Cheat sheet: My 5 go-to questions when interviewing potential news interns

Cheat sheet: My 5 go-to questions when interviewing potential news interns

While our newsroom’s internship program is currently on ice because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was inspired today to share my interview strategy after reading an article which professed to have the “best job interview question.”

Spoiler alert: It’s a fine question, and I use something similar to end my interviews for potential interns and professional candidates, but it doesn’t stand on its own. In my opinion, it is best as a closing question.

Especially when interviewing a large number of candidates for a limited number of roles, as with internships, the creative answers given to a single question are not sufficient to sort through the crowd.

Although I lead the newsroom’s digital efforts in my daily work, as intern coordinator I am also responsible for selecting and placing students for every department within our newsroom. That means I sometimes have to sort through three dozen candidates or more in a period of about two weeks.

I have taken great pride in our digital interns but I am also quite proud of all the successful candidates I have placed in other departments.

Several of my recent intern hires have gone on to professional journalism careers, including a few who obtained paid roles within our newsroom.

I use variations of these five standard questions each semester when interviewing potential interns:

  1. What is your goal for the semester, what do you hope to learn or accomplish?
  2. Were do you get and consume your news? Which media outlets do the best job and what do you like about them?
  3. Please share the story behind a journalistic assignment you are particularly proud of? (Can you share a copy of it with us?)
  4. How often would you say you think critically about the news you see on social media? How do you evaluate something that may be suspicious?
  5. What else should I know about you?

Over time, I have removed from that list inquiries about courses completed and relevant skills. If those aren’t on an intern candidate’s resume or described in a letter, I realized, they wouldn’t qualify for an interview in the first place.

Each question remaining on my list has an intention:

  1. To gauge their expectations for the program and begin to determine their attitude. Also, to determine whether our program offers experiences that will be relevant to their educational goals.
  2. Relative to the goals established by their answer to the first question, this helps me to frame an understanding of their news literacy and long-term personal aspirations. This helps me to know where they could fit within our newsroom and whether our internship program offers relevant experiences.
  3. Learning about their best work helps me to gauge their skill level, readiness to contribute in our professional environment and areas of interest. The story behind that work, such as whether it was an independent or group project, also helps me to learn about their ability to work independently.
  4. Asking about how they evaluate pieces of encountered news content is my proxy for understanding whether they would approach a press release, political claim or witness report with due skepticism.
  5. This final question serves the role of the “best question” in the article referenced above. The most insightful answers reveal that candidates have genuine interest in the industry or our newsroom in particular. It can also reveal their understanding of our mission and how they might be able to contribute. (Maybe, one day, a candidate will use this opportunity to tell me they read this blog post?)

When I interview interns, I ask each of these questions to every candidate. With a large pool of applicants, standardization is key to being able to compare individuals.

We often have far more applicants for newsroom internships than we can accommodate, especially in the summers. After giving priority to upperclassmen, I still need to rank applicants based on these standardized questions and determine where they would best fit.

But that doesn’t mean these are the only 5 questions I ask. Answers often deserve follow-up questions, in order to pry additional information

Finally, every interview ends with a candidate having the opportunity to turn the tables and ask questions of me. This reveals to me more about their attitude, preparation and interests. For the applicant, it also offers a chance to become comfortable with our system.