And the best internships are at….

As part of a project I’m working on, I have interviewed more than two dozen journalists in the past two weeks. It’s an invigorating, exciting experience, talking to so many smart, creative, passionate people who love what they — and I — do.

One of the most interesting threads coming out of those interviews is what the younger journalists says about their summer internships. I asked those who had multiple internships, which was the best. Their answers were counter-intuitive and consistent; the smallest news organization was the best.

Here’s why:

* Smaller organizations provide journalists wider opportunities to do different things. Smaller orgs need versatile general assignment reporters to plug into their operations. The interns help solve manpower shortages caused by summer vacations. And the interns loved the range of experiences.

* Interns cover “real” stories at smaller places. Some of those working at large organizations ended up compiling lists, rewriting news releases and, figuratively speaking, moving a pile of paper from the in-basket to the out-basket.

* Smaller organizations have less bureaucracy, so that there are fewer hoops to jump through to do something…anything, really. Turf battles are either lessen or easier to resolve. Often, editors welcome experiments from interns.

* Interns at smaller organizations got plenty of feedback from editors and friendship from the fulltime journalists. They felt as if they were treated as equals, which was both important.

The lesson for college students? Bigger isn’t always better. The New York Times or USA Today or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution may have more cache, but you could easily get a more valuable learning experience at the smaller places.

The lesson for media organizations? Interns are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside …. Oh, wait. That’s Whitney Houston. Pay attention to them and make their experience the best you can. It repays you.