SPH Internship

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You like writing? Asking questions? Telling stories? Sharing the news? You really need money for university and out of all the legal, wholesome options you decided journalism wouldn’t be the worst way to get it? You were good enough at Lang/Lit that you were brought along to the News Centre for your Dean’s List field trip and now you have more things to talk about in a potential interview?

I was all that, and then some, in the penultimate months of my IB journey, that feverish application season where suddenly everyone who isn’t committed to things like ‘med school’ or ‘national service’ is frantically having existential crises about what they want to do with their lives and what is least likely to disappoint their Asian families and have them homeless on the streets living off those ‘med school’ friends by the age of 30.

I can’t remember how I first came across the scholarship, but my response was, as detailed above, that it wasn’t the worst option in the world. I needed (wanted) the money, I was a decent writer. I went for it.

That previous paragraph isn’t meant to set up the thesis statement that it was, in fact, the worst option in the world. Spoiler alert, I didn’t get the scholarship in the end–actually, none of us did, but I’ll discuss that later. Even now, in hindsight, I still have a whole bundle of mixed feelings about my experience with SPH, and this article will painstakingly detail it, in the hopes that it gives someone else the clarity that might have helped me earlier on.

PART ONE: The Application

For context, the entire application process was as follows:

  1. Submission of application form
  2. Shortlist for written test
  3. Shortlist for interview
  4. Shortlist for internship
  5. Shortlist for 2nd interview
  6. Scholarship

The application form, which I submitted sometime in January (after results), was mostly simple enough to fill up, if not tedious, because it asks for all your various accomplishments, and I had to go dig up and scan 4 years’ worth of academic transcripts, CCA records and certs. It did, however, ask for a personal statement about for your reasons for applying. Feel free to interpret desired content, length and style. I actually just tweaked my UCAS statement to give it a more journalistic slant and copy-pasted it into the document.

After submitting the form, I was called up a couple of weeks later to go down to SPH for a written test. I will admit I went down slightly overconfidently. English had always been my strong suit; I didn’t think it could be too bad.

It was pretty bad. Although I’m not sure I’m allowed to say that, since I passed, but at any rate, it was harder than I’d expected. The whole thing is about three hours long; they put you in a small room with your laptop and an actual printed-and-stapled test paper, and off you go. The first part was the easier for me–basically a 1000 word expository essay with a choice of one from six questions, ranging from your thoughts about current affairs to more SPH-specific ones. The scope was broad enough that it should be doable for anyone with opinions. Plus, I got to type it out, so there was none of the usual frantic scramble over lack of space to edit or handwriting illegibility.

It was the rest of it that tripped me. On first glance, it wasn’t difficult. There was a cloze passage, the English equivalent of a 综合填空–and that feeling of frustration, when two words are very close in meaning and you aren’t fluent enough in Chinese/your mother tongue to distinguish them by their nuanced shades of meaning or appropriateness for the style, tone and context of the sentence? That was me for several questions. There was an editing passage, except they didn’t tell you how many mistakes there were in total, and there could be more than one per line, which just left me paranoid that I’d missed some. And finally there was a sort of comprehension passage, in which you had to give synonyms for words (I faltered at ‘sanguinary’, which is actually totally different from ‘sanguine’), suggest a title for the passage, and condense it into a summary.

Anyway, I was called for an interview a nerve-wrecking month later, with a person from HR and two journalists from ST. It was pretty standard, sticking mostly to the “why journalism” type of questions, although my friend was apparently asked about failures she’d experienced. (https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/dear-scholarship-applicant-have-you-ever-failed)

A week later, HR contacted me and said I’d been shortlisted for the internship, and when would I be available to start? At the point, I was on the last month of another internship with MOE’s Recruitment Marketing Unit, and would ideally have liked to begin straight after that, in April. But I was encouraged to start as soon as possible, since–and the brochure did say–that final interviews would be in late April. So I ended my MOE internship two weeks early, and started at SPH on the 12th of March.

