Every editor who’s listed as the contact person in a recruitment ad knows the feeling of having a teetering pile of thick brown envelopes somewhere in your office. The packages from job candidates tend to flow in fast, then start pooling on your desk or on your floor.
At some point before the dam bursts, you need to start opening them, reviewing them and dividing them into two piles: the keepers and the I-wish-you-the-best-of-luck-in-your-job-searches.
For me, the process of scanning a resume takes only a moment, and in that short time I have to make a decision about whether an applicant is worth a closer look. One of the most frequent questions I have heard, and one I’ve even thought of myself, is how it looks to an editor if you have moved around a lot, or even quit the business for awhile.
The journalism business has always been more forgiving of itinerants and drifters than most other professions. In a lot of ways, we’re like baseball players. Many of us start out with big aspirations at small papers or stations, moving up to better destinations with the dream of playing in the majors someday. Moving two or three or more times in the first years out of college isn’t that unusual.
But how much moving around is too much? And what about people who take time off, go back to school or switch careers? How much time away from the business is too long?
More than ever before, editors are seeing job candidates with very diverse, nontraditional backgrounds outside journalism. A decade ago, editors might have had rigid rules about the minimum journalism experience they would accept. Today, most editors are willing to consider candidates with life experience or a professional background in a different field that could lend itself to work in journalism. And they’re willing to consider people who switched careers or took some time off.
Having said that, there are still some things that concern me when I look at a resume full of stops and starts.
When I see a resume that shows a lot of hopping between careers and schools and fellowships, I wonder if this person is serious about journalism or is just dabbling.
When I see a resume that shows a lot of 18-month stints at various papers, I wonder if this person is just one of those resolutely unhappy people who can’t get comfortable anywhere.
When I see a resume that shows a lot of different jobs worked in a newsroom (reporter/artist/page designer/copy editor/payroll supervisor) I wonder if this person has mastered any particular skill or if they’re simply a misfit.
Despite these elements, the person with a “checkered” resume may actually be a terrific job candidate. But keep in mind that in most cases, the resume is your first contact with a prospective employer. Your resume says almost as much about you as your credit rating, so it’s important to always consider how your decisions will look on paper. You may have a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you moved seven times in five years, but if your resume gets tossed, you’ll never get the chance to make your pitch.
If there is something unusual such as an extended absence or a career switch on your resume, you may want to explain it briefly in your cover letter.
Having described some things that concern me, let me tell you what doesn’t bother me.
It’s fine to go back to school for an advanced degree or just to learn something new. School is all about critical thinking and scholarship, and most newsrooms could always use more of both. However, most editors are cautious about “professional students,” folks with multiple degrees who have been in and out of school for 10 years, working toward a master’s or a doctorate. Not that we have anything against higher education, but journalism requires commitment and focus, and editors have the right to expect your full attention.
I think it’s fine to quit for a couple of years and do something else, to travel or write a book or stay home with your kids. We work in an extremely stressful business, and sometimes you just need a break. Occasionally, family emergencies or health problems require extended leaves from the newsroom, and most editors are pretty understanding.
Generally, I don’t have a problem with people who quit the business and go into some other field for a couple of years. As long as the work they did was honorable and professional, I’m usually fine with it, especially if their work kept them writing. I’ve found that in many cases, the experience people get outside the newsroom gives them invaluable insights about how business, government and the “real world” operate. A former newsie who went into teaching journalism would be an especially attractive candidate.
An exception I would make is hiring someone who worked for a political candidate or some social cause. Even if the person plays it straight down the middle, dabbling in politics raises too many questions for readers who have grown more sensitive to even a whiff of bias. Working in politics also suggests that the person is more interested in being an activist than an observer.
I don’t hold it against people who go into television, then decide they want to come back to print, just as I assume most news directors don’t hold it against broadcast reporters who move to newspapers and decide they miss the action of TV. I’ve found people who worked in TV tend to be extremely aggressive – they’re used to having to come back with a story, one way or another. Same goes for people who grabbed a dot-com job, though I think since the bust most of those folks have either returned already or moved on elsewhere.
I am leery of folks who can’t seem to stick with anything. Knowing a community and developing sources are the foundations of solid reporting, and it’s impossible to develop those sources if you’re just passing through. Therefore, it’s hard to show clips that have much depth to them. Especially as you’re starting out, I believe it’s important to put in at least a couple of years at a place before moving on. Even editors at smaller papers that are training grounds for young journalists are turned off by resumes that look like a long rap sheet.
But that doesn’t mean you should suffer in a job you hate. It’s fine to admit making a career mistake. I’ve known a lot of people who switched jobs and immediately regretted it. Some tough it out for a year, while others don’t last a month. As long as you don’t make it a habit, don’t worry how a short stay looks on your resume. Most editors understand that those kinds of things happen and they’ll appreciate your candor.
How long out of the business is too long? Like everything, there are exceptions, but generally I think it’s tough to get back into the newsroom if you’ve been out for more than two years, three tops, especially if you haven’t been writing regularly. I received an application recently from a guy who left the business in 1989 and decided it was time to return. While he had done a lot of interesting things in 14 years, his disconnection for so long was simply too big an obstacle to overcome.
What about switching jobs in the newsroom? Most editors like people who are versatile. Examples are reporters who have worked as editors, copy editors who have worked as reporters, photographers who have worked as online producers. Switching beats and even departments is fine, as long as it isn’t every six months. Just keep in mind that the bigger the paper, the more specialized its beats and reporters. Big papers rarely hire general assignment reporters. They usually want someone with significant experience in a specialized beat such as politics, sports, business, entertainment, etc. So if you know you want to move up, it’s smarter to develop a specialty and wait for the right opening than to jump around the newsroom.
Of course, the flip side of moving too much is standing still. Most editors like to see a progression, moving up to bigger or better papers, handling more complex assignments and demonstrating proficiency with a specialized skill, such as database reporting or analyzing financials. A reporter who’s been bumping around so-so medium-size dailies for 10 years isn’t going to stand out.
One last word: If you leave the business, don’t assume you can come back. No matter what your editor tells you when she’s cutting the cake at your farewell party – “You’ll always be welcome here” – figure you’re walking out the door for good. While we all like to think of ourselves as lovable and irreplaceable, the reality is that there are plenty of folks out there who can do our jobs. When you make a move, figure it’s forever.
If you don’t like how that sounds, then maybe you should think about staying.
Jim Kelly is assistant managing editor at The Fresno Bee in California. He has worked as an editor at newspapers in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Hawaii.