Giving Tuesday December 1 2020

How to make a newsroom intern’s head explode

September 22, 2016 01:30

By Pat Duggins, RTDNA Contributor

Our student interns at Alabama Public Radio put in, on average, seven hundred and fifty hours of work a year. That effort leads to one hundred and forty minutes of Alabama-centric news, which airs statewide during our newscasts. That’s real-life experience on their resumes, done under real-life deadline pressure to prepare them for the world of work in journalism. In fact, about 60% of the news copy that airs during the 107 minutes of newscasts we do every week is done by students.

Sometimes the easiest way to blow their minds is by telling a story from the "good old days."

I spent twenty years covering of NASA and the U.S. Space Program. That includes one hundred and three Space Shuttle missions, writing two books on NASA, lecturing at Harvard, and a half dozen book signings at the Smithsonian. I also spent fourteen years as NPR’s space correspondent. Bear in mind, forty of those Shuttle missions occurred before my station started using the internet. My editors still howled for interview clips, and I had to deliver.

Here’s how:

The “old school” way to deliver sound from the field, was to take an old-fashioned telephone, unscrew the mouthpiece, connect my tape recorder by attaching gator clips to the prongs, and play the sound back while my editors in Washington, D.C. recorded it on their end.

Students’ heads tend to explode when I tell them about it.

A lot of things for these budding journalists are different now compared to when I was their age. But a lot of things are the same. That’s why I emphasize writing. No matter what you do, whether it’s radio, television, web, or print, these students will be called upon to generate content. The ability to write means having the confidence to come up with a story, pursue the interview you need, find an alternate interview if “person A” says no, deliver the copy under deadline pressure, and convince your boss that you can do that job, so you can be hired in the first place.

I remember my first interview with Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the world’s first man on the moon. NASA said no to the interview, and Armstrong’s handlers said no. The moonwalker was at the dedication of the Astronaut’s Memorial. I arrived and saw him standing there—I was the only person to recognize him. So, I walked up and said, “Sir, I’m Pat Duggins, here for my five minute interview with you, we can do it now if you like.” “Sure,” Armstrong responded, and I got my tape.

Fast forward to the recent Southeastern Conference Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators. I assigned our newest reporter and anchor, MacKenzie Bates, to cover the game in Atlanta. He texted me, brimming with accomplishment. He wanted a certain interview, and the handler of that interview subject said no. Mac persevered, went around the handler to the interview subject’s producer, asked for a few minutes, and the producer said yes. Sound familiar?

Technologies change, but the basics of good reporting don’t.

So, after our student interns’ heads explode when I show them how to unscrew an old fashioned telephone to send sound, the goal of making stories happen "no matter what" still applies.

And our students are getting jobs. Just sayin’.

Pat Duggins is News Director at Alabama Public Radio