How to land your dream internship
A guide for aspiring magaziners
by Michelle Singerman
Despite the fact that the pay is crap (if there’s any pay at all) and there’s no job guarantee, magazine offices across the country are constantly flooded with applications from hopeful young men and women who want to break into the business through an internship. Since you’re reading this, we imagine you’re one of those people. To help you on your noble journey, we got our very own intern, Michelle Singerman, to talk to experts in the field (ie. editors who hire interns) and put together this guide.—Ed.
So you want to be a magazine intern: The basics
Magazine internships can last anywhere from six weeks to a year. Few of them pay and even fewer pay a living wage. Editorial duties typically include fact-checking, copy-editing, research, attending story meetings and writing small items. You might also get strapped with some admin work and coffee fetching, though for the most part, this doesn’t happen very often. A few publications (such as Maclean’s, Canadian Business and FP Business) offer opportunities to write bigger pieces. See our Internship Chart PDF for a list of opportunities (both paid and unpaid) available in Canada.
Getting your foot in the door: Résumés, cover letters and writing samples
Keep your résumé simple and clean. Education and experience are big benefits. Some internships require a journalism degree, but most publications are more interested in experience and passion. Include only related experience—no magazine editor cares that you babysat your four-year-old cousin when you were in Grade 9 (except maybe one who works at a parenting magazine).
Your cover letter should be direct and specifically tailored to the job you’re applying for. “I don’t want to read a ‘to whom it may concern,’” says Wish copy associate Rani Sheen. Give the editors a sense of your personality, but getting too creative can be risky. Don’t do an obit of yourself. No coloured paper.
Like all great writing, a cover letter should be focused. Don’t recount the highlights of your (inevitably highlight-starved) career. Instead, tell the editors about the challenges you faced and overcame writing that investigative feature for your school paper, or about your lifelong passion for home décor/politics/fashion/music.
As for writing samples, be careful with what you choose to include in the application, Sheen says. “People often send me essays as writing samples and I just glaze right past that.”
If it’s possible, include clippings suitable to the magazine you are applying for, suggests Tom Gierasimczuk, editorial director at Calgary-based Redpoint Media. “If you apply for a Walrus internship or Alberta Views, their clipping requirements would no doubt be different than they would be for Up! magazine.”
Ask not what the magazine can do for you: The interview
While in university, Stuart Berman read Eye avidly. When he applied for the internship, he could easily talk about the alt-weekly’s writers and past articles. He’s now senior editor at the Toronto-based publication. Be prepared for questions such as: “Why do you want to come to us? What do you like about us? Who are your favourite writers here?” Berman warns.
If you haven’t been reading the magazine for years, do your homework. Visit the library and read a few back issues. Make notes about what you like and dislike. Editors know they don’t make perfect magazines; a candidate who can offer constructive criticism is a valuable one. “Tell us what we’re not covering,” Berman says.
The interview should not be all about you. “You really have to avoid talking about your individual needs and really start talking about what you can bring to the team,” Gierasimczuk says.
The editors will expect some nervousness on your part, but do your best to stay calm. “It makes me nervous when someone’s really nervous,” Wish’s Sheen says. “Don’t feel like you have to speak at length about anything, but try and make sure everything you say is supporting your position, supporting your application.”
You’re hired (sorta): On the job and beyond
Unfortunately, most internships are still unpaid. Some publications ask you to work two or three days week, which leaves several free hours to work a part-time job. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to work nights and weekends, and/or rely on someone else, such as a spouse or your parents, to support you financially.
While many industry insiders consider unpaid internships the equivalent of sweatshop labour, others argue that interning is part of a young journalist’s education. “If you want to go to med school you’d have to pay $20,000,” Berman says. “If you want to be a journalist, you have to find some way to live for a few months.”
If you dedicate yourself to the work given and take extra initiatives such as pitching story ideas, your time (paid or not) will be beneficial. It might even lead to a real job.
“I think there’s a stereotype that interns are abused,” says Lisa Tant, editor-in-chief of Flare. “Any time I have a junior or entry level position, the very first place I look is our interns.”
And if there doesn’t happen to be a job opening when you leave, make sure to get a reference letter.