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Podcast: ProPublica Interns Roundtable

What is it like to intern at ProPublica? Our current interns give you an inside look at what they do. (Credit: Lars Klove)

Our interns fill very important roles at ProPublica. Among their many roles, they do key research for our investigations, report their own stories, blog, and focus on social media. With impressive résumés and extensive experience in the field already, our interns are just starting their budding careers in journalism. How do they see their role as journalists evolving? And where do they see themselves after this internship?

In this week's podcast, we are joined by some of ProPublica's interns to find out.

Sasha Chavkin, Reporting Intern
Braden Goyette, Distributed Reporting Intern
Sergio Hernandez, Reporting Intern
Nick Kusnetz, Reporting Intern
Sydney Lupkin, Computer-Assisted Reporting Intern

The full transcript is below. You can listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.


Minhee Cho: They're young, driven and not the coffee-fetching types. They're ProPublica's interns, and they do everything from report breaking news, collect and analyze data, tweet at 140 characters a minute and just bring a lively energy to the ProPublica newsroom. But what does it take to be a ProPublica intern, and where do they see themselves after this internship? I'm Minhee Cho, and today I'm joined by interns Sasha Chavkin, Braden Goyette, Sergio Hernandez, Nick Kusnetz and Sydney Lupkin to find out. Welcome to the podcast, guys.

Nick Kusnetz: Thanks.

Sasha Chavkin: Thanks, Minhee.

Minhee: Let's start things off with an easy question. What brought you to ProPublica, and how has it been different, if at all, from what you expected? Sasha, Nick, do you guys mind going first?

Sasha: Well, I came here because I wanted to do the kind of reporting that ProPublica does: investigative stories that are in the public interest. And I feel that I really have had the opportunity to do that, and I'm very grateful for that.

Nick: I'd been interested in working at ProPublica for a while, but also the timing just worked out fortuitously. I was finishing my last gig, and Lisa, the research director, was looking for an intern. I had a friend who was here at the time, and she just put me in touch. And so, it worked out really well. Then I did a lot of research in my first few months here, and more recently I have been able to do some reporting, which has been great.

Minhee: How about you, Sydney? What led you to becoming ProPublica's computer assisted reporting (CAR) intern?

Sydney Lupkin: For me, getting here I had had a lot of really great experiences working in Boston, more on a Metro beat at the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe and at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. But one thing that I didn't have in Boston was really the opportunity to learn data. I'm the CAR intern. So, really, getting to work with Jen and learn things that I honestly don't think I really would have gotten the opportunity to learn them anywhere else, so it's been great for me.

Minhee: And Braden?

Braden Goyette: So, I've admired ProPublica's work for a long time, but interning here felt kind of unattainable because I didn't go to J school. Then I just finished up an internship doing web work at the Nation magazine, and there was an opening for the distributed reporting intern here, which is basically the intern that deals with crowd sourcing projects, social media, basically like collaborative journalism, letting our audience interact with and inform our content. So, that seemed really interesting to me, and I read about Amanda Michel's work with Off the Bus at the Huffington Post. So, Amanda is the engagement editor here. She's the person I'm interning for. I'd read about her work before. I saw that the position was open. I was running the Twitter account at the Nation, and ProPublica wanted to revamp its social media strategy. So, it was sort of good timing; my qualifications lined up.

Minhee: Thanks, guys. Now, let's hear from our newest intern. Sergio, what do you have to say?

Sergio Hernandez: Well, I had just wrapped up a stint at the Village Voice, where I was doing some metro reporting and blogging, and before that I was a contributor at, which is a weird career trajectory. But the timing just worked out for me. ProPublica does the kind of work that I really am interested in doing, that kind of investigative long-form reporting. I knew someone from Gawker who knew someone here because they had worked together before. So, they just put me in touch because they were looking to add more to their blogging stuff here, and I had a little bit of experience with that from the Voice and Gawker and that kind of thing.

Minhee: OK, great. So it seems, more or less, you all knew you wanted to work in journalism. All of you are very smart and talented. You could have pursued a career in any field. Why journalism? Why enter what some consider a dying industry?

