n the box, all hell may break loose. A 15-by-10-foot room in The Toronto Star newsroom, the box is a netherworld filled with photos of dead people, mug shots of killers and old press releases about Paul Bernardo. A counter circles the room stacked with electronics: seven radio scanners, two computers, two telephones, a television, a fax machine and a portable radio. Dozens of disembodied voices float from the machines. Under the counter are black cabinets filled with files of past murders, sexual assaults, robberies, fatalities and thefts. It’s hot in the box. At the centre of this web of wire, metal and noise sits one person, trying to keep on top of it all, a newspaper intern-called “the kid in the box” by the editors. I notice there’s a fire extinguisher within reach.

Today, it’s Amran Abocar’s turn to be the kid in the box. The 24-year-old Ryerson journalism student has been working part-time at the Star for two months. She’s twiddling a knob on the police radio scanner flashing “42,” keeping one eye on the scanner flashing “52,” keeping another eye on CBC Newsworld, listening to CFRB news on the radio and eating a bag of Ruffles potato chips. On the 42 scanner, we’re eavesdropping on an emergency task force (ETF) that’s just surrounded an apartment at Galloway and Lawrence streets in Scarborough. There’s a guy in the building who has semi-automatic gun and the cops may shoot him.

Abocar is matter-of-fact: “Right now, it’s just a domestic.” There are about 50 domestics a shift, mainly guys fighting with women. The Star doesn’t cover domestics, editors tell interns, but the one at Galloway and Lawrence is a special domestic, because the suspect may have a gun, in which case Abocar may have a story-which is why she eavesdrops on ETFs.

“To sum up this room, you don’t write anything unless someone dies,” Michelle Osborne tells me later. She’s a part-time Star intern and a 20-year-old journalism student. After two months, the box is starting to get to her. “But you have to pay your dues. You have to start at the bottom. This is the bottom!”

This is trial by fire. The box “certainly qualifies as one of Dante’s circles,” former Star intern Krishna Rau says. Still, Abocar, Osborne and hundreds of others want to be there. So do I.

Young journalists are desperate for full-time work at major daily newspapers, even though they know the internship application and interview process is brutal. When they do get a job, they’re alone from day one (with almost no training and supervision). They’re given the worst assignments (with a lot of blood and grieving). They’re worried about making mistakes (with callous editors nearby). They’re very competitive (with people constantly looking to replace them). And when they’re let go they’re burnt out and feel like failures. As far as the interns go, the purpose of an internship is to not flame out-and, maybe, to get a job.

“I’d assumed that the whole purpose of running an internship program was to make people better reporters and better journalists-and it isn’t,” says Rau, 30, who now freelances, but who was a summer intern at the Star in 1991 and The Globe and Mail in 1990. When it comes to internships, he’s a cynic, dressed in black.

“The whole purpose is to get 10 or 12 people into the newsroom for four months, or whatever, at a cheap price compared to the full-time reporters and just throw the interns all the crap.”I ask him what he means by “crap.”He tells me about working in the box, scavenging photos of dead people, doing general assignments that others don’t want. “At the Star, I’d assumed that they would actually give me a chance to do some real reporting. I’d assumed-naively, as it turned out-that they would consider that a part of the education.”

“It’s not a teaching program at all,” says Paul Warnick, senior editor of training and development at the Star. We’re sitting in his tiny office, part of a series of rooms that includes the box. Rau told me that Warnick was a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War. I’m expecting a tough interview, but Warnick is a bit fragile today. He’s having trouble breathing. “You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve cracked a rib or something,” he explains. “I slipped a couple of days ago and hit the side of my kitchen table.”

He tells me that “internship” is not the right word to describe the program he runs. It’s a “summer replacement program,”he explains. “The practical reason for it is a lot of people take vacations in the summertime and so we need to fill their spots. We feel that it’s a way to get new people into the business too.” An entire wall of his office is filled with five-by-seven-inch photos of past summer interns. “It helps to remember them, to see where they are now, and I often get job applications from them,” he says.

