This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Editors don’t succeed based on our own work. We succeed or fail based on the work of our staffs. So hiring is one of the most important jobs you will do as an editor, an opportunity to upgrade your newsroom. Hire an outstanding, self-starting journalist and you will bask in the glow of his or her work. If you hire someone who is careless in verifying facts, he or she will damage the credibility of your organization.
Hiring has always been an important job for an editor. It is doubly so in a time when most newsroom staffs are shrinking and when news organizations are changing their priorities and processes to meet the challenges and opportunities of the digital marketplace.
Each position you get to fill is an opportunity to add important skills to your news staff and to bring in someone who will quicken the pace of your newsroom’s digital transformation.
A vacancy is an opportunity to adjust how your newsroom works and what you cover. Seek ideas from the staff for what to do with a position. You may need someone doing exactly what the previous person did. Or you may want to create a new position to meet new needs. Maybe you will want to change the duties, adding a new slice of community life to the existing beat or shifting the workload to require more digital duties such as data journalism, interactive graphics or multimedia reporting.
If you have specific needs and expectations for a position, spell them out in a detailed job description and discuss those with candidates during the application and interview. But you might try posting a more general description of the job and invite candidates to provide their details. I did this when I was hiring a community engagement team for TBD. The vision that a candidate provided (or failed to provide) told me a lot about his or her potential and helped me recruit an excellent team.
A staff opening provides a way to reward a staff member who is excelling and showing potential to do more.
Be sure to consider internal candidates fairly and give them a chance to make their pitch for a job. Everyone on your current staff who applies deserves at least a discussion about why she wants the job and why she considers herself a good fit.
If you find the ideal candidate on staff, you not only reward that person’s strong performance, but you have the benefit of his knowledge of the community and his understanding of your operation.
But don’t be unduly swayed by familiarity. A likable staff member who doesn’t have a clear vision for the job is probably going to be a bad fit.
You probably have several people on staff who are not perfect fits for their jobs. If they’re performing well anyway, they may flourish in a job that is better suited for them. But don’t count on a job change to turn around a disappointing staff member. You seldom fix a performance problem by changing a person’s job.
Make the hiring process a positive experience for the internal candidates who don’t get the job. When you inform them of your choice, discuss what new skills or experiences they could acquire that would make them stronger candidates in the future. Discuss the kind of performance you need to see from them to boost their chances of career advancement. Discuss plans to give them the opportunities they need to grow in their current jobs.
An opening gives you a chance to bring new skills into the newsroom and to recharge the newsroom’s chemistry. If your newsroom needs stronger skills in a digital area such as data, video or interactive graphics, you can make that a formal part of the job description (which may discourage applications from unqualified internal candidates). If your staff is too specialized, with everyone working comfortably in their silos, you can shake that up by hiring a multi-tasker who is strong both at writing and producing visual digital content.
While elevating internal candidates provides opportunities for people on your staff to grow, hiring external candidates is the best way to upgrade the newsroom’s talent pool. Over time, I believe your hiring should be a mix of internal and external to achieve both goals. You want to be a newsroom where journalists can grow professionally and be rewarded. And you do want to upgrade your talent.
Factors to consider
Traditional journalism skills
Writing and copy-editing skills are more important than ever in newsrooms. We don’t have as many editing layers as we used to, so writers with rough edges don’t have as much help polishing their work and each editor who handles a story needs to do a complete job. In liveblogging and social media, journalists will be publishing directly to the web, and you need staffers who can post clear, clean copy. At TBD, Editor Erik Wemple had all applicants complete a writing exercise, so we could assess their raw copy and their writing ability.
Reporting skill remains an important fundamental, too. As your newsroom competes for attention in the digital marketplace, you need reporters who can find good stories and provide content that people can’t find anywhere else.
Photography skills are essential not only for visual journalists but for reporters, too. You need reporters who can shoot the routine photos for their stories, so that professional visual journalists can work on visual content that will connect more deeply with the community: slideshows, videos and interactive multimedia projects.
You want each external hire to upgrade the digital skills of your newsroom, so examine candidates closely in such areas as social media, video, blogging, liveblogging, data and other digital skills. A candidate doesn’t have to be proficient in all those skills, but you should assess both the breadth and depth of the digital skills.
If you’re looking to build your newsroom’s data skills, you can do that by training your existing staff. But you make a bigger, quicker leap by hiring someone with strong data skills in computer-assisted reporting, data visualization, news app development or some combination of those skills.
Candidates who are already using social media effectively, blogging, liveblogging and/or shooting and editing video show you more than the skills themselves. They show you that they understand the importance of learning digital skills and that they are capable of learning them. If someone already has learned some of these skills, you can be fairly certain that they will learn other skills while working for you and that their existing skills will improve.
On the other hand, a journalist who has failed or refused to learn notable digital skills by 2013 is showing a profound inability or unwillingness to learn. I don’t care how strong someone’s writing, reporting, editing or photography skills are, I’m not going to waste a valuable newsroom opening on a journalist who is refusing to meet the challenges of the digital age. I’ll hire a pretty good reporter, editor or photojournalist who’s learning digital tools over an excellent reporter, editor or photojournalist who’s pretending it’s still 1990.
