I have recently gained experience from both sides in job-hunting in digital journalism.
First I spent nine months looking for my next gig, landing at TBD as Director of Community Engagement. So I studied the issue from the hunter perspective. More recently I have filled five positions on my community-engagement team (hope to fill one more position before long). I have screened more than 100 applicants and interviewed more than a dozen.
I recently shared advice on redirecting and rejuvenating your career, and this post will overlap with that one. But here I will focus strictly on your pitch to your next boss. Let’s start with what you can do before you even identify a prospective boss:
- Connect and network with people you admire in the business, even if you’re happy with your current job. You never know when someone might be in a position to hire or recommend you. I started following Jim Brady on Twitter months before I knew he might be in a position to hire me. He followed me back. We replied occasionally to each other’s tweets and exchanged direct messages. So when he announced his new project for Allbritton Communications (later to be named TBD), my DM telling him I’d like to work with him was a welcome message from a familiar name, even if we hadn’t met yet. Similarly, Jeff Sonderman stayed in touch after meeting me at an American Press Institute seminar more than two years before I hired him as senior community host. He commented on my blog and tweeted links to my blog posts and we conversed on Twitter. Mandy Jenkins and I did not meet until the day I interviewed her (and later that day offered her a job). But she helped me out by long distance on a Twitter webinar last year and we stayed in touch, responding to each other’s tweets and commenting on one another’s blogs. Daniel Victor and I also had a Twitter and blogging relationship long before he applied to work for me. I should be clear that it’s not just who you know that lands the job. Other people who networked effectively with me pitched for jobs and didn’t get hired. And I had never heard of Lisa Rowan or Loryn Wilson before I was preparing to hire my staff here. But relationships matter. And networking gives you months to make a strong impression on potential employers, an advantage that’s hard to overcome in a short interview.
- Develop a strong digital profile. I won’t repeat what I wrote last summer on this topic. But I can tell you that I checked out job candidates online, getting a first impression that was more important than the résumé and sifting through the finalists with deeper online research as I tried to decide among outstanding candidates. At the start and end of the hiring process, I was checking candidates out online. My rereading of Loryn’s blogs helped earn her an offer when I was trying to decide between her and another candidate after both had interviewed well. Everyone I hired made a strong digital impression.
Your résumé and cover letter have to be really strong to get attention. Employers with good jobs in journalism are sorting through dozens or hundreds of applications today. Especially if you don’t have a personal connection, you have just a few minutes, maybe just seconds, to grab the attention of the person you want to work for.
- Hyperlink your résumé. Longtime dilemmas for job-hunting journalists have been how much information to cram into the résumé and how many clips to cram into the envelope without overwhelming a prospective boss. Links solve both problems. Send a simple one- or two-page résumé loaded with links to your personal web site or blog and to specific stories or projects that showcase your work. A simple résumé with career highlights is more likely to grab an employer’s attention than a long résumé with lots of chapters and verses. And if you grab the attention, the links give your next boss plenty of ways to drill down and learn more. When I was looking for work, I experimented with varying résumés, from a one-page career summary to two and three pages with more detail to a 10-page fully loaded curriculum vitae for academic jobs. Having received and read lots of résumés the last few weeks, I would never send more than a one-page résumé for anything but an academic job (and if someone tells me the full CV isn’t necessary there, I’d stop doing that). For those interested in more, that single-page overview would link to my Google profile, blog posts that show off my work and pages that tell way more about my journalism career or my training career.
- If you’re applying for a position with a digital organization, which has posted an email address where you can apply, don’t send a hard-copy resume. Nothing screams “refuses to innovate” like using paper and the U.S. Postal Service. I’m amazed at how many hard-copy applications I received. While I didn’t eliminate them automatically for that reason, I didn’t end up hiring anyone who applied by hard copy.