Colin MacKenzie, the managing editor of the “chronically understaffed Globe,” as he puts it, also keeps in touch with past interns. He describes the Globe internships as “vacation relief, and also to keep an eye on what’s coming up in journalism schools-a sort of reconnaissance. We’re in competition with other outlets for the very best people.” He shifts painfully in his chair. He played a hard game of ice hockey yesterday. Like Warnick, he’s having trouble breathing.

Last year, about 700 people applied for 10 summer positions at the Star, 400 applied for 10 at the Globe and a couple of hundred applied for five at The Ottawa Citizen. That works out to about a 1-in-50 chance of getting a four-month job. And, each year, with fewer internships available, students endure a brutal interview process. T

he cattle call takes place at journalism schools. Each interview lasts between five and 20 minutes. A Star interview averages 10. “I don’t know how you get anything out of an eight-minute interview,” says John Miller, a professor and former chair at the Ryerson J-school and an ex-editor at the Star. What do editors see so quickly?

“I can’t put my finger on it,” Warnick says between careful breaths. “It’s not something I can define. It’s intuition to some extent, as to whether I think a person will be a good reporter or not. Having been in the business all these years, I think I can spot a potential reporter, but I couldn’t define it.”

MacKenzie is just as frank: “It’s horribly subjective and intuitive.” It’s “gut reaction.”

“Gut reaction-bullshit,” Miller responds. “They’re looking for somebody with a glib answer to an asinine question. Somebody with a bit of attitude and aggressiveness, a witty thing to say, something that sticks in their minds. That’s gut reaction.”

Better talk fast. Better smirk and be witty. Better strut your stuff.

A student once complained to Miller about a Hamilton Spectator interview during which she was told to stand up, walk over to the door and come back. She did. “The interviewers made some comment about how she was dressed and she was offended,” Miller says. “She said it had no part in what kind of a journalist she was and it was insulting. She was quite upset.” He wrote a letter to the publisher, noting that the questions were inappropriate and that he didn’t want those editors back. Next time around, the Spectator sent two different interviewers.

One of the disturbing aspects of the Spectator incident, Miller found, is that the duo had behaved the same way at more than one journalism school. “I phoned around to other schools and I asked, ‘Do you have any trouble with these interviewers?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, there were some complaints, but we don’t want to act on them, because we depend on these people to hire our students,’ and I said, ‘Give me a break!'”

Four other interns told me about women getting a lot of attention in the newsroom at the Star. “Generally, of course they’re going to get hit on-just by their colleagues,” Warnick explains. “I don’t think there’s much of it from the editors. But, I mean, if you’re a good-looking woman or a good-looking guy and you’re out in the newsroom, sure, some of your colleagues are going to make moves on you. If you worked at Zellers, too. We try not to have superiors hit on young reporters. I’m not saying it never happens.”

Back in the box, a choir on CBC Newsworld is blaring “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The guy at Galloway and Lawrence is still surrounded.

“And on the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to meeee-” A fight. The guy was screaming at his girlfriend in their apartment. A neighbour called the police.

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to meeee-“A gun call, after the fight. “But it could be nothing,” Abocar says. Still, the staff sergeant of 42 Division is near the building. “He rarely leaves the station unless something big is up.”

“On the sixth day-” The ETF, after the gun call, after the fight. Abocar calls 42 Division and someone tells her that no one knows what’s going on. She puts the phone down looking pissed off, but determined.

“On the seventh day-” The intern, now monitoring the ETF, the gun call and the fight, is tangled in the phone cord. I’m starting to feel sorry for her. Actually, I feel sorry for everybody: the guy in the apartment (outnumbered), the police (confused) and Abocar (lassoed with the phone cord).

From the day interns report to work, they face problems alone. Colin MacKenzie says summer interns at the Globe “get a warm, fuzzy welcome” only if an editor named Paul Taylor is around. Otherwise, they get the caveman greeting. MacKenzie demonstrates with a Neanderthal-man impression: “Uggh. Sit here. Work.”

