The lobby of our beautiful headquarters.
The lobby of our beautiful headquarters.
Ah, data. It’s verifiable and quantifiable, and that’s why it can solidify the facts in your article. In short, data can be your best friend. In fact, we, as journalists, have guaranteed access to a wealth of public data through the federal Freedom of Information Act and state public records laws.
However, as I learned in this internship, government source can sometimes hold data hostage. I’m serious. They will try to do everything in their power to deter you and give you as little as possible. That’s why negotiating for data can be an intense battle of titans.
Photo used under Creative Commons from Edward Dalmulder.
Okay, so I exaggerate a little. Most of the time, agencies are very willing to give you data because they’ll look bad if they don’t. Sometimes, you’ll get some instances of pushback and it’s best to be prepared.
So then how do we make sure we get all of the data we need and spend as little money and time as possible? Well, I have had the incredible honor this summer of being a Data Investigative intern at USA Today under the tutelage of Anthony DeBarros. I listened to him negotiate with a government agency, and I’m going to share with you what I learned:
“With all due respect, I know these public records are available to me as a journalist, and according to your public records laws, I have a right to access them.”
“I commend you for keeping data that is quite detailed and very useful to my article.”
(Also, I’m on Twitter)
Coming from Michigan, where everybody drives everywhere, I entered into the land of an actual, working, mass transit system with some hesitation. I’ve seen YouTube videos. Some crazy things go down on subways.
But like a true hero, I faced my fears. I not only took D.C.’s Metro, but mastered it to a level few have before. People who have lived in the D.C. Area their whole life don’t have the kind of Metro skills I do. After watching so many people fail so badly with the details, I figured I should share some tips to make everybody’s life a little easier.
It’s not necessarily hard to figure out where you’re going when riding the Metro. There’s only five lines and giant maps are plastered all over the stations and the cars’ walls. As long as you know your colors of the rainbow, aren’t colorblind and put a bunch of money on a SmarTrip card, you’ll be OK.
The tricky part comes once you actually step inside the contraption. There’s really only two situations you can get yourself into: picking the right seat or, if there are no seats, finding the right place to stand.
As you wait for the people to step off your car before you get in (the golden rule), you’ll need to get focused. The shoddy lighting, off-color white car, and faded red and orange seat pads can suck you into a Harry Potter Death Eaters-style of lifelessness. Have enough mental capacity to block that off you’ll be set to find a seat — if there is one.
Don’t sit on the light blue seats that have their backs to the edges of the car. Those are for people with a disability. Sitting there makes you a prick. Even if no disabled people are on the train, just leave it open.
What you want is that first row of seats. It doesn’t matter where, any place without seats in front of them are prime real estate, because if you’re taller than 4’6”, you won’t have your knees jammed into the seat in front of you. Also, you’re right by the door. You can make the quick getaway at your stop and beat the slow-walking and stroller-toting masses to the stairs/escalator, saving roughly 2,432 minutes of your time.
If you’re in a packed car, it’s a bit of a different story. Unless you want to be constantly rubbed against by people you’re not totally sure aren’t homeless, the best bet is to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team. The standing people tend to bunch up at the doors. Slide down to the middle of the car. It will prevent the highly-coveted quick exit and you’ll have to fight through throngs of people just to make it to the doors, but you won’t be getting borderline molested every time the car comes to a stop … or makes a slight turn … or moves.
While you’re in the middle, look for a veteran Metro rider.
Once you burrow your way out, you’ll be behind a bunch of people in line for the escalator.
— (Michael Florek)
1 Where are you from? Wyckoff, NJ
2 School: American University, Washington, D.C.
3 Major: International Studies
4 Position: Online Production Intern, USA TODAY Tech
5 Why USAT? It’s a national newspaper that prides itself on enterprise and teamwork. It’s also close to school, and I have a lot of connections here via alumni and professors.
6 What have you liked thus far? I love the fact that I’m as valued as much as a full-time employee, and I’ve been very busy!