- Customize your résumé. Since you’re sending out a digital résumé anyway, consider each time how you might be able to customize it to that organization. (You want to customize your cover letter, too, but that’s more common; in the days when hard copy was acceptable, people printed their résumés in bulk, so they didn’t even think of customizing. Too many still don’t.) If you have some experience in the community where you are applying, you will highlight that experience. Or if you’re applying for both reporting and editing jobs, you emphasize your experience depending on which job you are seeking. If you’re seeking a job in a different field, you might customize the résumé for each field you pitch for. I applied for some jobs with social media companies and had a basic social-media résumé that I customized for each prospective employer. But for Twitter, I decided to do my résumé in tweets and set up a new account, summarizing my experience in tweets (with lots of links). I didn’t get the Twitter job (and deleted the account immediately after I got flushed, which is why I can’t link to it now), but I know I gave it my best shot. None of these techniques is guaranteed to work, but I’ve seen recently how stiff the competition is, so I encourage a pitch geared especially for that company. (Some people got interviews with me based on strong pitches geared specifically to me and my new organization.)
- Take the time to check how your prospective boss spells his or her name. I am Steve Buttry, with no e in my last name. Our editor is Erik Wemple, with no c in his first name. Don’t dismiss this as just a matter of ego (but it’s a safe bet that every prospective boss has a pretty good ego). When you misspell a name (and this is a misspelling we always notice), it tells us that you don’t check your facts, you don’t care about accuracy and/or you can’t use Google. None of those are good things to disclose to a prospective boss. Here’s a fact of the news business these days that you don’t have to like, but you can’t change: Content doesn’t get edited as heavily as it used to. You’d better show your prospective boss that you get it right on the first take. Erik and I both had applicants make that critical mistake.
Once you’ve networked effectively, built a strong digital profile and pitched a customized, linked résumé, all you’ve achieved is attention. You also need to make your pitch, in the interview and in your digital exchanges with your prospective boss:
- Journalism employers get a boatload of promising résumés these days. A good way to decide which candidates are the best fit for your job is to ask some questions focused on the job. Both Erik and I have asked by email for candidates to answer questions that gave us a better idea than a résumé or cover letter would how they would perform in the job. I asked candidates to give me a vision of how they would do the jobs I was filling. Appropriately for jobs that involved social media, people pitched me through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Some people responded with videos, blog posts or slide shows that showed off their digital skills. One launched a Twitter hashtag that friends used, encouraging me to hire him. Several tweeted links to their posts and/or sent me direct messages. Lisa Rowan, one of the community hosts I hired, used the four major lines of the map familiar to Washington Metro users to map out her plan for being a community host (as you’ll see from her map above, the yellow line really didn’t allow much room for elaborating on her skills). The four lines: Writer/editor (red), moderator (orange), promoter (blue), team player (green). Lisa tells her story of landing this job in a post on the TBD blog. I should stress that content is more important than presentation. The flair just helps ensure that I take a closer look at the substance you’re giving me. The substance seals the deal. Candidates who had jobs (including some I hired) generally were more careful about their pitches, responding by text in email rather than putting something out in social media that would tip off a boss about their interest in my positions. Every candidate I interviewed made a strong pitch in some fashion, and some earned interviews by making pitches that showcased their social and digital skills.
- Let the boss know you’ll be in town. Jeff actually scheduled his own interview before I was ready to start interviewing. His wife had some business in Reston, Va., and he was going to accompany her down to the Washington area. (At least this was the story he told me; I haven’t asked him since if it was legit; either way, I like the initiative.) He asked if we could get together while he was in town. I said sure. At that point, I had not actually posted any jobs. I was still working on job descriptions for our human resources department to post. I had met with only a few people who lived in the Washington area who had contacted me about working for TBD. Jeff lived in Scranton, Pa., so I hadn’t brought him in yet. But since he was going to be in town, we talked and he became the frontrunner for the position he now holds. I should add that I got my job at the American Press Institute in 2005 the same way. I heard from a friend at API that they would be creating a new job. I wrote API President Drew Davis, making my pitch, informing him that I would be a discussion leader for an API seminar later that month. I suggested we could talk while I was there. We did, and a week later, I had the job. At least two other candidates for jobs with us scheduled their own interviews, asking if we wanted to talk while they were in town. We didn’t hire either of them, but gave them more serious consideration than they would have received based solely on their résumés.