“There was no supervision,” says Angus Frame, 25. “I think, for a lot of people, that would bug them.” In his first week at the Globe, the ’96 summer intern had to guess his work schedule and guessed wrong. “It’s a sink-or-swim philosophy. If you’re sinking, you’re just sort of tolerated, because you’re there, but you won’t be handling good stories and they’ll just wait for your summer to end.” He still works at the Globe as a copy editor and a PointCast editor.

Summer internship programs used to be more structured-10 years ago they really were internships! Rob Sheppard, a columnist and past summer student at the Globe, says the editors used to feel an obligation to support the journalism schools to broaden students’ experience. “There was much more of a mentoring program. In effect, the summer students tended to work a couple of weeks at Queen’s Park, a couple of weeks at City Hall, a couple of weeks at the courts and a week or so on the desk,” he says. These days, students gain experience by migrating from internship to internship.

At most newspapers across the country, there’s no training, little supervision and little mentoring. “There was supervision in the sense you knew who your supervisors were and you’d better not screw up,” explains Kim Prince, 30, a summer intern at the Saint John Telegraph Journal in 1995 who’s now finishing a master’s in sociology.

At The Vancouver Sun and The Edmonton Journal, some interns are assigned mentors. But many train themselves and find their own mentors, almost on the sly. Sometimes, interns like Madhavi Acharya, 23, wait for other editors to leave the room before asking for advice from less-senior editors. A ’96 Christmas intern with The Windsor Star who’s headed to The Toronto Star this summer, Acharya says she didn’t want to disturb the pecking order when asking for advice.

Back in the box, I unwind the phone cord from around Abocar. I don’t know how she survives eight hours of this. I imagine trying to do it. No lunches. No breaks. She runs to the washroom and back.

“Shut down the site,” says a harsh voice on the scanner. The ETF is still at Galloway and Lawrence. Abocar takes notes, turns a radio knob, changes the TV channel to the Information Network. There’s no sound, just plain news on a blue background.

“1205-another hot shot,” comes from the scanner. Hot shot means it’s urgent.

“Suspect still on the scene,” says someone from the ETF. They’re searching the area, Abocar says. It’s definitely a gun call. Maybe a guy they’ve wanted for a while. No names. “For now, let’s keep the uniforms out of the area,” instructs 42 Division.

Abocar stocks up on food and drink, so she can scrounge for stories without interruption. But she gets tired after a while.

Being a good scavenger has a long tradition in newspaper reporting, which feeds on bad news, blood and gore. “Crime stories have sold since they used to distribute stories of hanged men in London in the 1700s,” says Mary Lynn Young, a ’90 intern with The Vancouver Sun who’s now doing her PhD on homicide coverage in Toronto since 1900.

The interns who succeed at getting jobs are the ones who throw themselves into the scavenging. Editors give them a lot of crime stories, obituary research and “pickups”-assignments that involve getting a picture and story about a person who’s just died.

Madhavi Acharya had to do pickups and obituary research at The Windsor Star. Once, she had to find out the cause of death of a girl she’d known in high school. She called the funeral home and the girl’s mother. “I wasn’t sure of myself when I made those phone calls. I was saying that I was sorry and I was saying that I knew this girl, but I was also saying that I worked at the paper.” She was affected by the death, but she was afraid colleagues would think that she was soft and that she couldn’t handle the aggressive, get-in-your-face reporting that these stories demanded. She didn’t get the story. Reflecting on it now, she says, “It’s good that this bothers me, because, yeah, I don’t want to appear soft, but I also don’t want to be so jaded that some of these things come in to me and I don’t think about them.”

I ask Warnick what happens when an intern can’t get a picture during a pickup. “Well, if we pick up The Toronto Sun the next day and they have a picture and a story and we have somebody who says they couldn’t do it or were prevented from doing it, then you give that person a different rating, that’s all.” I slice my hand toward the floor and Warnick says, “Yeah, they head down.”