Braden: OK, so I don't buy it that it's a dying industry. I kind of got into journalism through the back door, reading a lot about the industry. I went to a school where they don't offer a journalism program. But I just started getting involved with my school paper a lot and just reading a lot about what exactly the industry was doing, reading the Nieman Lab report every week, and stuff like that. Things are definitely changing right now. But there are also lots of interesting opportunities that are opening up, like things that ... I don't know ... "web first" publications can do that older media couldn't. That's also why it's really exciting to work at ProPublica because it's the first online only publication to win a Pulitzer.

Nick: This is only a partial answer, but going off of what Braden was saying, being at ProPublica is exciting now because of exactly that. The organization is doing things that few places were doing just a couple of years ago. It's nonprofit. It's a new model, as everyone says. So, it's an exciting place to be and to try and think of ways in which journalism can be more viable.

Minhee: OK. Going off of that, though, how do you see the industry changing in the next couple of years? Kind of tying in what Nick just added at the end, do you like the idea that nonprofits are doing some of this work that traditional media outlets used to do? Or do you think sticking to that old-school model might be better for the industry in the long run?

Braden: I don't think there's necessarily anything better about an advertising based model just because that was what worked in the golden age of journalism, the '70s and '80s.

Minhee: What's the best part of being an intern? Sydney, go ahead.

Sydney: I think the best part about being an intern is this opportunity in post graduation to continue learning, not in a classroom environment, where you're actively doing, and that's great. The truth is there are some great entry-level jobs in journalism, but I think being an intern, you're there to learn and to help, and that's great. The people who I know who want to get a job right after graduation, I always tell them get an internship. Why not? You'll learn more.

Nick: I think the best part of this internship is that you're more or less, with certain exceptions, treated like a staffer, and your work is similar to that of a staffer. If you're doing research, you're doing research on some of the bigger projects. I was really involved when I was doing research with the Dollars for Docs projects. And if you're reporting, you get to do your own stories and follow your own story lines.

Braden: Interning here is really great because everyone's really supportive about helping you learn new things. Some of the news apps guys have been helping me start learning Ruby, which is a programming language so we can build a tool to track our analytics better. I mean, if you're interested in learning something new, people will be really open and friendly about it.

Minhee: Most of you have a strong background and education in journalism. How has this prepared you for your work here, and do you feel it's absolutely necessary for someone to have a degree in journalism before attempting an internship or a job in this field? Sasha, go ahead.

Sasha: I do not think it's necessary to go to journalism school, and I say that just having done so. I think I learned a lot there, that I'm in a better place to do a lot of the things that I am doing, but I think that someone who has the experience in the field to come here and know what they're doing, whether they learn that in school or in a newsroom, should go ahead and apply.

Minhee: Next is Sydney.

Sydney: OK. So, as far as whether going to journalism school is necessary, I think that there are definitely certain classes like ethics and, for me, going to a computer assisted reporting class were extremely, extremely helpful. Though, even a minor in journalism, I think would be very helpful. But I think that the necessity is to work for your college paper. I ran mine. So, I think the best way to go is really to see everything about how a publication works and really be thinking about, even ... a college newspaper is basically the real thing. You don't want to get sued. You're thinking about all those real things. You're not worried about getting sued in a classroom.

Minhee: Yeah.

Sydney: So, basically, that's great experience. I think that, for me, was a huge necessity.

Braden: I didn't go to journalism school. I just majored in my college paper, basically. I think you definitely need some experience in journalism before you hit the job market, especially now, because it's a really tough job market. I didn't go to journalism school, so I hope that you can make it in this industry without it. So far my experience has been that you can, but you have to be really strategic. You can't really just be like “I like to write; so I'm going to be a journalist.” You need to pick up a lot of skills on your own from self teaching. You need to really research the places you're applying to. Think about what kind of journalist you want to be. You need to be always learning, basically, if you decide to go the non J school route.

Minhee: Sergio?

Sergio: I definitely agree that, that kind of formal training and pedigree definitely gives you a leg up, especially these days, if you are trying to land an interview anywhere. But definitely I agree that working at a college paper is probably the most invaluable journalism experience that you can have in school. But I think, really, two things that any good reporter really needs are tenacity and natural curiosity. If you have that, I think you can really kind of make it. That's what you need. The skills you can kind of pick up, and that's what you're here to do as an intern to learn the skills, to practice journalism.

