Digital journalism internship opportunities abound at nonprofits

After student journalists have been scared straight by their professors about the harsh realities of landing a job in media, obtaining an internship is the top priority.  The majority of students focus on interning at a TV station or newspaper, but fail to realize that nonprofit experience is another way to kick start a budding journalism career by having the opportunity to work on digital projects in a flexible low-pressure environment.

This post  is contributed by Raymond Ruiz, founder of El Gato Media Network, a 501c(3) nonprofit in Houston that develops college students into media professionals.  Since 2008, Raymond has been working with the nonprofit community and traditional media outlets to provide opportunities to journalism and digital media students.


How nonprofits are using digital journalism

Whether they realize it or not, nonprofits use a mix of digital and brand journalism. They are trying to stand out from the countless other nonprofits that are competing for donors’ dollars. One of the most cost effective ways to accomplish this is it to utilize proven journalism strategies coupled with the power of the internet to tell their organization’s story in a way that promotes services, reaches new clients and engages potential donors.

Publishing on the internet is attractive because of its low cost and ability to reach a wide audience.  User-friendly tools like WordPress, Hootsuite and Google Analytics allow nonprofit staff without much technical experience to quickly establish their organization’s cyber presence.

For the enterprising journalism student, this means they can gain coveted multimedia experience overseeing content management systems, blogs, social media and video production while providing a valuable service to a worthwhile cause.

Unlike traditional public relations, students use digital storytelling skills to directly reach the nonprofit’s audience and bypass the traditional media outlets a press release is blasted to.

Digital journalism opportunities abound at nonprofits

The typical journalism student looks for an internship to gain experience in the field, but quickly realizes that most media companies require previous field experience to gain the internship.  Thanks to the emergence of digital journalism, nonprofit work is the answer to this conundrum and a viable way for students to start building their resume.

The dirty little secret of the nonprofit world is that most donors don’t want their money to go to administration costs or staff salaries.  When you are dealing with battered women, hungry children or orphaned whales, funding to pay for a multimedia journalist or communications professional isn’t at the top of the priority list.

As a result, many small and midsize nonprofits have a digital strategy that is sorely outdated or missing completely. What is a limitation for the nonprofit becomes an educational benefit for the student. This environment allows students to take the lead and experiment with a variety of digital platforms and strategies.

Skills nonprofits expect of journalism students

Nonprofits can be small family operations or hulking organizations that rival corporate businesses.  The skills they expect are fairly standard regardless of size.

College students are prized for their social media expertise and digital aptitude.  Interns will be expected to keep nonprofits up-to-date on the latest internet trends, manage various social media accounts and keep their website maintained.

Beyond the basic digital skills, nonprofits expect students to be proficient in multiplatform storytelling.  The ideal nonprofit intern can write a human interest piece for their website, shoot a heart-wrenching package for YouTube, initiate a social media campaign to connect with donors and send out a press release to announce a new service initiative.  Backpack journalism at it’s best.

Benefits of a nonprofit internship

For students just beginning their journey into the world of media, the benefits of interning at a local nonprofit are hard to ignore.

More opportunities, less competition: According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S.  Interning at one never crosses the minds of most journalism students

Schedule flexibility: Many nonprofit internships are informal and not paid.  To attract and retain students, they will work with your school and work schedules.

Low pressure work environment: Nonprofits aren’t going to berate you for using AP style incorrectly or coiling cable the wrong way.  There is a larger margin for error.

Multimedia experience: Students may find themselves to be the point of contact on everything from search engine optimization to website design – skills that future employers highly covet.

How to get started

For the nonprofit industry, digital journalism is uncharted territory.  They are at the mercy of social media consultants and web developers if they can even afford them.  These professional do-gooders often don’t know how to connect with journalism students so the standard Google search may not produce the most rewarding opportunities.

The best way for students to get a foot in the door is to find an interesting cause and locate a current or former volunteer to introduce you to the nonprofit’s leadership so you can explain how you want to put your skills to work. Calling the nonprofit directly can be hit or miss.  Not all nonprofits have internship programs, regular operating hours or even an office for that matter.

When talking with the organization, have a frank discussion on the constraints you will be working under.  Every nonprofit struggles with funding and operates under a unique set of circumstances that you may want to consider before beginning your internship.

Unless you are going into advocacy journalism, be wary of nonprofits that take a controversial stance.  Traditional media outlets consider themselves unbiased and require objectivity from their reporters.  Students shouldn’t harm their ability to find future work for the sake of a summer internship.

Once an opportunity is identified, students should solicit feedback from their mentors or professors to help decide if it is appropriate for the student’s chosen career path.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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