Krishna Rau did pickups for The Toronto Star and says, though he liked working with Warnick, he thinks this type of reporting is sick. I ask him what “sick” means. “Sick is having to cover all this stuff. Sick is having crime as the top agenda in a newspaper. Sick is being expected to snag from a family all the photos you can of someone who’s just died. That’s sick!”

Some interns say one way to survive doing pickups and crime reporting is to become detached. “I think it’s a matter of being less human than you would be normally, but not by a whole lot. Just by a bit. Just so you can function,” says Chad Skelton, 20, a ’96 summer intern at The Winnipeg Sun who’s headed to the Globe for a summer internship. In trying to get information when you’re on deadline, he says, “You become much more desperate and willing to seem like a lout. It just changes your mentality.” He says if journalists are too compassionate, they’re not going to get the job done.

Acharya will never forget what one sickened witness said at an inquest she covered in Windsor. The man had pulled a dead body from a manhole-blood and sewage everywhere-when, all of sudden, the journalists came at him like flies. “You know what, I can’t get that out of my head. I will always remember this guy opening his eyes a bit wider and saying, ‘The reporters came around like flies.’ ”

“Let’s try for lunch,” says a voice on the scanner. Then, lunch is off. The suspect has slipped past the ETF and the chase is on.

“Description of suspect-” The police are talking quickly now. “Six feet, 180 pounds, male mulatto wearing a long black coat.”

Abocar takes off her headset, pops out of the box, updates her assignment editor and jumps back in.

“I see a male with a toque and a black coat,” says someone in a police car. The action is now at the Morningside Mall, about a kilometre from Galloway and Lawrence. “Let’s sit tight. He may not be our boy, but we’ll take him down anyway.”

“Someone check the ammo in that apartment. Maybe we can get a calibre on that weapon,” advises 42 Division.

The assignment editor jumps into the box. “Did you watch CFTO?” she asks. No. Abocar was supposed to log the 12 o’clock news into the computer. She forgot. A small mistake, but what can you do when all hell may break loose at the mall.

Interns aren’t supposed to make mistakes. Forget they’re new at this. Forget they’re not trained. Forget they’re overwhelmed with blood and gore. Forget they’re up all night, like Star Phoenix intern Piya Chattopadhyay, telling themselves “Okay, the only thing I have to make sure is that I don’t get the paper sued-and I don’t get sued!” Don’t even get near a mistake, because if you do, you’re going to flame out.

One summer intern who walked into a big mistake-and got fired-is Jill Mahoney, who worked at the Telegraph Journal in 1995. She was assigned a story about emission levels at a refinery owned by the Irving family, which also owns the Telegraph Journal. Mahoney, 21 at the time, interviewed the 18-year-old daughter of a woman who had died from asthma that may have been complicated by pollution. Afterward, Mahoney was fired by then-editor-in-chief and publisher Neil Reynolds. The official reason: pressuring someone into an interview and interviewing someone underage. Mahoney’s colleagues believe those weren’t the real reasons. They say she walked into a political minefield involving the Irving family, the 18-year-old’s worried father and the deceased mother, an outspoken activist who had waged an antipollution campaign against the refinery.

Reynolds, now editor of The Ottawa Citizen, says he did fire Mahoney but not because she interviewed someone underage. He wouldn’t give me the reason, saying it was a personnel issue. After Mahoney got a lawyer and threatened legal action, Reynolds rehired her. When I ask him how he could fire and then rehire someone, he replies: “Well, it’s very easy and I’ll tell you, if you want to use it, that I’ve fired summer students for poor spelling. I’ve fired a number of summer students in my life.”

Kim Prince, a summer intern at the paper in the same year, says Reynolds had torn strips off Mahoney. “Everybody was really horrified at the manner in which she was treated,” Prince says. “You’d think there would be a little more understanding applied to that kind of situation.” The firing created a lot of tension in the newsroom, especially among the interns. “You wonder what you’re going to do tomorrow that may cause you to get fired.”