7 Coke or Pepsi? Coke. But I’m not militant about it. Pepsi’s really good, too.
8 Last book you read/movie you saw? Two completely different questions! Just finished “Rather Outspoken” by Dan Rather and currently reading “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin and “Decision Points” by George W. Bush (because sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction). Tried reading “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John le Carré before that and couldn’t get into it. Last movie was “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Before that, “The Avengers,” which was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
9 Who’s your favorite insurance character (geico geko, flow, etc)? Caveman
10 Post-grad hopes and dreams? Become an international affairs or politics reporter for a national media outlet
11 How would you describe yourself in three words? hard-working, curious, caring
12 Tom or Jerry? Tom
13 Hobby? The standard fare: reading, biking, skiing, and Netflix.
14 Favorite candy? Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Because they’re heavenly.
15 Favorite shampoo? Head & Shoulders
16. Snookie or JWoww? What’s a JWoww?
17. What did you have for breakfast? Everything bagel, OJ, and a coffee from the shop downstairs.
18. What color socks are you wearing? Black and brown.
19. Regular or skinny tie? Flats or heels? Skinny.
20. Paper or plastic? Trick question. Reusable.
21. Pinterest or Reddit? Reddit. It’s more useful.
Applying for a position with USA Today can be nerve-wracking in and of itself. For me, applying for this internship was about more than professional aspirations, it was about an internal, generational battle. I am first-generation college student from a lower-middle class family. My father works for a major shipping company and my mother works for a life insurance company. The closest thing my family has seen to my internship is my grandfather working in the printing room of a New York newspaper. Applying for an internship with USA TODAY was more about the question of “Am I worth something?”
I entered college, as most students do, with a passion to get a better grasp on the world around me. For me, I came to love the study of communication; after all it is the water to our fishbowl. I’ve spent the past two years soaking up as much information as possible to be a competitive candidate in the job market. I knew that I’d have to work a little harder to earn an education than my peers because I had not come from a highly educated family. This isn’t to say I ever thought of myself as less than my peers. My parents are both hardworking, morally sound individuals. I was raised with a roof over my head and always had food, clothes and plenty of action figures. However, I fell in love with the concept of education early on and was scared that I somehow wouldn’t make it.
When this application process began I saw it as an opportunity to prove myself amongst a pool of talented individuals. It also served as a means of figuring out where I fit in within the greater world of communication.
Working at USA TODAY, you quickly come to recognize the value of diversity. Each member of the team matters because of the niche that they fill. Every person brings a necessary energy and a skill set that lends themselves to the mission of USA TODAY. I bring a digital savvy mind, strategic communication experience, a positive demeanor, “southern charm” and a “Keep Calm and Kayak On” poster. What’s not to love?
My saw is far from sharpened but my time at USA TODAY has taught me that I am worth it. In fact, USA TODAY has shown me that I have much more to offer as a result of my particular predicament and experiences. My background is exactly what sets me apart from everyone else.
So - thanks mom and dad for being who you are. It certainly has helped make me who I am.
For example, when starting, I knew that there was a possibility that I would not be prepared to handle a particularly eccentric co-worker’s idiosyncrasies. I knew there was a possibility that I wouldn’t quite have a handle on the right mix of business and casual that forms my office’s unique blend of business-casual attire — a phrase I’ve learned can mean anything from “no need to wear a full suit” to “geeky T-shirt and nice jeans, but no sneakers allowed”. I knew there was a possibility that I’d have to learn a completely new set of computer programs or systems that I’d never encountered in my simple existence as a student and blogger. I knew there was a possibility I would not be able to remember anyone’s name after a particularly large event or meeting. These were situations I was not prepared for—however, I was prepared to be caught unprepared. I had realized these were possibilities that I could not better equip myself to handle, but had at the very least anticipated.
And then there are the surprises on the way that blindside you—the things that hit you like a smack in the face or a biting retort from some sharp-tongued nemesis that strikes you with such swiftness of wit, that you find yourself dumbfounded, and spend the next few hours coming up with an appropriate response that should have been delivered immediately after the blow was struck. These are the surprises that come to you with the suddenness and profound impact of a fire alarm sounding on a quiet morning.
For me, this type of surprise was the abuse of cologne in the office.
Now, granted that it took a full month at work for me to even run into this issue. Not every man in the office feels the need to bathe in aftershave or what have you. But let me tell you with sincere gravity that never in my life have I experienced something so unexpectedly and profoundly unpleasant as being stuck in an elevator, a tiny, enclosed space, with an individual who has so gravely abused this particular male grooming product.
