Since when did the Intern get so sassy?

Thankfully, journalism has come a long way from The Devil Wears Prada. But there are some lessons from the era that are still relevant today

Few things make me feel as ancient – at 27 years old – than contemplating the status change of the intern.

Five years ago, as I whizzed out work experience applications to every magazine, newspaper and glorified pamphlet in London, where it was a miracle if they even paid expenses, the deal was simple: sort the post, transcribe, make the tea, repeat. Remain mute and acquiescent at all times. In return, you got to put a glorified – read: entirely fictional – version of these events on your CV.

So pathetically accepting of this was I that, on my first day of work experience at one glossy magazine, when I was told my seat – as in, the physical chair – was to be shared with another intern, I beamed. “Quite right!”, before ascending, with quiet horror, onto the tiny nugget of space my bottom had been allowed, and realising that I was also to share the computer, keyboard and mouse with said intern, too. 

After a little while, I thought this might be a test, considering the absurd game of one-upmanship developing between myself and Intern Number Two. Number One, you see, was Head Intern, to which all interns were promoted to in week three. Head Intern had her own chair. 

Intern Number Two had been there a week longer than I had, and wanted me to know about it. The mouse was hers. Sometimes, though, I got an opening: she had to dart down to the post room to return a clothing sample, or was summoned to an editor’s desk to explain why she hadn’t opened their post, as well as handed it to them, and I was able to command our inbox. I got as far as typing out a reply to the press assistant of a fashion label before Intern Number Two swooped back in, deleting my name from the email to replace it with hers, and sending it triumphantly. 

Once I became Head Intern, my chair – on which I could finally sit without suspending one cheek precariously in the air – may as well have been a throne. I became drunk on power, going as far to accept a Gin and Tonic ice-cream sample the editor’s PA was offering around, before realising I was the only person in the office to do so. (“The best snack you can have is a glass of water,” announced one of the editors as I slurped, so Devil Wears Prada I assumed it was a joke. It wasn’t.) My tasks were elevated, too. I was sent to Whole Foods to buy a sea bass for Sienna Miller. I was given a ringbinder to put things in. And on my very last day, as a parting treat, I was allowed to carry a clothing rail to a fashion shoot. 

Sadly, this is where I learned the importance of final impressions, as well as first. Hurtling around central London in a black cab with two senior style editors all day had prompted my pesky motion sickness, and, seconds from arriving back at the office, I got out of the cab at a traffic light and began dry heaving on the side of the curb. 

During another memorable placement later that summer, I took on more of a care-taking role; think Filch without the cat. My one and only task was to lug magazines from the third floor to the basement using a little trolley, before returning home to massage Tiger balm into my forearms. I may well not have been given a chair there either – I never saw it.

Thankfully, however, the interns of today’s journalism are not such feeble shrinking violets but bold and revered. They are a new breed. I wouldn’t dare to ask an intern to make me tea, fetch the Friday beers or photocopy the floor-plans to their new home, as one editor made me do. And I’m certain those places I once interned at have completely changed their ways, too.

Perhaps it’s down to the power of Twitter, where anyone furnished with a hashtag and receipts of wrongdoing will find a mobilised social army at their disposal. Perhaps it’s down to the (very good news) that unpaid work experience is now illegal. Or perhaps it’s because they’re the only people in the office who can write about TikTok. But if the Aughts intern was the frightened robin, then today’s intern is the cheeky parakeet. I find it intriguing: has that much really changed in just so little time?

One rather memorable intern who shadowed me a couple of years ago spent the entire week describing an orgy she experienced at a party in Oxford, while I attempted to muffle my screams with a newspaper. Another brazenly played Pokemon Go on his phone with his feet up, until our managing editor came to remind him that, if he wanted to keep his job, he better put his phone away right now. We never saw him again.

On the one hand, this confidence and refusal to compromise – not to debase oneself, as I did – is to be admired. I am full of respect for the intern that arrives at my desk ready to write, who will put themselves forward for pieces far beyond their remit, even if I have to turn them down. I find nothing more irritating than an intern who sees a placement as CV filler rather than an opportunity to learn from failure, and who will never put themselves out there; who will never offer one single pitch. Probably because I am reminded of myself. 

But on the other hand, determination is not the same as entitlement. I’ve worked with interns who have refused to transcribe an editor’s interview, believing it to be pointless admin rather than quite possibly one of the most useful experiences in journalism. How else can you learn how to interview? I’ve had interns refuse to write about what doesn’t interest them or what they don’t know, as if empathy and curiosity aren’t the two most important strings to a writer’s bow. Eleanor Mills, former editor of the Sunday Times, once said that she owed her career to her first job at Tank World Magazine. If she could make words about tanks sparkle, then there was no limit to what she could make her readers care about.

Sometimes, I tell fledgling journalists about my memories of work experience, but far from laughing along with me they recoil in horror. But, they say, indignant, didn’t you complain? I say, listen, the nearest I got was when the managing editor of the glossy asked me “how the placement could have been better”. I suggested that it may be useful that each employee had their own chair. “Ah, yes,” she replied. “That’s been flagged a few times.”

And, as ever, I absolutely love hearing from you. Thank you so much for all the lovely emails sharing your own thoughts and experiences of writing, journalism and other things. Email me with any feedback, random thoughts and suggestions for future newsletters: eleanorahalls@gmail.com

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This week in links

I’ve been reading: about Gulbahar Haitiwaji, who survived a re-education camp for Uighurs between 2017 and 2019. She lived in a tiny cell with no mattress, no toilet paper, and endured 11 hours of ‘re-education’ a day, simply because her daughter was pictured holding an East Turkestan flag – symbolising Uighur independence and banned by the Chinese government – at a rally in France. She writes about her heartbreaking and systematic dehumanisation for the Guardian. Read it here.

I’ve been writing: on the brilliant new film County Lines, about the UK’s horrendously high number of child drug mules, groomed by gang leaders. I interviewed social worker turned film director Henry Blake about the problem with our safeguarding systems, and whether drill music has any part to play. Read it here.

I’ve been commissioning: Nick Ruskell on the very sad fact that many musicians are falling back into addiction during lockdown. Without the buzz and adrenaline from performing, and the cathartic release of creative collaboration, some artists are falling back on familiar vices to cope. Read it here, and follow @Nick_Ruskell

And unlikely jazz lover Summer Goodkind, whose fellow Gen Z’ers would much prefer to listen to Dua Lipa. But, as an exciting crop of London jazz musicians make their mark – from Nubya Garcia to Moses Boyd – the genre is no longer for old fogeys. Read it here, and follow @SummerBG

I’ve been listening: to Ghanian-American singer Amaarae’s gorgeously sensual afrobeats, whose voice Pitchfork writer Owen Myers beautifully described as “like a cracked-open chestnut shell; it can be as silky as its interior, as unforgiving as its spines.” I couldn’t have said it better. Check out Fancy, here, and I Like It, here.

Ps: You can also check out my music podcast, Straight Up, on which my co-host Kathleen and I recently interviewed Oscar-winning songwriter Jimmy Napes, collaborator to everyone from Sam Smith and Taylor Swift to Dave and Stormzy. I hope you enjoy his hilarious stories about getting too high at the Grammys and hungover recording sessions as much as I did.