- Nail the interview. The pitch just gets you in the door. Every candidate we hired and every one we considered seriously performed well in their interviews. Preparation is important. People were able to ask smart questions because they read my blog or watched Jim on a Transforming Journalism panel discussion at George Washington University. You need to walk some fine lines in the interview, showing confidence but not arrogance, demonstrating knowledge and an eagerness to learn. Journalists have strong BS detectors, so if you don’t know an answer, don’t fake it; tell me how you’d find that answer.
- Follow up. Job candidates followed up their interviews with notes, emails and by linking or sending messages through social media. Each time the messages reinforced the positive impressions they made in interviews and kept them in consideration as I pondered candidates. Many who followed up didn’t get hired, but most, if not all, who did get hired followed up in some fashion. I should add, I nailed down a job once (I think; at any rate, I got the job) by writing a detailed strategy for my desired position on the flight home from the interview and emailing it to my future boss the next day.
- Don’t be afraid to remind the prospective boss of your interest. I was pleased to learn of Dan Victor’s interest in working for us and immediately thought of him as a strong contender. But I had a lot of strong contenders and I misfiled his inquiry, so when I looked in my folder to schedule interviews with the leading contenders, I missed him because his response to me was in a different folder. I might have remembered him on my own before making a decision. But he called to ask where things stood, which made me realize I had not scheduled him for an interview. So we scheduled an interview (he was the last candidate interviewed for that job) and he landed a job. (Dan recounts how he got the job in his own blog post.) Don’t make a pest of yourself, but don’t be bashful about an occasional inquiry. Being pushy without being annoying is a skill for many journalism jobs. It also can be a skill in landing one.
Readers of this blog know that I think Twitter is important for journalists. I probably value Twitter more highly than you do and perhaps more highly than you or I should. I guarantee you I value it more than most employers. So you won’t find it surprising that I was impressed positively and negatively by the Twitter use of applicants. Some dos and don’ts when applying to a boss who values Twitter:
- Use Twitter actively, showing some personality and professionalism. Most of the people I hired made a good impression on Twitter before I ever met them. One person I interviewed and considered seriously connected by Twitter and asked to meet me (we did meet) before ever applying for a job.
- Follow your prospective boss on Twitter before the interview (even better, before you apply or right after you apply). This makes it easier for the boss to find you on Twitter and, if your boss is a serious Twitter user, gets attention better than your application, résumé and cover letter will.
- Join some Twitter conversations with the prospective boss, replying publicly, direct-messaging or retweeting. One prospect included me in a #ff “follow Friday” tweet (a common Twitter practice is to list a few favorites that they follow on Fridays). You don’t want to suck up too overtly, but that would be better than being invisible. (As noted above, my first connections with Jim and my first inquiry about this job were through Twitter).
- Scout the prospective boss on Twitter. This will give you clues about what he or she values. You can anticipate questions you might hear in an interview.
- Include your Twitter username in your résumé (hyperlinked, of course). I was amazed how many applicants, even for our social media producer opening, didn’t have a Twitter profile I could find easily and didn’t include their usernames on their résumés. This included some who boasted in the cover letter or résumé of their Twitter expertise. Show me, don’t tell me.
- Don’t apply for a job that has “social media” in the title if your Twitter profile is locked. I lost count of how many applicants, even for social media producer, had private Twitter accounts.
You’ll find more career guidance tips (or just helpful stories) in the series of how-I-got-my-job posts that my TBD colleagues are writing. And follow TBD News Editor Julie Westfall on Twitter. Her #resumetip tweets and blog post are helpful (and often funny) advice.
And when you find that next job, please share your story of what you did and how it worked for you. Or if you’ve landed a digital journalism job recently, please share your story in the comments.
One last important piece of advice: Never say no for someone else. Again, I’ve blogged about this before, because it’s one of my fundamental rules of journalism and life. I knew Jim would have lots of people applying to work for this operation, and he did. I’m sure most, if not all, of the people I hired felt (at least at times) like they were long shots for the jobs they got. Shake that feeling off. If it’s the job you want, even a long shot is worth the time of making a good pitch. Make that prospective boss say no. Lots of them will, but no one will say yes unless you risk those nos.