Essay : Times intern recounts a summer journalism sojourn
I spent the summer working as an intern at the Martha's Vineyard Times. I made some friends, and I made some not-so-much-friends this summer, and then I made those people my friends. I searched for great white sharks from an open-cockpit biplane and I received requests for copies of photos from CNN.
I shouted "Go Amity" from the back of a truck driving down Middle Road ahead of a group of runners in the Chilmark Road Race that included a junior from Amity High School, the school I attend in Woodbridge, Conn. Why can't writing for The Trident, our school newspaper be so exciting?
The only competitor of the 25-year-old Martha's Vineyard Times is the 150-year-old Vineyard Gazette. Prior to securing my internship, to hedge my bet I arranged interviews at both newspapers. When I realized that I had scheduled my interviews for Presidents' Day, a national holiday, I called both newspapers to ask if the date was still okay.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
The Gazette editor casually responded that the newspaper would be closed in observation of the holiday.
Martha's Vineyard Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman told me, "Newspapers do not believe in holidays. It is not fishing season or hunting season. I will be in the office. Just give me a call."
After I met Nelson at The Martha's Vineyard Times office, I stopped by The Gazette to find all of the lights out. I returned home to Connecticut. Several weeks later, when a scattered Gazette editor called to say that she'd finally gotten around to reviewing the applications and would like to meet me, I squirmed a little bit.
I began in late June. Nelson introduced me at my first newspaper staff meeting. "His name is Alex Bell," said Nelson. "He's only here because he's so persistent that I couldn't get him to leave me alone." I soon learned that the managing editor of The Martha's Vineyard Times does not exactly give out praise lightly.
On my first day of work at The Martha's Vineyard Times, the first person I met was Winthrop Roosevelt, great-great-grandson of Theodore. Winthrop, my co-intern-who-got-paid-more-than-me, was nine years older, out of college, and didn't know what he wanted to do with his life (he still doesn't), but he was lively and hard working. That first day, I tried to help him contact two women who walked away from a nearby helicopter crash for a news story.
The second person I met was Janet Hefler, an upbeat reporter who said she wanted to introduce herself to me before her Wednesday-afternoon "tunnel vision" set in and she concentrated only on getting her stories done. I made my first out-of-office trip with Janet to report on the homecoming of an Island soldier fresh from Iraq at Martha's Vineyard Airport.
I've always known that even The New York Times has typos. And just like my student newspaper, mistakes were made and typos slipped through.
I was also relieved to see people arguing at work. I realized that some of the problems that plague our student newspaper are the same problems that plague people in the real world, and that realization felt good.
The role of an intern is undefined at The Martha's Vineyard Times. Before I started, Nelson told me, "I cannot tell you specifically what you will do, but I can describe the job in general terms. I will ask you to do pretty much anything that needs doing."
I never once got coffee or did menial tasks for anyone in the office. In general, I kept busy and put in 40 hours per week. But being an intern afforded me a sort of freedom with my time that the actual reporters didn't have. When there was a story that needed to be followed by somebody who actually had time to follow it, I could be that somebody.
One Thursday in July, I got a text message from my friend that there had been a great white shark sighting off of South Beach. Winthrop and I drove to investigate the South Beach sand, surf, and girls in swim suits. We didn't encounter any sharks, just a lot of corny references to Jaws.
The next morning the story had progressed around the country. I had just put my laptop down on the table when Nelson called me over to his desk.
"Alex, have you ever flown in a biplane?" he asked.
"No, why?" I said.
Nelson assured me that it was just like riding in a motorcycle only a thousand feet in the air. "I think you'd like it," he said.
"I've never been on a motorcycle," I said.
Later that day, an ex-military-pilot-turned-tour-guide named Smitty was dodging a crow during takeoff from the grass airstrip in Katama with his cargo of Winthrop, me, and my camera. My job was to get a photo of Jaws from a 1941 open-cockpit Waco biplane called The Red Baron.
We found no great white off south beach. But Smitty, who had seen the shark the day before, didn't want to disappoint his guest reporters.
Through the headset attached to my leather aviator's cap, I heard Smitty say, "Hey, put your hands in the plane for a second."
Smitty wanted to show off one of his tricks, a controlled stall into a flip. When I saw the ocean above me, I was a little surprised.
After an unsuccessful shark hunt by air, Winthrop and I decided to look for sharks from the beach. The town had erected signs warning of a possible shark sighting. I thoughtlessly took a few photos of the signs that were posted on The Martha's Vineyard Times website.
I stayed at the office late that Friday evening to meet my grandparents for dinner. Around 5:30, the office phone rang. A producer for CNN's The Situation Room, was asking to use a photo she saw on The Martha's Vineyard Times website. I asked her which photo she was looking at. It was my photo of the sign.
I tried to act as if it was some mundane phone call and that I was a seasoned photojournalist. I told her I'd have to check with my editors and call her back. After a quick call to our editor-in-chief Doug Cabral, I sent her the photo. Within two hours, it was on TV with a credit that read "Alex Bell for The Martha's Vineyard Times."
Working at a real-world newspaper involves longer hours than working at a student newspaper. The jobs are also much more specialized. I wrote the story, then Nelson edited it, then Doug edited it, then Whit proofread it, then Susie laid it out, and Rick put it online, and Jim distributed the paper, and Danielle and Brian and Carrie sold the advertisements to pay for it, and-there are more that I won't list here.
Most striking to me, The Martha's Vineyard Times has a website that people read and comment on. Some articles attracted literally hundreds of comments and I thought that was pretty cool. I got excited every time somebody commented on one of my articles.
I learned a lot more than I thought I would as an intern at The Martha's Vineyard Times. When I started, Nelson used to call me over to his desk just to run my mouth around in circles over a topic I thought I knew pretty well. After an interview, Nelson asked me how it went. He'd ask me more and more specific questions until we got to one that I didn't think to ask my subject.
"Well, I think his general feeling was..."
"What do you mean you think?" he would ask. "You think it, or you know it?" Nelson asked me everything he could think about the topic until I said something I don't usually say, "No, I don't know."
I never realized how important it was to know what you don't know before this summer. I learned to go into interviews armed with as much information as I could gather before-hand, and come out of them knowing what I know; what I inferred, I used only as a hunch, and tried not to pass off as fact.
One of Nelson's favorite questions is, "What's the news?" A newspaper man for some 25 years, I think he's tired of reading articles that use language to beat around the bush or to avoid telling parts of the story that the writer didn't research thoroughly enough. Make the words say more, rather than less. Each time I handed in an article, Nelson and Doug were like my personal writing tutors.
Abby Verney-Fink, Trident co-editor-in-chief, asked if this year in the Trident office she'd be hearing many sentences that started with "At The Martha's Vineyard Times...." I answered, most confidently, she would be.