A newsroom has always required collaboration. If anything in your interview, reference checks or digital research on a candidate shows an inability or unwillingness to work with colleagues and share credit, that’s a significant red flag. It’s not a disqualifier for me (in some jobs), but it’s a topic to address in interviews.
A journalist with strong skills and standards who prefers to work solo but understands and accepts the newsroom’s team goals and the need at times to work in a team role might work out in several newsroom positions. I was such a reporter. I enjoyed my work best when I was writing and reporting my own stories. But I recognized that I wasn’t a good photographer, so I embraced opportunities to work with photojournalists on stories because their photos resulted in better play for my stories. And they were fun to work with.
And frequently my editors wanted to pair me with other reporters on assignments for a variety of valid reasons. I worked with them collegially; we produced good work together and we learned from each other. In fact, I doubt that my editors even knew of my preference to report alone.
But if you learn that a journalist has trouble working with people, he may not be worth the trouble.
Be careful about placing too much importance on a journalist’s attitude. Some behaviors that might appear be a bad attitude in other workplaces are actually helpful in many journalism jobs.
An aggressive reporter who challenges what you say and doesn’t take “no” for an answer may be a pain in the ass to work with, but that same attitude produces great stories. The skepticism, resourcefulness and determination that make her a great reporter are what you want, and people with those traits don’t turn them off when they enter the newsroom door.
On the other hand, if you hear a lot of excuses in your interview or in checking references, that’s a red flag, not matter how good the excuses are. Journalism is hard and good journalists get the job done, rather than making excuses.
When I’m considering a person for a job, I look for a willingness to learn. I like confidence but I’m skeptical about boastfulness. If a person boasts, I want to check out the boast. If it’s true, maybe the boast reflects pride, which can be a strong motivator. If the work doesn’t live up to the boast, I’m going to have some tough questions for this candidate.
Checking someone out
References are usually a small factor in my hiring decisions, but they matter. You only have a day with a job candidate for most interviews. You want to hear from the people who have longer experience with them.
But here’s something you should know about references: Most of the people you call for reference checks were told by their mothers that if they didn’t have something good to say about someone, not to say anything at all. And some news companies, fearing lawsuits, discourage or forbid their employees from giving references.
If an applicant lists references, I call and/or email them. I want to hear what they say. If a listed reference expresses concerns, that’s a red flag. But I am more interested in checking with people who aren’t on the list of references. I’ll look at the places where this person has worked and try to remember whether I know a colleague or former colleague and contact that person. If not, I’ll look for people the person shared a byline with or try to figure out who might be a close colleague who’s not a listed reference and reach out to her.
The positive references that matter the most to me are when I can hear enthusiasm in the reference’s voice and when they provide details and tell stories.
Seek multiple viewpoints
Don’t handle the hiring process alone. Make time for a job candidate to talk to other editors and to a variety of journalists on your staff, maybe even the publisher. Ask them each what excited or concerned them about the candidate. I wouldn’t select or dismiss a candidate based on this input, but I would address concerns they raise with the candidate (not saying who expressed the concerns). I would take a look at the things that impressed other people if they were things I had not noticed.
Making the decision
You’re not likely to find the perfect candidate (if you think you have, perhaps that’s a sign you should dig a little deeper). Consider this candidate’s strengths and flaws and ask this question: Is she going to elevate the overall ability of your staff? Unless you have an exceptional staff, I think every hire should bring in someone you think will be one of your best staff members.
If your pay is for an entry-level position, you can’t hire great experience, but you can hire great potential. Look for someone who’s showing the ability to multi-task, for someone who is eager to learn and showed flashes of potential during an internship.
The journalism job market right now is a buyer’s market. Whether you’re hiring experienced journalists who have been downsized by shrinking newsrooms, experienced journalists seeking to flee troubled newsrooms or recent graduates fresh out of journalism school, you should have a strong field to choose from.
Consider what your newsroom needs and consider the performance and potential of the applicants in your field. Make your offer to the journalist who appears the best fit.
Hire for opportunity, not just need
Sometimes you don’t have an opening but you learn that a spectacular candidate is available. Sometimes you have something in mind for an opening and learn of a spectacular candidate who doesn’t fit what you had in mind.
Few things can elevate your newsroom’s performance quicker than a spectacular hire. Consider whether you can make an opening for this person who’s available (a question you may have to take up with your publisher and/or corporate executives). Consider whether you can change the opening to something that would appeal to (and fit the skills of) this special candidate.
Sometimes the answer will be no, whether the answer comes from you or a boss. But nothing helps a newsroom succeed better than spectacular journalists. When you have an opportunity to hire one, you should give strong consideration to changing your plans to make the deal.
Other important factors
I’m going to do separate posts on interviewing job candidates and checking their digital tracks. Those are two key steps in the hiring process. I’ll also write a separate post about diversity, an important factor to keep in mind when hiring. I’ll add the links to those posts later.
Want to contribute a guest post?
If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice.
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is uncertain). The pace of these posts has slowed, but I’ll still try to post something weekly. What other topics should I cover?
- Researching job candidates
- Developing new leaders