I must have done something right at my first interview after college, because I landed the job. But when I tried to move to a larger news outlet, I crashed and burned. The kind hiring manager took the time to explain why I wasn’t chosen, in hopes that I’d improve as a journalist and as an applicant.
Not all of us get that analysis. Some young journalists strike out on the cover letter, and they never know why.
I wanted to find out.
I turned to Dick Meyer, NPR Digital Media’s editorial director; Bob Morford, news director at Cincinnati’s WCPO-TV; and Jennifer Morlan, national editor at The Indianapolis Star (full disclosure: Morlan and I are co-workers). All responded via e-mail.
Some of these tips may strike you as common sense. If so, you’re probably doing things right. But a few could surprise you.[b]Don’t bite off more than you can chew
“Apply for jobs you have a chance of getting,” Morlan said. “If you are right out of school, chances are you’re going to have to cut your teeth at a smaller paper before getting hired at a major metropolitan newspaper.”
Morford sees similar problems: newer applicants who say they want to be anchors, something that’s a long way off. His advice: Stay focused on the job you’re applying for and explain how your skill set matches it.
Meyer points out that a beginner’s résumé should not be padded. He’d prefer it lean and to the point. “A clean resume, good examples of work presented nicely, and a polite, stylish cover letter — all with clean copy: that’s the recipe,” he said.[b]Don’t annoy the recruiter
Every recruiter has a horror story or funny anecdote. Do not become one.
“I read one letter that started with ‘I’m just a girl who wants to …’ and I can tell you, that was a big turn off. I’m not going to recommend that a ‘girl’ gets hired. I’m looking for professional, talented women and men,” Morlan said.
Some applicants Meyer has met disappointed him with their lack of poise — and men, pay attention here. “I am shocked by the number of people whose body language says ‘low energy,’” he said. “And I will risk the readers’ wrath by saying this is a bigger problem for men than women.”
Think of your audience
Morford, at WCPO, is tired of seeing audition tapes that start with weather stories.
“The first thing I look for is a story to start the audition video that is somehow unique in character. It could be a totally fresh idea, or an older idea executed in a wholly fresh way,” Morford said.
Of course, include the usual stories to show that you know how to do them. But if you lead off your application packet with something boring, will they turn the page?[b]Go above and beyond
Go past the basics of your job. Can you comprehend computer programs that are widely used? Can you edit in addition to creating content? Are you comfortable with multiple media forms? If you aren’t, get there. Take an extra class in college. Volunteer for more training. Attend an SPJ session! Hang out with producers or editors if you are a reporter. Hang out with reporters if you are a producer or editor. The more skills you have, the more desirable you are.
“Sometimes when I go down this road, it appears that some applicants think the ability to walk and talk is all they need to be able to do. If that ever was true, it’s sure not true now,” Morford said.[b]Be professional
“You would be surprised how many people use addresses like email@example.com on their resumes,” Morlan said. There are too many free e-mail sites out there for you to fall into this trap. Even if you have to make your own special address just for job searching, it’s worth looking into. And speaking of e-mail …[b]Be discreet
Apply for jobs on your own time and with your personal contact information. Recruiters can feel uncomfortable calling you at work and turned off by your use of office e-mail. If you’ll hunt for other jobs on company time at your current employer, what’s to say you won’t do the same in the position you’re applying for?[b]Be respectful
Sending a formal thank-you note after an interview is always a plus — in some cases, it is expected.
“I don’t schedule my time lightly and expect that to be appreciated, especially by a young person,” Meyer said.
But hounding the hiring manager generally doesn’t go over so well (no matter how much Bob Woodward claims it got him in at The Washington Post).[b]Be yourself.