At The Toronto Star in 1991, Rau says an editor tried to fire an intern working in the box for a mistake the editor made. At The Hamilton Spectator in 1993, Nancy DeHart had to read a bulletin board to find out she and four other interns were laid off.

Why the callousness? Mike Davie, an ex-Spectator reporter, explains it this way: “There are two key factors that are prevalent throughout the Spectator‘s recent history. You have a strong vein of sheer incompetence that’s closely intertwined with another strong vein of insensitivity. So, you have people who don’t know what they’re doing behaving callously toward anybody under them.”

But the assistant managing editor of the Spectator, Howard Elliott, disagrees. “I can see two or three interns sitting in the newsroom now who would have a considerably different take on it than that-who would say that the editors, by and large, are extremely supportive and the internships are a really good experience. Unlike other papers, like at The Toronto Star, where they’re manning police radios and stuff like that, often interns here end up doing high-profile assignments very early on, covering major court cases. They don’t get the dreck work like they do at a lot of other papers.” Still, Elliott doesn’t know what the thinking was behind the intern layoffs in 1993.

The ETF is picking up anyone at the mall who looks like the suspect. They just grabbed two guys and put them in a car. The assignment editor jumps back into the box. “This is a good story in itself,” she says to Abocar. “He has a gun?”

“Yes,” Abocar says. The editor leaves.

“We do have the ammunition,” says a voice from the scanner. “It’s a .25-calibre. Fifteen shots missing. Possible semi-automatic.” Abocar is writing madly. She tells me something I missed in the blur of voices: the suspect’s girlfriend is the one who showed the bullets to the police.

“The guy’s calling home,” the scanner says excitedly. He’s stopped at a pay phone to call his girlfriend. A voice at 42 Division asks the ETF if they want the call traced. Someone says, “Do it.”

“The phone is at Honey Donuts on 3227 Eglinton East,” 42 Division reports a couple of seconds later. The chase is on again.

Competition is not something interns talk about easily, but it’s part of the job in newsrooms. “You’re climbing all over each other to get the best stories, the best assignments, the best play, because editors do eventually pick favourites and give stories that have front-page potential to people they like,” says Amber Nasrulla, 27, a summer intern with the Globe in 1994 who went on to work for the Report on Business section the next summer. She had a number of front-page stories and is now assistant editor of Cottage Life.

There’s also competition at The Edmonton Journal. “If one of the interns is sitting in the managing editor’s office, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, what are they doing in there?’ You’re just spying on them and that kind of thing,” says Cheryl Stepan, 26, a ’95 intern at the Journal, where she’s now an editorial assistant.

There’s competition at The Gazette in Montreal and The Windsor Star. “Everyone knew what the score was and I think people look at it-and rightly so-as your one crack at getting a job,” explains Jonathon Gatehouse, 28, a ’96 summer intern at The Gazette, where he’s now a reporter. He competed with Acharya at The Windsor Star, where he says she was shafted. “She seemed to be getting assignments that were crap and I was getting stuff that was significantly more interesting. She was getting women’s stuff,” he says. Acharya agrees that Gatehouse got better assignments, but was impressed that he dealt with the competition head-on. “I remember one time, over Christmas, during a Windsor Star party, he came over to me and said, ‘They’re screwing you around. You should do something.'”

The Toronto Star‘s Paul Warnick is quite frank when it comes to competition: “I think all reporters should compete. It doesn’t matter whether they’re interns or not. Reporters compete against each other. They compete against their colleagues in other newspapers. That’s part of the business.”

Abocar is always this busy in the box. There are always dozens of disembodied voices flickering through the room. Other interns say they hear voices in their heads when they go home. “Sometimes, it drives me crazy,”Abocar says. “Some people call 17 times to say they’re about to commit suicide. You just want to say, ‘Do it.'” Just to stop the voices.

The ETF has Honey Donuts staked out.

