How we improved the engineering internship recruitment process at The Washington Post
We found better ways to help students find us, level the playing field for candidates, and make the process easier for everyone
Internships can be a great opportunity for students to gain professional experience and for employees to mentor the next generation of engineers, but news organizations that aren’t careful and intentional when recruiting can risk inadvertently over-indexing on candidates with the most access to time, money, and social connections. Since our team loves finding ways to make our processes better, we decided to examine our internship hiring process and see where we could make improvements.
We both started as interns at The Washington Post before joining the news engineering team full-time. Our experience as interns gave us particular insight on how to revamp our internship recruitment this year, with a goal to improve the experience both for applicants and for engineering teams at The Post.
Here were the three big goals we had in mind when refactoring our process:
- Use storytelling to help students find us and succeed: The better we can convey what our team works on, the easier it is for someone to discover this career as a possibility and get excited about projects they want to be a part of.
- Level the playing field: Making the journalism and engineering industries more equitable is important to us. We made our hiring process as transparent as possible and provided resources to students to help them prepare their applications.
- Make the internship process easier for our present and future selves: Along the way, we wrote robust documentation to keep a record of all of our steps. This way, any person can replicate our process on their own team.
As a result of our changes:
- We extended 15 offers across the entire engineering department to students at 11 different schools.
- 70+ students attended office hours and met members of our team face-to-face before submitting their applications.
- We received 160 high-quality applications, a welcome decrease from the more than 500 applications that we usually receive. By frontloading the work in our recruitment process, we helped candidates identify which teams they’d want to work for rather than applying for every single team individually. This meant that teams would have a smaller but more targeted group of candidates.
Use storytelling to help students find us and succeed
Newsroom engineering is a niche space, and unlike technology companies that recruit aggressively on college campuses in the fall, newspapers are not an obvious destination for a student with technical skills. Students who are highly qualified but unfamiliar with our work may not think of applying for our internship at all, and students who are already familiar with our work are at an unfair advantage during the application process.
In an effort to make our projects and purpose more transparent, we created two public-facing guides. The first one, Newsroom Engineering at The Washington Post, describes our team and our current projects. The second one, How we evaluate internship applications at WaPo Engineering, provides a detailed breakdown of how we screen applicants, tips on preparing applications, and information related to internship pay, eligibility and other logistics. We heard from students that this documentation demystified the application process and made them feel comfortable in reaching out to us directly with other questions about their applications.
Additionally, for the first time, we hosted three sessions of office hours: casual, drop-in Zoom meetings where interested applicants could ask members of the team questions about our work or about their applications. We collected RSVPs and contact information with a simple Google form, and we sent out calendar invites to decrease friction—we had surprisingly few no-shows! More than 70 students attended our office hours, and each of those sessions featured at least four engineers from our team to field questions. In prior years when we did not offer these open office hours, we only spoke with students who knew our team well enough to reach out in advance, giving that small number of students an additional advantage in the process. This year, many students took advantage of these calls to ask for details on our current projects and what their day-to-day schedules as interns on the team would be like. This additional information helped students target their applications and decide which teams would be the best fit for their skills.
Level the playing field
When prospective interns reach out with questions about the application process, we’re happy to answer them, but transparency limited to just those who know to contact us first isn’t real transparency. We found that if we wanted a more equitable process, we’d have to be more proactive. Our public How we evaluate internship applications page clarifies that our internship is paid and does not require a coding interview, and holds us accountable for following through on the processes we’ve described. Even after the application deadline, we aimed to maintain this level of transparency — for example, we sent our interview questions in advance to all applicants being interviewed. This ensured interviewees were asked the same questions and could be compared fairly, instead of again giving an advantage to those with pre-existing knowledge.
We listed journalism affinity groups on our public page to make sure all prospective applicants were aware of more resources available to them. These groups and local colleges received priority in our outreach to ensure they weren’t an afterthought to elite universities where we’ve recruited many interns in the past (more on that below).
When selecting interns, we evaluated each candidate individually, but we also looked at the group as a whole to ensure a diverse class. The news engineering team, for instance, extended internship offers to three graduating seniors, but also reserved a fourth spot for a student earlier in their college career.
Applicants to our internship program must be students at the time that they apply. We are mindful that this excludes those with non-traditional backgrounds, so we created a form to collect contact information of people who are not students but are still interested in entry-level roles on our team. Just a few weeks after our internship application closed, this contact list came in handy—an entry-level role opened on our team, and we shared it with the email list from that Google form. We plan to repeat this for any future roles.
Make the internship process easier for our present and future selves
Even with the best intentions, running an entire department’s internship process is too much for one person. For the past several years, directors at The Post would create and promote an application specific to only one or two teams. Strong applicants who were not selected were occasionally redirected to other engineering teams at The Post, but the process was sporadic at best. We architected our new process from the ground up to involve many more people across multiple teams. This increased those teams’ investment in the process and also increased our visibility to students who might be interested in a variety of different roles.
For outreach, we created a spreadsheet of Post employees who had connections with universities and other professional identity or affiliation groups, such as the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association for Black Journalists, tech-minded student groups, and student publications. Organizing this information in a database helped ensure that we were contacting a wide range of organizations as well as tracking our open channels of communication. When we couldn’t find anyone at The Post with an existing connection to a specific organization, we engaged in cold outreach ourselves.
In addition to targeted outreach, we enlisted our social and audience teams at The Post to help promote our internship more broadly by retweeting our Twitter thread with the internship application from the main @washingtonpost account.
Because we used spreadsheets to track this year’s applicant pool, we have a great starting point for next year’s process. Iterating on these contacts each year will ensure that our outreach improves.
We’re confident that this foundation will be a solid base for our program for years to come, but we’re always looking for new ideas and feedback. Every process has room to improve! Beyond our recruiting process, we’re also iterating on the actual internship experience itself. But that’s a subject for another post.
If you have any questions, or you’d like to share lessons that you’ve learned from running an internship program at your own company, please reach out to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or Twitter at @hsforeman and @_emilyliu_.
Holden Foreman is a software engineer on The Washington Post’s news engineering team. Outside of work, he runs a website called MeetYourMedia, where he shares research on various media trends. He is a former student journalist and studied computer science at Stanford University.
Emily Liu is a news engineer at the Washington Post, where she covers live election results and builds news applications. She has previously done computational journalism research in automated fact-checking and studied computer science and journalism at Duke University.