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When you think about internships at media companies, you probably picture people fetching coffee, running errands, or worse. But some internships have taken a different tack, setting up specialized blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for their interns to help them understand new technology and spread the word about their programs.

At NPR, the 40-plus interns put together a special 30-minute multimedia and audio presentation for the rest of the staff each term. The special “Intern Edition” — run mainly by interns themselves — has morphed into a regular blog with daily updates. At satellite radio giant Sirius XM Radio, 150 interns are herded by “Ross the Boss” Herosian, a former intern who has a special Twitter feed, Facebook page, blog, podcast and even YouTube channel for the internship program.

The advantage for interns coming into these programs (which run in spring, summer or fall terms) is that many of them are already immersed in digital media, so there’s nothing to relearn. As Doug Mitchell, former head of the NPR Intern Edition, told me for a MediaShift story in 2008:

There’s no ‘legacy’ to concern ourselves with because Intern Edition starts completely from scratch each term with a room full of strangers and me as the continuity and institutional memory. What better place to develop new thinking about media, development and consumption than where nothing truly exists.

A Major Juggle

One thing that interns at NPR have in common with other workers at media companies is the need to juggle like mad. They have their regular internship with a specific NPR radio show or production service; they might have classes at school or other internships; and then they have the extra-curricular work of Intern Edition, their creative outlet. And that creativity can take many forms: video, drawing, comics and more.

“It’s never easy,” said NPR senior trainer Sora Newman, who has taken on Doug Mitchell’s former role. “The interns need to be committed to the project and they always underestimate the amount of time it takes to produce a radio story or slide show, etc. These are just skills learned by experience.”

A slide-show by NPR intern May Ying-Lam of the Tiny Desk concert series

Intern Edition gives NPR interns a place to showcase new skills, test their limits and even build an online audience via social media. The @NPRInterns Twitter feed has more than 2,500 followers. And one intern, Teresa Gorman, has just one job for her internship: executive producing the Intern Edition. Gorman told me that “We do almost everything ourselves … It’s tough. It’s worth it, though.”

At Sirius XM, social media outreach is less about promoting the work of interns as it is about promoting the internship programs to prospective interns. Herosian told me he took a program that had 15 interns four years ago and built it into a powerhouse with 150 interns spread out around the country. The internships are unpaid, but they do offer college credit.

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Ross Herosian

“I wanted to get the message out about what we’re doing and market it to college students,” he said. “I thought it would be great to go where the students are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. So when Facebook came out, I was creating groups for people to join, and when they launched the Pages feature, I saw a great opportunity for a community and outlet so that people can follow us.”

Challenges for Interns

While both programs have had success in training college students and bringing some of them on board with full-time jobs, there have been some obstacles along the way. NPR interns have had to deal with an entrenched traditional media mentality, and Sirius XM has had to sort through various online platforms to get it right.

Dominic Ruiz-Esparza is the communications director for Intern Edition, and an intern at “Talk of the Nation.” He told me there have been battles among interns over the direction of Intern Edition, which mixes newsy stories with lighter fare.

“There’s a bit of disagreement about how much should be news content and how much is trying out new things that are fun for interns,” Ruiz-Esparza said. “There’s a bit of a battle here among people who run Intern Edition. I have a news background and would like that, but that gets boring and some people want to try innovative things. So it’s really up to the managing editor to decide, so that we have some news and the interns have creative freedom, too.”

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Dominic Ruiz-Esparza

He’s also noticed that there’s still resistance to change at NPR as a whole.

“Guy Raz, the weekend ‘All Things Considered’ host, talked to us awhile ago and acknowledged that there’s a very conservative spirit here at NPR and it’s changed,” Ruiz-Esparza said. “It’s a lot better than it was, but it’s still not the norm for these new forms of content to be primary. The website has changed a lot due to the new CEO [Vivian Schiller], but there is that divide. It’s changed somewhat, but not quick enough for young people here.”

At Sirius XM, Herosian has a serious challenge just keeping track of the 150 interns spread out around the country. Luckily, he has interns to help him with that task. Because Herosian is only a handful of years removed from his own internship, he can relate to the interns and has taken on the “Ross the Boss” nickname in a light-hearted way. Herosian hasn’t been afraid to try new digital platforms to promote the Sirius XM internships — and he admits some of them just didn’t work out.

“At first with the blog I set up a LiveJournal format where everyone had their own account, but it was just too many moving parts,” Herosian said. “For us, it wasn’t the best interface to use. We also used Ning, which is a great service but it didn’t quite meet our needs. Sometimes less in more with social media, because everything you create you have to maintain. People in corporate environments will create these pages and then say ‘my job is done’ and there’s no maintenance that goes into it. It’s the conversation aspect that’s important, so you can’t create them and then have them lie dormant.”

Intern Learning and Teaching

As for what’s been working well in social media, Herosian said Facebook has been the best way to promote the program to college students, who are much more comfortable commenting or asking questions in that environment. He was surprised that many college interns were new to Twitter and had to be prompted to use it regularly. One Sirius XM intern, Jeremy Lubsey, said he had heard a lot about Twitter before, but had never used it very much until his internship. That said, he thinks he’ll get a lot more use out of his new LinkedIn profile.

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Jeremy Lubsey

“[One of my biggest lessons was] the importance of social networking sites such as LinkedIn,” Lubsey told me. “The second week, I was talking to one of the production guys and he said to put up a page on LinkedIn and get your name out there. That’s helped me to work on my career after Sirius XM.”

And when it comes to social media, sometimes it’s the interns who help teach the staffers new tricks. Mediaite editor-at-large Rachel Sklar told me that the startup site had been blessed with “awesome, kickass interns” who also have their own Twitter feed.

“As for social media training, it’s gone both ways!” Sklar said. “Only an idiot would welcome these kids just out of school without making a point of learning from them. They’ve grown up steeped in this stuff. The training flows both ways!”

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What do you think about internships that include blogs, podcasts, Twitter feeds and more? Should more media companies do that? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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