PART TWO: The Internship

In retrospect, the one good thing I can find about having started two weeks early is that it was within those two weeks that I wrote what would turn out to be the defining point of my internship, at least from the eyes of my grandfather, friends, friends’ friends, and this one kid my friend was tutoring who brought the article in for a Supply and Demand analysis: ‘Durian prices fall by up to 40% amid bumper crop’. (https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/durian-prices-fall-by-up-to-40-amid-bumper-crop)

Our office hours generally started at 10 or 10.30, so it was a huge scramble when I got to the newsroom only to be greeted by the assignment, asking me to find, call and interview a bunch of durian sellers about the lower prices, pick one of them to visit, and arrange for a photographer–before noon. Thanks to a list of durian seller contacts (really) that some other journalist had, I managed it, and later that day I went down to Durian Mpire in Yio Chu Kang with the photographer to meet the seller, who treated us to free durian. Unfortunately for me, I hate durians. Also, as it turned out, that the seller was a friend of my grandfather’s, and my grandfather would proceed to make three high-res, laminated, A3-sized copies of the article to distribute around the Lee clan, as well as emphatically invite me to go along every time he went to that seller thereafter–invitations I politely decline.

But I digress. Let me generalise a little more, and start with a warning.

The job is not for anyone who can’t think on their feet and will spontaneously combust if their routine is suddenly changed. It’s also not for anyone who needs to be told, precisely, what to do at any given point in time. If you looked up ‘throwing into the deep end’, this internship would be the first thing you’d find. Whether due to lack of supervisory manpower, or exceeding trust in the ability of young adults to do the appropriate thing, there is no shadowing or tutorial of any kind before you’re given your first assignment, typically on the second or third day.

The easy part is phone interviews, which you can scrape through without much hassle even if you hate talking to strangers, like me. Although scraping through and being able to calmly and professionally ask intelligent, thorough questions to either a complete stranger or a ministry official are utterly different ballgames.

The harder part is covering events, which involves firstly calling the PR to RSVP and get details, and secondly actually showing up to the location, observing/participating in the occasion, interviewing people on site (ranging from members of the public, to kids, to CEOs, to various parliamentary figures), and then rushing out your first draft within a couple of hours. The good part is that they generally give interns the less important events, with lower consequences if you do screw it up–my first event was the launch of a healthy eating campaign at Giant. The bad part is that you still have to go through the rather disconcerting motions of interviewing professionally, and acting like you know what you’re doing, when in reality it’s your third day on the job and all you know is what you’ve seen in movies.

Then, of course, once you’ve sent your lines (a summary of the article to tell the people laying out the paper what it’s about and how highly to prioritise it in the paper), finished your first draft and heaved a sigh of relief and managed to catch the other interns for lunch, or dabao caifan back to the office–there are curveballs. Your editor could want you to change your lead, or your angle, or you’ve missed some crucial information and now you have to call the PRs and newsmakers to apologetically do follow-ups. Or your editor decides to pounce on something else entirely, and you basically have to write a whole different article, while finding and calling new sources on the phone.

Or you could be sent to follow up on something that just happened, like an accident, or food poisoning in Nanyang, or an MRT breakdown, or the funeral of a 24-year-old NUS student who died in the second of a series of fatal right-turn crashes.

In the end, you start appreciating scheduled events for their predictability. The internship keeps you living on the edge. On the very first day, our supervisors sat us down and told us, only semi-jokingly, to forget about having a social life. As an intern, you get to experience the full rota of newsroom shifts–10-6, 7AM (till 4), 3PM (till 12), Saturdays, Public Holidays and all. And those timings? Those timings are only a suggestion. Fairly often, we found ourselves working 12-hour workdays, because of some last-minute complication or reticent PR person. I’d chalk this up partly to inexperience, though, because such days did become rarer as I got used to the job. Still, the first month in particular was a trainwreck of social calendars–I couldn’t make dinner plans for fear my planned 6pm departure would out of nowhere become 9pm.

But it wasn’t all bad. For one, the whole unpredictability thing really trains you to think on your feet and learn on the spot. PR person suddenly asks if you want to interview a person you weren’t prepared to interview? No problem. Doorstop interview with minister? No problem, and the more seasoned journalists will be there to fill in the silence. You lose all fear of cold-calling. You figure out how to take in new information and synthesise it as quickly as possible. You really stretch your legs on that whole smoke thing IB teaches you.

It also does, as promised, make you much more engaged with current affairs. Not only because you’re helping to write them, but also because you’re surrounded by discussions and screenings and headlines, and there’s a sort of obligation to keep up, because at any given moment you could be called to follow up on one of them. Also, your computer at SPH gives you free access to ST Premium, which means you can bypass those Premium articles for the length of your stay there! The true reward of this job. Free Premium.

The internship also hedges a lot on independence and self-reliance. Like I said, the supervisors don’t hold your hand. They’ll brief you for each assignment, and you’re expected to debrief them, but most of the questions you’ll have to ask yourself. Depending what sort of work ethic you have, this can be a pro or con. For me I largely enjoyed the freedom, although in the beginning it was pretty rough because I literally had no idea what I was doing, and had no way of asking the questions because I didn’t know what to expect.

