What I learned from interning at The Guardian

Although I’m now doing a marketing internship for Talent Cupboard and I like to call myself a hotshot advertiser, I used to want to be a journalist. So I started a blog, submitted articles to up-and-coming political websites and lurid student tabloids, got work experience at my local newspaper and even resorted to writing for a website called Planet Minecraft. Oh, the shame.

I enjoyed writing in my free time throughout Sixth form, until I came across the LinkedIn profiles of some other random students who wanted to become journalists. I was stalking my future competition and I didn’t like what I saw. They had some huge names on their CVs, having submitted blogs (and also what looked like paid-for, big-time, national articles) for the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, the Telegraph and more. This level of journalism had seemed out of reach, but if they could do it, why couldn’t I?

I read endless articles on how to submit freelance articles, and targeted editors’ email addresses with my pitches. The Guardian’s ‘blogging students’ section liked my ideas. Although it is just the student section, which no one really reads, it’s exciting to have The Guardian on my CV. They’ve published six articles on their site under my name, two of them anonymous due to the sensitive subjects.

And crucially, without this, I wouldn’t have reached the next step. The Guardian journalists gave me guidance with my articles and helped to refine my ideas and writing style. I learned about the Guardian tone of voice, as well as some science-y facts about how people read. I was also introduced to the 2014 Guardian Student Media Awards, and the journalists that I’d worked with wanted me to enter. So I submitted three articles to the judges and forgot about it all for the whole summer.

Out of the blue, an e-mail arrived in October asking me to come down to the Guardian headquarters in King’s Cross for the awards ceremony. I’d been shortlisted (with four others) for the Student Columnist of the Year award. It hit me like a bulldozer because I didn’t even remember what I’d submitted. It couldn’t have been very good.

But I went to the awards ceremony anyway, wearing a suit and dragging along a friend, and the guy presenting the award called me ‘the next Charlie Brooker’. (Who?) Apparently I’m funny and I write dryly and sarcastically, just like him. So I won an award for being far too cynical for my age. Yes, I actually won! Not only was I shortlisted, but I scooped the award! I’m the 2014 Guardian Student Columnist of the Year. As I went on stage to collect my award and have a photo taken with one of the editors, my knees knocking and jaw on the floor, the level of pride and bewilderment was unreal.

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My award was getting to work on the media desk at the Guardian headquarters in King’s Cross for a week. I could’ve chosen any desk, but this desk seemed like it would give me an extra insight into journalism since I would be writing about writers in the media, whilst being among other writers. Make of that logic what you will.

So this was it – the big-time. The network-building, resume-enriching, soul-destroying corporate big-time. I did my five days of work experience in February and learned rather a lot (well, enough to throw together an article about it). I gained insight into the journalistic mechanism behind one of Britain’s most left-wing and intelligent newspapers, and I learned about the reality of life as a journalist.

There were many things that struck me – for instance, their obsession with lunching at Pret a Manger or Jouie de Paris, while I was more inclined towards McDonalds – there were four facts that truly stood out, which could only have been brought into such sharp focus by the real life experience of working in a  newspaper.

Journalists are overworked and underpaid

Most of us still see journalism as a glamorous industry, hence the huge number of people who want to get into it. But the Guardian newsroom is not a happy place. Journalists might like their job, and enjoy getting stuck into writing and feeling the hours rush by. But they certainly don’t show it. Emotions are mostly expressed in the form of sighs, growls and hurried, nervous conversations.

Despite the subtle pleasure they may derive from the job, journalists are under extreme pressure to stick to deadlines while maintaining quality and keeping abreast of relevant current affairs. And there isn’t a huge pay-off. Journalists aren’t going home to a huge check; this came up in the grumblings of various conversations.

