Credit: Anthony Fomin on Unsplash

The pandemic has been harsh on everyone and journalism students were no exception. Virtual courses offered little hands-on experience while work placements and internships have been cancelled, often for two summers running.

For most newsrooms, bringing in interns while already struggling to bring back employees is not the top priority at the moment. But the next generation of journalists is missing out on those crucial weeks and months of real-world experience that help them become professionals.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, our small editorial team of two welcomed 29 journalism students and graduates for virtual work placements of one or two weeks. And just like everyone else, we were winging it. But we were determined to help budding journalists amid uncertainty, so we asked each and every one of them for feedback to improve the experience of the next one.

Embrace diversity

Unless your stories are tied to your town or region, try and reach out beyond your local university. Historically, London-based journalism students have had the best access to opportunities and while initiatives like PressPad are trying to correct this, it does not have to be this way in the virtual age.

We discovered that many journalism students up and down the country do not want to relocate to southeast England, and they should not have to. Keeping your newsroom and mind open to budding journalists from all regions will help you discover new talent, views and stories.

Invite them to a virtual chat and keep it alive

Whether you use Slack or any other communication tool to keep connected while working from home, make sure work experience students are invited to the platform. Let them know that you expect them to contribute to a discussion and keep the conversation alive.

We realised that, with only the two of us on the editorial team, we tend to communicate via direct messages. Our students mirrored that and preferred to write to us separately asking the same question rather than using the common channel. Just like in real life, keeping a conversation going makes it easier to chip in as having to break the silence can feel awkward.

Open inbox policy

Students often feel they are being a nuisance by asking questions. We have lost count of how many times we heard "Sorry to bother you" or "I’m sure I’m just being stupid but"... This is especially the case if it is something perceived as trivial, like which button to press when uploading a document.

From day one, it is important that students feel they can message you if they get stuck, rather than wasting hours trying to figure a solution out. Drill it into their minds that there are no stupid questions and you are there to help them.

Keep connected via video calls

Yes, we know, everyone suffers from Zoom fatigue by now. But giving the interns the chance to see and hear you will encourage them to communicate with you in the days to come. It also makes them feel more included in your team and offers a glimpse into what an editorial meeting looks like in the real world. Also, make an effort to host a call on their last day to thank them for their work and give them feedback.

Manage deadlines

It is hard to admit when you struggle and students are no exception. Make it clear whether a deadline is flexible or not and the process they need to follow if a story does not come together on time. After all, sources letting you down or a story idea falling apart happen to all journalists from time to time. Explain to them that what is valued is the professionalism to flag this in advance to help you manage the editorial schedule.

Go multimedia

Guiding someone through multimedia content, like video or podcast production, from afar is one of the most challenging parts of a virtual work experience. What worked for us was to create demo videos of anything from uploading an article to creating videos promoting snippets from our podcasts on social media. This way, you do not need to re-explain the same processes to all new interns and only offer ad-hoc screen-sharing as and when needed.

Give examples

You may know exactly what you mean by "a how-to article" or "a profile" but it may be all new to the students. If you want them to do a piece of work following a certain format, share with them the links to previously published work so they can read, watch or listen to what you expect them to deliver. It helps to have a list of these examples saved so you do not have to search for them all the time.

Always give them feedback

Desire to improve is the main reason why they do work experience in the first place, so take a note of their strengths and weaknesses during their placement and share your feedback at the end, ideally during a video call.

It is a good idea to use the trusty compliment sandwich technique: praise, criticism, praise. Take time to appreciate what they have done well, whether that is a good insight gleaned from an interviewee or a good structure in the story. Then suggest improvements, followed by another compliment.

There is nothing more helpful than explaining the reason why something is done in a certain way, for instance, never assume your reader knows what a new concept is and always explain it in one sentence. Remember that you refined your processes through years of trial and error and sharing this knowledge is a priceless opportunity for budding journalists to learn.

Ask for feedback

This may not come naturally to you but asking the students about their lowlights as well as the highlights can give you new ideas about what can be done better in the future. Tell them beforehand that you will ask them for their feedback and suggestions so they do not feel caught off-guard.

What is your experience with virtual placement? Get in touch and share any tips we have missed.

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