Now given that I am one of the younger interns, as many are in grad school and I only just completed my freshman year, you would think that I might be familiar with dealing with—ahem—aromatic peers and neighbors. After all, the men in my peer group only recently, if at all, discovered the value of daily hygiene and most often avoid doing laundry until their clothes are just short of offensive in either appearance or smell. Remember—it’s literally been less than two years since I was in high school, among people as young as 14. You may have thought that I would be used to overuse of cologne, given that Axe markets their body spray toward men my age in a way that suggests that their product will produce busty, handsy, young women around any man who uses the spray. And trust me, there are some guys who use the spray like they believe it. But even my experiences with these men pale in comparison to the run-ins I’ve had with cologne abusers here in the office.
The first time it happened, I had just walked into the elevator on the ground floor, which I take to go to the 6th floor where I work. I was in there with a few other people when a fourth and final passenger arrived, just before the doors closed. The acrid smell washed over me with exactly the same amount of subtlety as a tidal wave. The smell of the alcohol in the cologne mingled harshly with whatever earthy, semi-sweet scents were intended to be main scent. It was to my nose what nails on a chalkboard are to ears. I attempted to inconspicuously hold my breath but I began to tear up as the pungent odor reached my eyes. Six stories never seemed so far.
Perhaps this behavior stems from an early morning workout at the gym that was particularly sweat-inducing. Perhaps the thought was that the cologne’s effects would diminish over time, thus a liberal amount should be applied first thing in the morning. Perhaps these men have body odor insecurities, or perhaps even still, they did in fact accidentally pour or drop cologne all over themselves. Whatever the case, I was not prepared for this. Should you face this issue in your office, my best advice is to pretend you forgot to press the button for your floor and press the number for the nearest floor in order to exit before you asphyxiate.
Being an unpaid intern makes me wish I had a skill.
Well, at least a skill that would be marketable outside the metro station…
For the first time in my life, I am working full-time for free, and it is no easy task. To their credit, USA TODAY does offer a $200 travel stipend each month. My commute entails a metro and a bus ride both ways and the $200 pretty much exactly covers it.
However, I find that there are some things necessary to do throughout the summer that the travel stipend doesn’t really help with (i.e. eating). Therefore, it has become essential to start learning how to live on a budget.
So, if you are one of the brave souls considering taking on an unpaid internship, here are some tips for survival:
1. Drink coffee at the office.
My first week here, I fell head first into the Starbucks trap. USA TODAY conveniently serves Starbucks coffee in the store located right in the lobby. So, naturally I thought, “Hey girl, you’re working full-time now. You deserve a latte this morning.” Let me tell you, this is one slippery slope.
After a self-induced mini-intervention, I now allow myself one Starbucks drink a week, typically a Friday morning treat, to cut back on the spending. However, this does not mean I must go without my steaming hot cup of caffeine every other day. As it turns out, coffee is FREE in the kitchen. Though it isn’t exactly the best coffee you’ve ever tasted, it still gets the job done. And did I mention it’s free?
2. Pack your lunch.
Another easy way to run out of money super quickly is to take a daily trip to the Breaking News Café, also known as the cafeteria. The options in the cafeteria here are pretty widespread, spanning from burgers to pizza to sandwiches to salads and everything in between. Tempting, yes. Frugal, no.
A sandwich and a drink may come to about $7, which at the time doesn’t seem terrible. However, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter also costs about $7, but will feed you for the week. Something about buying a man a fish and teaching a man to fish comes to mind…
3. Find free things to do.
One huge benefit of living in the D.C. area is that there is an endless amount of concerts, movies, museums and other events- and most of them are free! So download the DC Going Out Guide app, or look in the papers, or Google it, but take the time to find out what’s happening around you. Whether it’s outdoor movies Monday nights or Jazz in the Garden on Friday, or a trip to the Air and Space Museum, get out there and enjoy the city- without spending a dime!
4. For the 21+ crowd … get your drinks before you hit the bar.
A 12-pack at CVS is about $10. A beer at the bar is about $6. You do the math.
Hopefully, by implementing some or all of these tips, we can all save enough money to make it through the summer without having to learn how to play the harmonica for quarters on the sidewalk.
On the set.