The industry in general is in a terrifying state of transformation. Like most newspapers, The Guardian is seeing its readership fall rapidly as people turn to social media, blogs and online outlets like BuzzFeed and Huffington. The traditional outlets are experimenting in order to maintain revenue, whether by getting readers to sign up and pay monthly fees, or subjecting them to ever more adverts. So it’s no surprise that journalists may be worried, in a world where their future careers are subject to rapidly developing technology and people’s unpredictable reading habits.

It’s every man for himself

If you don’t have anything to write, you have to find something. Things usually aren’t handed to journalists on a platter and they have to scrabble around news outlets, sort through press cuttings and stay in constant communication with people who may have a lead on a story. In fact, I think I saw the average journalist spending more time on their e-mail accounts than actually typing up content. They also have special programmes that track strings of social media posts with certain keywords. They’ve accepted that Twitter usually gets a story out first and thus they have to rely on it for potential article ideas. So good analysis of leads and creative thinking is essential to keep up a constant flow of articles.

Things have to be just perfect

Refinement is key when it comes to writing for print, and only vast experience can teach you what makes perfect prose. I was asked to write a 300-word article and it had to go through two other people before being uploaded and printed.

One person re-worded nearly every sentence, despite telling me I’d written well, and the other transformed it into an 800-word piece with a large accompanying photo and a place on page 9 of the national news section. I have a wealth of writing experience, but The Guardian writing style takes a long time to master. Sentences have to be structured in a certain way to maintain both the reader’s attention and the individuality of the paper.

Time really is money

I was asked to write a funny, opinionated piece about the top viral videos of last week, and I delivered on time. However, I included a joke which was slightly too spirited, at least in the eyes of the media editor. I posted the article on my blog and showed some of my friends and they weren’t the slightest bit offended. But because The Guardian has a strict tone of voice to stick to, and quality is everything, time had to be spent on re-writing my article before posting it.

So much time, in fact, that it wasn’t worth re-writing it because it wouldn’t deliver a worthwhile number of views. A better use of the editor’s time was to abandon my messy piece and move on to something that would attract more attention (and therefore more ad revenue) on the site. Essentially, the less important the article, the quicker it had to be written. I was given a deadline of one hour for an article about Eastenders, which, as I’m sure the media editors would’ve agreed, wasn’t going to be read by many people. A non-intern would’ve been given a lot less time. Yet for the page 9 article, I was given over three hours.

Equally, I could sense the ‘time is money’ awareness in the hurried nature of people’s conversations, and the swift efficiency with which the morning conference was conducted on a daily basis. Here, the editor-in-chief would discuss how the site performed yesterday, then asked the editors of all the different sections to deliver short, concise summaries of the content they had scheduled to write and upload today.

It was a blur of information which seemed to hang vacantly in the air. No one was going into in-depth discussion or changing their plans because of something someone else had said. The journalists had empty eyes and huge cups of coffee. I got the sense that the point of the conference, aside from giving them a sense of unity and the knowledge that the whole newspaper’s operation was running smoothly, was mainly just to allow them to stand up away from their desks.

After getting over the initial awe of being in the headquarters of The Actual Guardian, I realised the idea of being a journalist was becoming increasingly a turn off. When the journalists joked about being overworked and underpaid, it couldn’t have felt like less of a joke. I felt I was being genuinely warned to stay out of a seriously dangerous and difficult industry. My parents had always warned me about this but now I felt glad for having seen that it’s genuinely not an environment I’d like to work in.

However, you should still go for it if you love writing that much, and you feel a natural pull towards journalism. I love writing and I had that feeling, but this work experience taught me that I don’t love it enough to be able to deal with the stress and the pressure. So it was awkward that, on the last day when I had reached this decision, a tech editor asked me in front of nearly a dozen of his colleagues whether I wanted to be a journalist. And I felt unable to lie.

So when I responded negatively, but honestly, everyone wondered what I was doing there. Thousands of aspiring journalists would kill to do this work experience, they implied. But work experience is all about learning whether an industry is right for you, so in that sense, it had served its purpose.