“If he comes out the side door, he’s in the alley by the chicken place,” someone says. “The front door is in front of the plaza. If you’re by the field, use the binoculars. You can see-”

“After a while, you just want them to catch him, because someone may get hurt-and there are so many other stories,” Abocar says. “Will they shoot him because he has a gun, or will they arrest him as he’s sitting there having a coffee?” This chase has kept her hopping. If it doesn’t result in column inches, it’s been a futile four hours.

“It’s a grind,” Kim Prince says of internship work. “Newspapers suck the blood right out of you and for what? I don’t know.”

Interns work long weeks for low pay. “It’s virtually slave labour,” says Chattopadhyay, who made $200 a week during a one-month stint at The Star Phoenix in Saskatoon. “Basically, they wave a handful of change in your face and say pick a coin.”

“What’s happening is the newspapers are getting a big bang for their buck,” Kim Heinrich Gray, 31, adds. “I was at the Calgary Herald and worked for $380 a week. That was before taxes. I put in a huge amount of hours, got paid no overtime, but there was always this sense that there was a carrot dangling there. You were hoping there might be one job and you might get it.” But the Herald let her go, just like The Vancouver Sun, The Edmonton Journal and the Globe. She now works in production at the CBC and freelances for magazines and newspapers.

Are internships worth the grind?

Some say no. Used, underpaid and dismissed, young journalists end up feeling like failures. “It’s a bit difficult,” says Angie Gallop, let go by the Sault Ste. Marie Star in 1994 and The Toronto Star in 1995. She doesn’t want to work in a daily newsroom. General assignment “is the hardest, most hellish job at the newspaper,” she said. “After I came out of The Toronto Star I was burnt out. I couldn’t do it for a little while. I couldn’t. I tried writing a story and it was like pulling teeth. I was tired and I was completely questioning journalism.”

Even if you say internships are worth the grind-you’re still let go. Hearing about all these stillborn jobs, you get the impression publishers really don’t care about the future of young journalists and the future of the newspaper industry in general. Forget blaming editors for exploitation-you start blaming newspaper publishers for eating their young.

Mike Davie thinks so of the Spectator. “The idea that you would also use interns to build a newspaper into the future is a concept that is quite foreign to them. They’re not used to planning on that level,” he says. The Spectator is “an aging newsroom of fairly jaded, cynical journalists.” Howard Elliott believes the mean age in the newsroom is rising because of layoffs. He says the paper feels the loss of energy and creativity.

“The summer program is one of the ways we actually get fresh ideas, faces and styles into the newsroom,” adds Catherine Wallace of The Gazette. “I think that not having young people on staff does make newspapers less relevant to young readers.” But, because of tight budgets, the jobs just aren’t there, she says.

John Duncanson, a reporter at The Toronto Star, where he interned in 1988, says he knows “profits are down and money is tight, but there comes a point where, if you’re going to practise good journalism, you’ve got to look at your pool of staff. If you’ve not been building on that pool for a long time-I know a lot of papers just aren’t hiring-where do you get the talent from? I don’t know. It’s a shame.”

The police scanners go silent. Something must be wrong. Abocar is waiting. I’m waiting. Is all hell breaking loose?

I’m thinking of those internships I applied for. Still no sound. I think of the intern survivors. Do I really want a job that badly? Maybe, I don’t know. Silence. I think of the pain. Would I be too soft? Of course it’s worth it. The chase, the adrenaline, the privilege-I know I could do it. My name in print. No training. No breaks. No mistakes.

“We got him,” someone says calmly. They’ve arrested the suspect. “Can we get a photo?” asks one of the policemen. For some reason, they need a photo right away.

On Christmas Eve day, there’s a story in The Toronto Star-“20 Officers Hunt Armed Man in Mall”-but there’s no byline. It’s Abocar’s story, written from the box, but her name is missing. “I know they didn’t do it on purpose,” she says. “It was space.”

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About the author

Alex Gillis was the Editor for the Spring 1997 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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