Minhee: So, now that we've heard what you think about the industry and about ProPublica, I guess, let's give our listeners a little summary of what you do here, and how you got involved with the different projects that you're on. We'll start with Nick.

Nick: Right when I was starting as a research intern, Charlie Ornstein and Tracy Weber were beginning work along with Dan Nguyen on a project called Dollars for Docs. And part of that project was putting together a database of pharmaceutical company payments to doctors. I sort of came in right when they were beginning that process. I guess my biggest role was we put together a list that identified the top earners from these different pharmaceutical companies. So, there was a lot of research, just making sure that these doctors were indeed one person, and that the various payments were going to the same person. So, that was a lot of my time in the first couple of months here and that got me into working on the project.

Minhee: Sasha?

Sasha: The main project that I've worked on while I've been here was an ongoing investigation of the damage claims process after the BP oil spill. That was a distributed reporting project where I worked with Amanda Michel, and we got in touch through an online survey with hundreds of people in the Gulf of Mexico who had suffered losses from the oil spill and were filing damage claims. What we did for the project was, got in touch with them, got them to tell us about their experiences, and used that to get information from the ground up to hold BP and then the claims czar, Kenneth Feinberg, accountable for whether people were getting paid and whether they were getting paid quickly enough and whether the process was transparent as it should be.

Minhee: OK. We'll go next to Sydney.

Sydney: I've worked on a lot of different database projects. But I guess the main thing is working on Recovery Tracker, which we have online. It's an interactive database of the stimulus payments, which are still going on and are updated every quarter on But we actually go beyond and go to something called So, once each quarter I download everything for each fiscal year for only recovery data, and then I clean it. So, cleaning it involves taking ZIP codes and figuring out which county those go to, cleaning up the ZIP codes because sometimes leaving zeroes get chopped off, lots of number, data things. But basically I'm half of the force behind cleaning it up and putting it out there for other people to see and other reporters to request. That's really cool to do.

Minhee: And Braden?

Braden: OK. I've only been here for a little over a month, but my job basically has two parts. It's to make sure that our stories get read by the widest amount of people possible using all the tools at our disposal, and using online tools to help the reporters here find new sources and do their reporting. We started out focusing on the first part of that. Before Twitter was kind of used in a spontaneous random way here, and Amanda wanted to come up with a really strategic plan for how we used it and base that on hard numbers like what is actually the most effective, what actually gets the most clicks and views, and stuff like that.

We also interviewed lots of people from other major publications about how they use social media, and put all of that research together. What we came up with was since ProPublica doesn't come out with a ton of content every day—not near how much the New York Times turns out, we're curating stories from around the Internet that we think are good accountability and investigative stories. We're also finding interesting data sets, interesting public records, stuff that might spark other newsrooms to look into something. Now we're moving into getting reporters on Twitter and kind of moving into part two of the plan.

Minhee: And last but not least, Sergio?

Sergio: Well I've only been here a little over a week. So, right now I'm working with Marian Wang, just collaborating on the blog, finding accountability or investigative stories around the web or in other publications that we can move forward on our own in some way. That's been my primary focus right now. For instance, I'm working right now on some stuff about the Obama budget cut proposals and the various programs that he's trying to slash spending on for that. So, we're just digging into those more short term stories and trying to pump out some more content on the blog through that.

Minhee: Well, thanks for your time guys. You can see all of our interns' work at and at If you're interested in becoming a ProPublica intern, feel free to send queries to [email protected]. Or you can visit our job site

Now it's time for our Officials Say the Darnedest Things Tumblr of the week -- "We're asking people to do more with less. And I think the president ought to lead by example. He is already a very gifted speaker. And I think that's one platform he can do without."

Who said it? Representative Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican, on a House amendment to cut funding for President Obama's teleprompter.

You can see other choice quotes at That's it for our first intern podcast. For ProPublica, I'm Minhee Cho. Hope to see you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords

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