my time as the editor, one thing routinely made me incredibly proud: that our ranks of writers were more diverse than any newsroom in the country.
Our writers were of all different races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and this was back in 2015, before the hue and cry of diversity in the writing room had reached the fever pitch that it has today.
I was and am incredibly proud to have created a program that was so thoroughly heterogenous. It was not by accident, either.
But that was only one part of what made Study Breaks writers special. In addition to its diversity of identity, the program also welcomed student writers from walks of life rarely represented in media.
We had single mothers taking night classes; military veterans; community college students; handicapped students; students living outside the continental U.S.; 60-year-old students; conservative students; transgender students; students homebound caring for their parents; undocumented students; students with mental illness; homeless students; and students from just about every possible walk of life.
Why? Partially because the program asked for fewer than 10 hours of the students’ time a week, so they were able to work and participate as a writer. But mostly: because it was remote.
Why remote works
Because the program was remote, the only requirement was writing ability. Students could live anywhere, believe anything, make any amount of money, have any level of mental or physical health — all you needed to participate was an impressive, completed writing test.
Many of these students had never had such an opportunity before, so they were elated to participate and determined to make the most out of their experience. As a result, I often found that the non-traditional students worked harder, learned more, and improved the most.
Plus, as a publication intent on channeling the voices of college students, Study Breaks benefitted from their diverse background of thought. We were able to tell college stories that never get told and represent more truthfully the college experience, not just the four-year university state-school experience.
And we owed so much of that to the simple, pragmatic choice to make the program remote.
At Study Breaks, we structured our program so meticulously that the students were coached and supported from their first day to their last. With remote writing programs, especially for young writers, this level of organization is paramount.
In speaking with several early-career journalists working remote internships this summer, I found that a lack of adequate structure was the primary problem. All were quick to mention that their positions had only transitioned to remote because of Covid, so they were graceful in understanding the challenges of such a last-minute operational change.
Allie Birger, a sophomore at Tufts writing for The Provincetown Independent this summer, said that the communication hiccups were the only downside she experienced.
“It's been a lot more self-directed than I was expecting, which has been helpful in some ways, but sometimes I do need help,” said Birger. “Sometimes, if I have a smaller question, it's kind of a hassle to call my supervisor because they're really busy.”
However, there is every reason to believe that the internships this summer will be the worst they will ever be, even if they’re not bad; it is, after all, the first time many publications are trying them out, and most places only pivoted to distanced-work at the last minute.
Birger says that she would apply for a remote position again in the future, especially if it afforded her the opportunity to work somewhere she would have normally been unable to.
Eliana Miller, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College who landed a remote internship for Poynter, has said that her program has been structured well, but she does miss the networking and pace of an in-person position.
“There are times when I have less to do, and if I were in a newsroom my boss would notice or I would drop in on a conversation and then maybe help tag-team a story,” said Miller. “I'm someone who likes to be pretty busy, so that can be a bummer.”
Still, she says, not having to move to Florida for the internship has been a financial boon.
“Financially, it's a huge plus that I’ve been able to work from home, because I’m saving a lot of money and might not have been able to move for the position,” said Miller.
Jack Kelly, a former graduate school classmate of mine who is working a remote fellowship for the Pulitzer Center, was decidedly sanguine about his position. He, like the others, was grateful to have any opportunity at all, given that the pandemic shuttered so many summer positions.
Kelly pointed to a counter-intuitive advantage of the remote position, which is that it has led him to be more collaborative. He has worked with colleagues on stories, asked for advice, and learned techniques from his coworkers, all because he was unable to get the information he needed on his own.
“I had to rely more on my editors and fellow reporters to find people to talk to,” said Kelly. “I was relatively new to covering South Carolina politics, so being able to just ask my colleagues in Columbia, ‘Who should I talk to about this?’ was really helpful.”
Elie Levine, a remote Instagram fellow for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, agreed that her program’s well-organized structure has helped her seamlessly slip into the role. The only downside in Levine’s eyes, one also echoed by Birger, is that for location-specific reporting, there is no substitute for being on the ground.
“When I was first starting out, I wasn't really aware of the local context that I needed in order to be able to represent New Orleans accurately,” said Levine. “I made a few mistakes and everyone was really forgiving and attributed the misunderstanding to remote work, but it hasn't been a walk in the park.”
Still, Levine says that her program did offer her training to help her understand the community, and she said that, with more practice, such orientations could give remote journalists a pretty good approximation of what it’s like on the ground.
Remote positions for entry-level journalists widen the pool of applicants who can apply for the jobs, meaning greater diversity of thought and more accurate representation. They extend opportunities to communities of writers who are incapable of leaving their home towns or working full-time with low or absent pay.
Keeping these starter positions open to distance-working helps mitigate the wealth and geographic bias that hinders the industry from being a genuine reflection of the country and the people it aims to cover.
If the programs are structured appropriately, with adequate channels for feedback and plenty of check-ins, they can be a valuable learning experience for young journalists.
Positions that require on-the-ground reporting should hire on-site when possible, but for any writing position that is location-agnostic, there is little to lose and much to gain from bringing a writer from an underrepresented background into the newsroom.
Publications across the country might have only reluctantly pivoted to remote internships because of Covid, but the practice should stick around after employees return to offices. They make the world of journalism fairer, more representative, stronger, and healthier.
Some good readin’
A group of journalists led by Maria Bustillos is building Brick House, a network of publications with an unusual business model. (The New York Times)
— The best article I’ve read about the NBA players’ strike. (NY Mag)
Cover image: “Morning Sun,” by Edward Hopper