Unexpected opportunities in the USA Today offices

By Dean’s Intern Mark Lieberman at USA Today


Mark at his desk at USA Today

My favorite aspect of the USA Today internship program is the flexibility. Instead of being restricted to our assigned section (in my case, USA Weekend Magazine), we’re free to roam the newsroom, pursue connections and explore opportunities for substantive work at our own pace.

During my first week at USA Today, I spoke with Kim Willis, an assignment editor for USA Today’s Life section, about possibly writing some stories for her alongside my duties to Jim Lenahan at USA Weekend. I mentioned some of my entertainment- and music-related interests, including singing competition shows. She said she’d let me know if she had anything for me, and soon afterwards, she did.

My task: interview the top two finalists from this season of American Idol and write up a preview feature about the upcoming Idols Live tour. As an avid Idol fan who has stuck with the show long after its position at the center of American pop culture, I was thrilled. I spoke with Season 13 runner-up Jena Irene on a Friday afternoon and winner Caleb Johnson on the following Monday morning, when things got a little more interesting.

Caleb was surprisingly forthcoming with details about his new album, which is set to drop on August 12. He was so forthcoming, in fact, that I quickly realized that I had stumbled upon exclusive information. He gave me the title of his album, the names of several songwriters, the number of songs and a preview of what the songs will sound like. After some quick Google searching, I verified that no other sources had released this information.

Rather than waiting to include these details in my tour advance, which was still a day or two away from publishing, I talked to Kim about the possibility of writing a separate story focused solely on Caleb Johnson’s album Testify, which was produced faster than any previous Idol winner’s debut album. She agreed that this approach would be best, so I set immediately to work on a story that ran just a few hours later on the USA Today’s Life home page. After that, I assembled the best bits from both of my interviews and composed a longer feature on the Idol tour. That story ran on the Life page the following day.

My takeaways from this experience: it never hurts to be in the right place in the right time; if you’re interested in writing on a particular topic, demonstrated interest in that topic is key; and flexibility is one of the important qualities in journalism. Just as the USA Today internship program is flexible, I had to change my initial plan to deliver the story in a way that benefited both the readers and the publication. I’m incredibly honored to be interning at a company that’s willing to let me take the reins on a story and see it through to an unexpected conclusion.