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Intern Insider: In O'Brien's battle of news vs. entertainment, journalism emerges the victor

In her Media Writing class a couple of semester ago, rising senior Katie O’Brien wrote a mini biography that discussed, among other things, her career aspirations. If someone could be both profoundly certain and surprisingly unsure of her future at the same time, it was O’Brien.

Katie O'Brien '12

Since high school, O’Brien has known she wanted to work in broadcast news. She wrote that in her mini bio. Still, it made her uncomfortable to commit to that future in writing because she wanted to know what a career in the entertainment industry might look like. So she wrote that, too, adding that an internship with then-NBC talk show “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” would be ideal.

Since January of this year, O’Brien can say she’s digested a full entrée of news—she completed a spring semester-long internship with “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams”—and tasted a sampling of entertainment—she’s reaching the end of a summer internship with “Conan,” which airs on TBS.

“I came out to (Los Angeles) to see if it would completely sweep my off my feet,” she says. “This is just my experiment to see if this is something I actually wanted to continue with or to see if I was going to be happy in news for the rest of my life.”

The grand “experiment” isn’t quite over. O’Brien’s “Conan” internship doesn’t end until late August. But the verdict is already in.

“I definitely know I want to do news,” O’Brien says. “I still have the I-want-to-save-the-world feeling. (“Conan”) is fun, but I don’t think I want to commit my life to entertainment. I definitely prefer New York. I definitely prefer the high stress of the daily newscast.”

O’Brien was recommended for the “Nightly News” internship by Communications associate professor Rich Landesberg. She interviewed in December and heard back later in the month. Her first thought upon getting the job? I need clothes

“I was in my apartment, and I immediately left and went to New York and Co. and bought a suit,” she says. “I wore it the first day, and it turns out no one wears a suit there.”

She told producers there she could begin on Jan. 1, which meant she had to scramble quickly to drop all her spring semester classes and then figure out what she’d have to take upon her return to Elon to ensure she graduates on time. She wound up starting the internship Jan. 14.

At “Nightly News,” O’Brien was one of six interns. She did a lot of transcribing, researching and finding tapes. One of her bigger projects allowed her to work on the news program’s coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. She logged interviews and viewed raw footage, which she edited together for the producers.

She says she struck up a great working relationship with one producer, in particular, who gave her the freedom to pick soundbites and clips that were used on “Nightly News.”

Her experience in New York was made complete when, while she was working a late night on the oil spill coverage, Brian Williams, host of “Nightly News” and national chair of the Elon University School of Communications advisory board, approached her and asked her what she wanted to do with her life.

“I want to produce, I want to come back here,” O’Brien told Williams. “He said, ‘Good, that’s what I want to hear. We need people like you here.’ I called my Mom immediately, and my hand was shaking. If Brian Williams wants me here, then I’m definitely doing all right.”

O’Brien ended her “Nightly” internship April 29, and ambitiously told producers at “Conan” she could make it to Los Angeles by May 10. So she packed up her New York apartment, drove to Elon to pick up some stuff, continued to her home in Atlanta to pack for LA and made it to the west coast by May 10.

O’Brien (no relation to host Conan) interviewed for the late-night talk show internship in March and secured the position by the end of the same month. At “Conan,” she works as a casting intern, which means she deals with the non-staff actors who are brought in to star in sketches during or directly following the monologue.

“It’s really fun,” O’Brien says. “I love coming to work every day, and I definitely like the experience I’m getting. I laugh hysterically every day.”

O’Brien has performed well for “Conan,” too. So well, in fact, that O’Brien was chosen to be a talent escort at the Critics’ Choice Awards after the show’s stage manager asked for a top intern to be volunteered for the responsibility.

O’Brien has enjoyed both her internship opportunities, she says, but she knows for a fact that she’s a news hound. And she’s looking forward to finishing her senior year at Elon so that she can again make the trip north to New York and, she hopes, to the “Nightly News” offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

“(‘Nightly News’) was the highlight of my life so far,” O’Brien says. “I volunteered to quite school 15 times if ‘Nightly’ would hire me. They said, ‘We want you, but don’t quit.’ It was exactly where I want to be, and when I left I knew that that’s where I wanted to be.”

Colin Donohue,
7/29/2011 11:01 AM