By Taylor Ha
It’s always been difficult for me to call myself a journalist. I hate poking my nose in people’s business. I prefer scrolling through National Geographic’s Instagram feed to leafing through “The New York Times.”
But I love a good story.
That’s why I became a features writing intern at the New York City branch of Metro US, a free daily newspaper published in more than 100 major cities across Europe, North and South America and Asia. My beat was “Things to Do” in New York City. I wrote about NYC’s biggest events, from an upcoming Woodstock-esque festival in Brooklyn to a pre-U.S. Open tennis fan festival in the Seaport District. I interviewed Dominique Ansel, acclaimed French pastry chef and creater of the cronut. And thanks to my Metro US press pass, I dodged the NYC Food Waste Fair’s $50 admission fee and learned that most things in my trash can, from tea bags to shucked oyster shells, can be recycled.
Above all, I realized that the SBU J-school is a microcosm of the journalism world. My professors trained me to brainstorm and to craft meaningful stories in multiple media, from radio packages to 3,000-word narratives. Here’s what they didn’t teach me.
1. A good chunk of my J-school stories, especially from freshman and sophomore year, sound boring. Rigid. Too structured, like typical inverted-pyramid style writing. At Metro US, I learned how to write more conversationally. “It’s SO different than what you’re taught at J-school,” my editor Eva told me. “Like, the foundation is the same: answer the five Ws, etc. But there’s so much more personality to it.” She suggested that I avoid clichés, find my own style of explaining things and pretend I’m telling my story to a friend as I write. “You have a good head for angles and a good gut for writing that you need to listen to more instead of relying on the drivel of corporate-speak to provide your ‘crutch words’ like ‘indulge, enjoy, can,’” Eva added.
2. Take a risk and pitch beyond what’s expected of you. I was a features and style writing intern, but Professor Pablo Calvi and his JRN 320 class taught me that a solid story isn’t limited to writing. It has multimedia. Photos. Videos. Graphics. So when I pitched two story ideas to my editor, I also pitched two accompanying videos. “You’re the best writer out of all of our interns,” Eva said. “But you’re even more talented at making these bite-size videos that are the future of journalism.”
3. Slow writers like me don’t fare well in a daily newspaper like Metro. My editor can bang out three stories in a day, but it takes me at least one day to write something I’m proud of.
4. Many stories originate from press releases. I did my fair share of those. It’s not as exciting as going to the event you’re writing about, experiencing it firsthand and then writing about what you saw and heard, but it’s possible to tweak an official statement into an exciting mini-saga.
5. Most of your conversations with your editor might happen online, not in person. I communicated with Eva mostly through Slack, an online messaging platform that connects business teams. We “Slacked” each other. I pitched story ideas, asked questions, sent files and submitted story drafts to Eva through Metro US’s Slack account. It was nothing like JRN 320, where we gathered around the newsroom table and pitched our stories, circle-time style.
6. Memorize Professor Ricioppo’s advice on video sound quality and storytelling from JRN 310. My multimedia editor said he really liked the videos I shot and produced for Metro US, despite the company’s lack of equipment (I used my own Canon Rebel t3i for video production and bought a new tripod.) Then I asked one of my J-school buddies to critique a video, Ricioppo-style. She pointed out an embarrassing host of problems. Some of them couldn’t be avoided, given my equipment situation. But there were a few that could have easily been fixed. I could hear Prof. Ricioppo scolding me in my head.
7. Earning high website traffic can be more important than writing a thought-provoking piece. I asked Eva if I could write about an immigrant storytelling seminar on Lexington Avenue. That didn’t work out. “People don’t want to go to talks, they want food festivals and art shows and events that put them immigrant-adjacent with an easy way to participate,” she said. But on my last day at Metro US, Eva rekindled my hope. “Know that good storytelling is still important and that nothing beats walking down the street and paying attention for getting a story,” she said.
8. You can eat the food you report on for free, depending on whom you work for. I got two free desserts this summer: Dominique Ansel’s peach tea soft-serve and Pure Leaf’s color-changing purple tea. But that’s because I captured how they’re made in two videos for Metro US and reported on my dining experience in my stories. “Pick your freebies strategically, ideally with places you’ve already covered somehow (like a particularly cool opening),” Eva said. “I never ask for comped meals — if I eat free, it’s because I’m invited to an opening event or a party or a special tasting of a new menu item.”
It’s too late to travel back to my first day at Metro US. But if I could, I’d tell myself this. Buy a lavalier before you interview Dominique Ansel. Then you won’t have to ask him to speak into the audio recorder of your iPod Touch and then ask him to speak louder as construction workers pound into the ground across the street. Pitch a more meaningful first story. You can do better than “Where to celebrate National Ice Cream Day 2017.” Stop being shy. Introduce yourself to the editor-in-chief, who sits two seats away from you.
If you’re considering this internship, don’t be afraid to loosen your writing style. Be creative. And when you see your byline splashed across newsstands around NYC, it’ll all be worth it.