My own job-hunting experience, along with occasional hiring experience, continues to give me firsthand perspective on hunting for jobs in today’s journalism marketplace. Updating posts from 2010 and 2011, I offer tips for job-hunting.
I apologize (just a little) for any boasting in this post. Seeking a job in the competitive market requires honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve tried to carry through in that here. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had throughout my career. I know that luck has played a role, but I also know that my own efforts have played a role, too, and I’ll try to share lessons from both.
I’ll do a separate post tomorrow on things to do while you’re employed that will help when you start looking for work, whether you lose your job or are seeking your next opportunity. But for today, here is advice for your job hunt:
Spread the word
Losing your job is a blow to the ego, even if you have a lot of company. We all like to believe we’re indispensable. So your first instinct might not be to tell the world you’re available. But tell the world.
The day I learned my position was going to be eliminated, I told readers of my blog as well as the people connected with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
It’s official: http://t.co/mTPn2qVU6u I’m a free agent now. Suggestions for my next step?
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) April 2, 2014
I count 19 potential opportunities for jobs or consulting that came because people (either the people making the hire or third parties) heard that I was losing my job. Some probably heard from me. Some read news reports about Thunderdome closing. Two of those opportunities resulted in job offers (and others were still under undecided when I accepted my current job with Louisiana State University).
There’s no shame in losing your job and no advantage to pursuing the next job quietly (unless you haven’t lost your job). Look for work quietly and you’ll have to explain why you’re not working now or why you’re looking for a job. And you’ll only pursue the opportunities that are openly advertised and that close confidants know about.
A mutual acquaintance who knew I was available made introductions in at least two cases, one of which led to an excellent offer (paying more than the job I accepted). That acquaintance wasn’t a close enough friend that I would have asked her if she knew of any good leads, and I wouldn’t have learned about the job that led to an offer without her introduction. I got that opportunity only because I spread the word about my need for a new job.
This tip may not work if you are the only one to be fired from your newsroom or if you are still employed and just looking quietly for your next job. But if you’re part of a newsroom reduction, band together with your fired colleagues as collaborators in the challenge of finding work for everyone. Sometimes you’ll be competitors for the same jobs, but that’s true whether you collaborate or not.
The fired Thunderdome staffers created a Google group where we shared tips about job openings. I shared two opportunities there last week. Digital First Media Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, Thunderdome Editor Robyn Tomlin and I (and probably others) publicly sought opportunities for our colleagues. I haven’t asked people who’ve found new jobs to trace where the initial leads to those new jobs came from, but I’m confident that several Thunderdomers got their next jobs from colleagues sharing openings. And even if none of the new jobs resulted from the sharing, I know the sharing lifted spirits during a time of anxiety.
And now a fantasy football league is taking shape on the same Google group (I am so far resisting the urge).
Work your network
Even if you’re a rookie just fired from your first job in journalism, you have a network. Your J-school classmates work in different places. Colleagues have moved on before you from the place that just fired you. You’ve met other journalists at conferences or interacted with them on social media. Or competed with them. Reach out and ask whether they know of current or looming opportunities. Ask if they’ll be references for you.
Tom Meagher, who led Thunderdome’s data team and found a job as data editor for the Marshall Project, shared this networking advice:
Connect with past colleagues and classmates as informally as you can. Prepare to drink a lot of beer and coffee to catch up. Use this to do your reporting on what positions are open now and what might be soon. To make this work, you have to build and nurture your network when you’re not unemployed. Nobody wants to get inquiries only when you need something from them. Stay in touch. And when you get hired, help out friends in your network who are on the job hunt. Buy them beers and coffee and share the tips you know about. The day after DFM announced Thunderdome’s shutdown, my former paper announced it was laying off 40 of my colleagues there. In this industry right now, there’s always someone who can use a hand and a good word. Offer it whenever you can.
Ross Maghielse, a former Thunderdomer who is quality control editor at Bleacher Report and starting next week on Facebook’s news and curation team, agreed on the importance of networking:
What I’ve found most useful when looking for jobs has 100 percent been calling in your network, getting references and trying to find back doors into places. The job I landed at Bleacher Report was the only one — out of 4 now, soon to be 5 — that I’ve gotten kind of on my own, just by cold calling. Even then, Jim Brady was a reference for me and knew one of the higher ups there so I asked him for a good word as I got further along in the process.
