Recently I had the chance to interview my best friend about his experiences as an intern at the New York Times. During the summer of 2012, Kevin Kaplan was an intern copy-editor at the famous newspaper company located in the heart of New York City. Now a recent college graduate from the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana with a degree in journalism, Kevin wanted to pass down his experience and wisdom to any young, wanna-be writers and editors. Sit back college students; you’re in for a treat.
DJ: During your entire time at the NYT, what was the biggest thing you learned about the media world? and how is it going to help you in your future career?
KK: Being there gave me a very good sense of the state of print media. It’s not too hot right now. I’m not talking about quality, because The Times is still strong, if not the best, in that regard. So far, the worst year for print media was probably 2009, when I was an underclassman in college, and I believed that everything had more or less stabilized after that. But being at The Times, which is a trailblazer in the industry, showed me the print medium still has a lot of hurdles to overcome, and that gave me valuable perspective regarding my goals for the future.
DJ: What were some things the higher-ups at the NYT were brutality honest about?
KK: They were candid about the state of the industry (print media are in trouble), but there is always going to be work for the people who are the very best at what they do. The overall expectations were sky-high for their writers/reporters (I was an editor). If you’re not the best, you have to compensate by working extremely hard. Some of the worst writers (not just at The Times, but in general) are the most polite people I’ve worked with. They have to be good with people, or else they wouldn’t make it to a high level. Good writing is a treasured skill that is honestly very rare. If you are an above-average writer, there will definitely be work for you somewhere, if for no other reason than most people are so bad at it.
DJ: Best thing about working at the NYT?
KK: I liked the people who worked there, I liked the level of expectations and I liked the company and its institutional power.
DJ: What skills helped you the most at your internship?
KK: In no particular order: Knowing grammar inside and out. Being good with technology and quick to pick up on the programs they used. Having an attention to detail. Being outgoing and knowing how to take advantage when opportunities presented themselves. Being level-headed (ie not getting too high or too low). Being calm under pressure.
DJ:What is a recent news article you really liked and why
KK: I read a ton. That’s a very important way to improving one’s writing, and I still read The Times on the subway every day, and I read a ton of articles for my current job, then I read more when I’m at home. Two relatively recent articles that stuck with me were a Chris Jones story from Esquire on Hugh Hefner, as well as a story from the Boston Globe accounting the experiences of the man who was carjacked by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. One is much longer than the other, but both had the perfect mix of good writing and good reporting.
DJ: After your experience at the NYT, what are some red flags when it comes to a bad news article?
KK: Editors get more annoyed with bad reporting than bad writing. Bad writing is relatively easy to fix, but reporting holes are impossible to get past. When it comes down to it, a journalist’s job is to convey information, and if something is unclear, or if there are blatant plot holes, the mission has failed. Of course, The Times puts quite a bit of stock in writing, and after being there it is hard for me to read a lot of news articles, and specifically sports articles, because the writing is so mediocre. The majority of sports articles — in part by necessity — involve very little actual writing; so much of it is relaying facts and stats and play-by-play. I know a news article is bad if it’s difficult for me to write a headline for it (at almost all news outlets, it’s the editors, not reporters, who write headlines). If I’m really struggling with that, I know I’m merely reading a news article — not a story that was actually about something. If the print medium is going to survive, it needs to do more than relay information — it will lose that battle with the Web every time. The medium needs to give the reader something he or she can’t get anywhere else, and that something is often good writing.