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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: The Spokesman-Review’s paid high school internship will teach you a lot more than journalism

UPDATED: Mon., May 17, 2021

There isn’t a public high school in this area with a student newspaper. Or even a student news website. Or some instructor-led, Twitterific, Snapbookish thingiemabob that helps other students give their classmates updates about what’s going on around the school.

Nada. Nothing. Doesn’t exist.

And that’s heartbreaking.

Not for some nostalgic, romanticized notion of the importance of a school paper. Or for self-interest, though there are still a whole bunch of people around Spokane who make a living by documenting the living history of our community.

Nope, this is sad because a student newspaper teaches both the people creating it and the people reading it so many important life lessons. There just aren’t many secondary classes that can actually teach a teenager as many practical skills as a journalism class.

Normally, there’d be a list all of those skills right here. And we’re going to get around to that, but our newspaper’s managing editor has told me on more than one occasion that our readers would often be better served if the point of my columns was closer to the beginning of them than the end. So here it comes …

This summer, we’re going to host four paid high school interns for nine weeks. We got a ton of help in creating this program – which is one of the only paid high school journalism internships in the nation – through a grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and support from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund. The program has a super fancy name, the Teen Journalism Institute, but the goals are much more than just trying to teach someone how to write a story about upcoming changes to gym class.

Like, how do you talk to someone you’ve just met who is upset? Heck, how do you talk to someone who is not upset? Asking questions, and especially the manner in which you might literally ask them, is often way harder than you might think. Besides, how do you even prepare for something like that? And is there a way to teach someone how to think on their feet?

In journalism, we call this an interview, but it’s more than that.

Sometimes, it feels like thoughtful conversation is largely lost, especially between strangers. It’s certainly not something taught in many, if any, classrooms, because schools have no idea how you’d measure this in a Washington state standardized test. That shouldn’t be an excuse for not trying to help a young person understand a practical skill they will use nearly every day of their life.

When you think of all of the ways people learn and grow, talking with others is easily one of the most powerful. And if there was ever time when people needed to talk more with others, it’s right now.

What’s more, how do you research things? Especially in a way that doesn’t involve Google? Like getting information from your local government, or your school district.

Once you’ve learned things from your discussions and research, do you know how to write about them in a way others can easily understand? Or in a way that makes others care? In a world of emojis, and where there is apparently an abbreviation for almost any life circumstance, being able to really write is a skill that makes people stand out, regardless of their chosen career.

Another really helpful life skill is seeing or hearing about something and instinctively knowing you not only should learn more, but possibly even tell others about it. However, before you can really do that to the level you’d like, you might need to sell that idea to others around you. Like, say, your boss. Or your teacher.

In journalism, we call this pitching a story.

But maybe it’s really about being perceptive, while also trying to solve a problem instead of just pointing it out.

Or even how to think for yourself. Using logic and real information you have discovered on your own. Not from social media.

It’s entirely possible that these sorts of skills could lead to something even more meaningful. Being curious means you never stop learning. When you never stop learning, you never quit growing. It means you can’t be pigeonholed as just one thing, because you’re not. Because you know how to learn to do different things.

It’s one of those “intangibles” talked about when someone seems to understand the importance of being able to not only do things differently, but maybe even do completely different things altogether.

Like, say, when a global pandemic happens.

Just like everything you want to be good at, these things take practice. You just can’t read about them or take a test about them to simply understand what they mean.

You have to do them. A lot.

Practice them. Like shooting free throws. Or playing the piano. Or having to talk with people daily and then write about them for even more people. The result may or may not end up in a daily newspaper read by thousands of people across hundreds of miles.

There’s also something called “news literacy.” You can find lots of definitions out there as to what this might entail, but what it really means is, do you know when you’re being fibbed to? In a world filled with “alternative facts,” it sure feels like people have forgotten that if it smells like something that came from the wrong end of an animal, you probably don’t want to put it in your mouth.

So, how do you teach these sorts of things?

Those accepted into what clearly has to be the coolest paid high school internship on the planet will get to work with our reporters, photographers and editors. They get to work with every department in our newsroom: photo, news, entertainment and sports.

There will be twice-weekly sessions with newsroom staff and outside experts to learn about different aspects of journalism and its civic mission, making a free press one of the most important factors in a democracy. Plus, you’ll learn how to write about a baseball game. Also very important.

These interns also will get to work on some longer-term community service stories on central themes: teens and mental health in the wake of COVID, news literacy among their peers, teens and the economy, and what education might look like in our high schools after this pandemic is something being taught in the history books.

And at the end of the nine weeks, The Spokesman-Review will publish a special section highlighting the students’ work on these topics.

Is there any fine print? Kinda.

For the first year of this internship, we need the students – those who will be juniors and seniors next school year – to be from this region. Why? Well, this isn’t a camp. Students have to be able to get to our cool tower in downtown Spokane each day, as well as get home.

The only time we allow people to spend the night in our newsroom is on Election Night or when Gonzaga is playing in a Final Four. Neither of those things is scheduled to happen during this particular nine-week period. So ya gotta go home each day. Those are the rules. Also, the program is open to incoming juniors and seniors.

You also have to apply. Pretty quickly. Applications must be submitted by May 31, unless I change my mind. Which happens. But for right now, let’s say you have two weeks to tell us why you should get to hang out with us this summer. Besides, if you can’t make that deadline, then it’s pretty hard for us to believe you’re going to be able to make the deadlines of a daily newspaper.

So, consider this your first assignment.

Wow, as highfalutin as this internship program’s name is, maybe it’s wrong. After reading all of that, it sure seems a lot less newspaperish and a whole lot more life-ish.

You know, almost like something that should be taught in our high schools.

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