Diary of a CNN.com intern

The front page of CNN.com on With more crow’s feet and grey hairs than your average student, I arrived at CNN International for a three-month internship to admiring comments on the clickety-clack of my two-finger typing. “You sound just like the old hacks I used to work with,” one seasoned journalist very kindly remarked.

My maturity aside, if I’d known how hard it would be to juggle a two-day-a-week internship with a master of journalism course and three young children, I’m not sure I would have accepted the opportunity to work on the CNN.com website so quickly. But as difficult as it was, the experience taught me some fundamental lessons that no classroom possibly could, and reaffirmed my decision to switch to journalism mid-career. 

Each day at CNN started with a meeting of the dot.com team to discuss the news and stories that would feature online during Hong Kong hour, and beyond. These coffee-fuelled discussions provided great insight into how journalists digest the day’s news, and how broader, more complex stories are identified and developed.

After quickly getting to grips with the Internet system that takes the written and graphic elements of a story and spits them out as a published article, I received my first request to write a story: a simple piece about an antique Chinese bowl purchased for under $3 at a yard sale, which subsequently sold for $2.2 million. It was very short, but especially sweet for me to see my first published by-line.

Each subsequent story delivered lessons, from just how minutely precise reporting needs to be, to how frustrating reticent interviewees are when a reporter is working on a tight deadline.

After the initial suggestions from my CNN colleagues, it soon became clear that it was up to me to come up with some stories of my own. This was the hardest part of my time at CNN, and I would scour newspapers, Twitter and the Internet daily in search of a unique story that would resonate with readers.

My initial pitches were knocked back – “That’s definitely a story to keep an eye on.” was the most polite reply of the lot – and my confidence started to flag. I sought advice from some journalists outside of CNN, and was wisely told to follow stories I was interested in myself.

My first accepted pitch examined the growing numbers of wealthy, well-educated parents in the developed world who are shunning vaccines for their children, and compared that to the developing world, where many parents are desperate to vaccinate their children against preventable childhood diseases.

After a lot of help refining the story, and some serious slashing and burning, it ran as the main CNN.com health story for a number of days. Although not a huge hit, it was the first by-line I felt I could really call my own, and watching it trend on Twitter gave me enormous satisfaction.

Learning from my experience, I then pitched an investigation into the growing number of foreign students travelling to China for higher education, prompted in part by the large numbers of fellow foreign students undertaking the master of journalism course at Hong Kong University.

After trolling the Internet for statistics, many hours of interviews, and then writing the story, it was edited, an appropriate photo sourced, and it was published the day after I’d spent my last afternoon at CNN. It ran as the lead story on CNN.com that day, and was also the most read.

It was an enormous relief to have finally written a successful story, especially one that I was proud of. I took a screen shot of CNN.com that day, and reflected upon the most important lessons I had taken away from my first job as a real journalist.

Good reporting is as important, if not more so, than the writing of the story itself. Less is most definitely more. Even the most seasoned journalists struggle to write headlines when they start out. Chocolate really does help the journalistic process. And one should always keep an eye out for that cheap, antique Chinese bowl hiding in a second-hand shop.

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