Making Peace With the Ghost of Internship Past
An up-and-coming journalist wants their former publisher to scrub some problematic stories they wrote as an intern. Will the writer regret their request more than the bad articles themselves?
A Reader/Writer Asks:
I'm a grad student with some writing and radio experience, hoping to pitch to news outlets once I've developed more subject area expertise. The problem is, my writing from over five years ago lives on the internet, and it's bad. Not terrible, but not very good. It doesn't reflect my current politics and it’s not up to my current standards. The tone of these articles read to me as uncritical praise for practices with huge and harmful implications.
I was certainly aware of these harms at the time, but not as settled in my politics. Much of it was written as an unpaid intern for a very small online publication. I'd like to ask my former boss to take it down in a way that doesn't affect our relationship. I no longer need them as a reference, but they had a hand in getting me more than one job. Even though my politics greatly differ from the publication, and I now understand the exploitative nature of the whole arrangement, I still want to ask as tactfully as possible. And of course, I'd like them to agree to do it.
Do you have a failsafe way to get past writing removed?
–Unsettled Former Intern (Ufi)
I have to admit, I was surprised by your “bad” and problematic writing samples. Reading about your changing politics and the “harmful” practices you passively endorsed, I half-expected you to have written for Breitbart. At the very least, I expected piping hot takes on late-stage capitalism.
Without revealing too much for At Large readers, you’re embarrassed about mildly neoliberal puff pieces not unlike anything one finds in today’s business section. You’re concerned important people won’t take you seriously until they disappear.
I’m going to answer your question about requesting their disappearance, but only after explaining why I think this is a bad idea.
To start, as I pointed out, the articles are inoffensive to the majority of people who’d read them. Furthermore, based on my cursory analytics review of the magazine in question, nobody is reading them anyway. Additionally, the magazine buries bylines at the bottom of stories, so anyone who stumbled upon an old article would have to read it through to the end to see your name. And lastly, as they’re reported articles, few would associate your personal beliefs with anything problematic within them.
Of course, editors, not readers, are your main concern. I get it. I’ve written some turds in my fifteen years of journalism, including neoliberal do-gooder bullshit assignments that I accepted. Wanna know something really embarrassing, Ufi? While you were an unpaid intern/undergrad student shilling for the corporate class, I was a well-paid newspaper columnist naively pushing Uber’s economic agenda for four straight weeks. And I didn’t even have an “exploitative” boss pressuring me—the column series was my pitch!
This is a big reason why we always include clippings in cold pitches. It’s not just about curating your best work; it’s about not giving editors a reason to google you. If you haven’t already created a professional website or portfolio using sites like clippings.me, contently.com, or authory.com, then I advise you do that soon.
To be clear: you still want to send individual clippings. But a personal portfolio in your signature and social media bios will further remove any need to comb through google and find who knows what. (Though you should pat yourself on the back if this standard hackery on the sixth search results page of Google is the worst thing that they come up with.)
The fact is, stories we write today we may regret tomorrow. At minimum, we’ll regret the ways we wrote stories. If we’re lucky, they will disappear on their own (as my Uber series did when the newspaper folded) or become obscure (as your articles have always been). But we’re not entitled to remove them ourselves. Bylines are not certificates of ownership, whether or not we were compensated for them. If you want total control over your words, start a blog (don’t start a blog). Better yet, start a magazine. You’ll know then how much work goes into even the blandest article.
There was a cost to your publisher in the time spent editing, publishing, and promoting each of your stories, to say nothing of training you to write them. So, from their perspective, you’re asking them to throw away something they paid for in one way or another, including your mentorship. As you pointed out, they helped you get more than one job.
I can’t say for sure whether the nature of this arrangement was “exploitative,” but from my perspective, as someone who has both mentored unpaid interns and been them, it sounds like a fair transaction, and one that does not end because you no longer need them as a reference.
It’s really not their fault that you did not speak up or write more critically, or that your politics have evolved. Had they known then, it’s unlikely you’d have interned for them. And had you not had the opportunity, would you be where you are now? I don’t know the answer, but it’s something you need to think about when weighing the pros and cons of requesting their removal.
Frankly, Ufi, I don’t think there’s a “failsafe” way to get what you want. You’re better off asking to have your byline and bio removed. Though usually requested before a story is published, and under rare circumstances, deleting your byline is probably more palatable to the publisher than deleting a bunch of articles. But make no mistake, this will damage your relationship. The magazine in question is a passion project for the publisher. You’re going to hurt their feelings, and they’re not going to like you very much after.
I think it’s awesome that you’re a principled, conscientious person. I respect your convictions. But you need to consider whether this would help or hinder your dreams of being an esteemed political journalist. You may not need this publisher as a reference anymore, but you should want them to speak well of you whenever your name comes up in media circles (hopefully often).
So, again, is it worth it? Are these inconsequential articles not something you can circumvent by 1) creating your own web portfolio; 2) being selective with your clippings; and 3) pitching articles now.
To the last point, the more you pitch, the more you write, the more your old stuff falls into obscurity. Don’t wait until you’ve “developed more subject area expertise.” Your expertise is reporting. Go and report in a way that makes your future-self proud. If Future Self disagrees, remind that pretentious prick that every writer is a work-in-progress and that even you, Future Self, had to suffer some mediocrity to set a higher bar for yourself.
So, I’m asking you one more time, is it worth it to request they remove your articles or even your bylines?
If the answer is yes, then my advice to you is simple: Send them what you sent me. Cool-headedly explain your discomfort with the tone of the articles, the harmful implications, and why you wish you’d written them differently or not at all.
I know that advice is not what you wanted to hear. You were expecting an easier path. There is none. But, if you think that would be a difficult letter to send to a publisher, just imagine what it would be like to receive it.
Something for Your Toolkit
I mentioned a few portfolio platforms for writers, but there’s only one designed specifically for journalists. Authory is a clean way to promote yourself with your best stories, which you can categorize by topic, publisher, or whatever. (Here’s my profile, for example.) What makes Authory worth $8 per month, especially for prolific writers, is this: it crawls the internet for your byline, automatically creates a backup in case the publisher goes broke, and notifies you to ask if you’d like to include it in your public profile. On top of that, people can follow your profile and receive an email newsletter curated for your stories only. Grandparents love it!
And One Shameless Plug…
Building Your Freelance Career Course (Apr. 12–Jun. 7/21)
I’m returning to the University of Alberta to teach my continued education class about the business of freelance journalism. Over eight weeks, we'll workshop our pitches in between lessons on the following: the marketplace (a.k.a. how and where we sell articles); turning ideas into sellable stories; refining and recycling your pitches for new audiences; breaking into books, podcasts, documentaries, and commentary; tasteful self-promotion; building a better workflow with available technology; and developing better life-skills to avoid burnout. The course is $395 and open to anyone in the world. Register here.
At Large is edited by Danielle Paradis. She’s also a contributing editor to CANADALAND covering the national media. Send her story tips and pitches at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out her other work at danielleparadis.com.