Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Getting a job in journalism

I asked George Beetham, Jr., editor of The Review, to tell me what he looks for in applicants and how he evaluates resumes and letters of recommendation. Here is his response.

Starting with the resume, I look for candidates who have some evidence of interest in journalism, from course work to experience, perhaps on school publications. We get tons of resumes when we post openings. These run the entire gamut, including folks who have no remote idea what being a journalist is all about (experience as a circus clown who wrote his/her memoirs does not qualify one as a journalist).

That makes it harder for someone pursuing journalism as a second career, as I did many moons ago. I went out and sold freelance stories for peanut shells to build a clip file, and that did the trick. But that shows evidence that a candidate is serious and not just shopping around to see what might fit.

Resumes should clearly and prominently stress any related experience that would qualify the person. Don't bury this in the last paragraph, which might not get read if the first part is vague or general.

The interview is important. I look for alertness, attentiveness, signs of interest in our publication and the geographical areas we cover, and responsiveness. If people's attention wanders in the interview, they're not going to do a good job interviewing sources. They're apt to miss key phrases, or entire blocks of what the source is telling them.

I prefer that a candidate listen attentively while I discuss the job and our mission and then offer reasons why he or she will fit into the job. At this point, I expect the candidate to dazzle me and clearly indicate qualifications, using examples of his or her experience as it relates to our mission.

I like good follow-up questions because they mark a good journalist. I also like to hear some evidence that the candidate can marshall facts into a coherent whole. If people can't do that, they're not going to make it.

Suggestions for candidates:

First, understand clearly what journalists do and how they do it. Watch televised press conferences and take notes. Use those notes to outline the topics covered in the press conference and compare those notes to printed or televised reports on the press conference. It may seem like a silly exercise, but you will learn from it. You will get many assignments on the job that will seem equally silly, but you will be expected to complete them nevertheless.

Second, understand the publication to which you are applying, its coverage area, the issues with which it deals, and get a good appreciation for what it does. If you go into an interview and start telling an editor that his or her paper needs more movie or music reviews, you're not going to get a job as a general assignment (hard news) reporter. Smaller pubs do not review movies or concerts. They cover politics, government, governmental services, civic issues, social issues, police, fire, and emergency services issues. Somebody whose heart is set on being a music critic is likely to butt heads with the editor of a small pub.

Third, understand that once you are hired and on the job, you will still have to undergo a learning curve, from learning computer programs you may or may not have used to learning the ropes at the paper. This is not an easy process. It can be very uncomfortable, and perhaps unsettling. Keep in mind that only the strong survive, and be strong. It is helpful to be a quick learner, and it will become apparent early on whether you are a quick study or not.

Last but not least, always seek feedback from editors and colleagues once on the job. Learn to differentiate "I like your stories" from "What I like about your stories is xxxxx." Search out specifics and not glittering generalities. Glittering generalities are momentarily good for the ego, but of no help at all in learning.

Finally, it needs to be understood that journalism is a career field in constant transition, both in people and technology. Ability to master, not just learn, technology is essential. We are about to undergo a transition in our web sites that will make new ways of reporting possible. It will be up to us to tailor what we put on the site and how we put it in our individual papers. I've been in this business for 26 years, not counting 14 years working for the federal government in a related field. I am about to face yet another learning curve. It never stops. Technological changes are not easy, but they beat chiseling letters into a rock tablet, or sorting through lead type to compose a single line of letters and words.

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