A definite highlight of those long, oft-frustrating hours: the other interns. (There were over 20 of us by the time I left.) By ill fate, I was seated about as far away from the other interns as LT4 is from the other LTs, but somehow they still became my saving grace, be it discussing each other’s stories, keeping tabs on each other, going for drinks, buying bubble tea, or just going for lunch. I think, mostly, it’s how going through the same problematic thing together automatically binds all of the victims together in co-sufferer solidarity, and how shared experiences creates easy common ground and camaraderie.

And as prickly as the supes and editors get, they’re sweet on the inside, really. When you’re not stressing out, the newsroom isn’t too bad of a place to be. Also, you get to see all those famous reporters whose names you keep seeing. Rachel Au-Yong! Chris Tan! Rachel Au-Yong!

My favourite part about the job, though, was the variety of experiences it offered. There were the out-of-the-norm: sitting in a police stealth car chasing after errant drivers, attending a gender equality conference featuring Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff, receiving a hug from a religious saint, firing a police Taser, calling hotels for their presidential suites in the mad rush that was the two weeks pre-Trump-Kim summit.

But I think the most impressionable moments were the quieter ones, sitting down with one or two people at a time to just talk. I spoke to an ex-con single mother. I spoke to parents who’d just lost their children. I spoke to a 17-year-old who’d single-handedly convinced several businesses, including VeganBurg, to eschew plastic straws. I spoke to social entrepreneurs not much older than I am who were sincerely passionate about doing better for society. I spoke to a Bangladeshi cleaner who shared food with elderly residents and had never seen his two-year-old daughter. Beyond the corporate coolness of most PR events, it was these moments that I really treasured: meeting people with stories to tell, meeting people who truly and fiercely fought for what they believed in.

Unfortunately, there weren’t quite enough of those moments, and when they were, they often weren’t given the spotlight I would have liked to have given them. It wasn’t a fault of the paper, just a slight misalignment in our objectives. My biggest regret was not taking full advantage of the opportunities we were given to pitch our own stories. A lot of my intern friends pitched and published stories they really were proud of and enjoyed doing: stories on Insta-mums and tender explorations into Geylang East Industrial Complex; quiet gazes at Japanese cemeteries and vibrant celebrations of dance. But partly due to circumstance and partly due to my own faults, I came away with no story I was really passionate about. My advice, and my warning, to anyone considering this internship: take that chance. Look for a story you want to tell, and tell it. Or you will regret it.

PART THREE: Final Interviews

Remember how we were told final interviews would be in late April?

April came and went, with little more than a “soon, just wait”. May crept up. The six JC interns in the running for the scholarship started getting a little testy. Response deadlines were looming. We sent emails to HR, only to be constantly reassured that they were in the process of shortlisting. A good month passed without any word, leaving us hanging and waiting for something that should have happened already. It was only in the third week of May that three of us were told we had an interview on the 31st.

By that time, we’d already decided we were leaving at the start of June, and had sent in our resignation letters. The general consensus was that whatever we felt about the job, we were frustrated about the administration’s lack of transparency.

And this was on top of conflicting rumours regarding the provisions of the scholarship. We’d applied for overseas scholarships, but while some maintained that nothing had changed, others suggested or said outright that the company was no longer offering overseas scholarships, and that we’d have to top up the difference ourselves if so.

I never did find out which was the truth, because I was rejected after the final interview, not to my surprise. At that point, I’d spent just over three months at the paper, and realised that it wasn’t quite for me, no criticism of the profession or the other journalists intended. Needless to say I was less than sufficiently enthusiastic at the interview, and it showed. But even the one out of the three of us who did progress past the final interview withdrew in the end.

*

I write this with no intention of persuading people to do this or not do this. I also write with no intention of condemning ST. Administrative issues aside, it was actually an incredibly worthwhile and fulfilling internship, one that really made you work for the experience. If you’re looking for a true insight into the job, one that doesn’t cut corners and sugarcoat things, go for it. Maybe you’ll find that you’re more inclined to it than I was. And maybe I’ll be seeing your byline next. Your friends will love that, trust me.

Wen-Yi is a Year 7 with an unfortunate emphasis on the dash in the middle of her name. Soon to be jettisoned to UCL, she has spent her time writing (literally) front-page articles for the Straits Times, munching on assorted vegetables, and publicly shaming people who don’t use metal straws. Oh dear.

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