Pursue every opportunity
Some jobs might seem like long shots, either unlikely that you’ll get the job or unlikely that you’ll take it. But sometimes it’s good just to make the contact and explore possibilities. My oldest son, Mike, was initially scornful as a college senior when Mimi encouraged him to pursue a job with Sen. Chuck Hagel (as a receptionist in the Washington office, as I recall). But he interviewed and learned that they were looking for an assistant press secretary, too. He got that job and eight years later he was Hagel’s chief of staff.
Mandy Jenkins, Thunderdome’s former managing editor and now editor of Storyful’s Open Newsroom, shared this advice:
One thing I think really helped me get a feel for the job was to never turn down a meeting. If someone I knew suggested I meet with that person or have a coffee with a former colleague who may or may not be hiring, I went. Whether or not they had a job open or were even in my corner of the industry, I went — and it was worth it. I met with so many people of varied journalism backgrounds at a lot of different places to glean knowledge about what it was like inside their newsrooms (past and present), the lessons they learned in their careers and get their advice and guidance on my own path. In a lot of ways, this was just networking, but I also feel like I got a lot of mentorship in that time – and that will sustain me long past the job search process.
I’m not saying that you pursue jobs that wouldn’t possibly be a fit. But if you can imagine that you could and would do the job, you should at least explore it. Sometimes long shots turn into jobs. I had little expectation that Jim Brady would be interested in me when he was planning a Washington local news operation in late 2009. Jim had an extensive network of former colleagues and other contacts with more Washington experience than me. Jim and I had never met at that point, and I would need a pretty hefty salary. But I took a shot and ended up with the job. And then with my next job.
Curate your references
I love what Kevin Sablan did after deciding to take a buyout from the Orange County Register. He not only tweeted his availability, but he solicited references (I tweeted back with one):
I’ll be entering the job market soon. If I’ve ever helped you, please reply with a reason for someone to hire me. I’ll @storify tweets.
— Kevin Sablan (@ksablan) June 12, 2014
Kevin curated the responses using Storify, so he could provide prospective employers a compilation of references. Some employers are going to want to check references directly, and that’s fine. But this gives an employer a strong positive impression early in the process, and the compilation might push someone to start considering and calling references (most job applicants don’t get that far).
In cover letters for some employers, I quoted and linked to relevant kind words that have been written about me.
Check and update your digital profile
Assume that your next boss will Google you before deciding whether to bring you in for an interview. So Google yourself (sign out of Google first, so that your results aren’t customized).
If the top results include something unflattering, consider how to respond. If you don’t use many social media accounts (a Twitter account or a Google+ profile, for instance), start new accounts and fill in the biographical sections. Social media accounts in your name rank high in search results, so they may push the unflattering content further down in search results. Buying a domain in your name, if it’s available, and putting some blog posts or portfolio material there, also increases your chances of moving something you control up higher than the unflattering piece. (If your name isn’t available as a .com, check whether it’s available with a different suffix, such as .biz or .me.) Also, consider whether you should respond in the comments of the unflattering piece, offering some explanation or a link to a different view of the story.
If a friend tagged you in an embarrassing photo from a college party, you might ask him or her to delete the photo or at least the tag.
If you don’t have an About.me page, this might be the time to start one. And, if you do have one, you should make sure it’s updated:
Also be sure to update profiles such as LinkedIn and any other social-media profiles or any portfolio pages you have, especially if they show up high in search results.
I did a 2009 post (so some of it is probably outdated) on maintaining your digital profile and a 2013 post advising editors on checking the digital profiles of job candidates. Either or both might have some helpful steps for you to take.
Customize your resumé
Every job has different priorities and seeks different skills. If I was applying for an academic job, I wanted to highlight my academic experience. For a newsroom leadership job, I would make a more prominent mention of my 2010 selection as Editor of the Year by Editor & Publisher magazine. For a job leading a digital operation, I would emphasize my digital experience and achievements.
Hyperlink your resumé, too. Unless someone asks you to submit a hard-copy resumé (or uses a clunky HR interface that might strip out coding), email the key decision-maker a resumé loaded with hyperlinks to your best work, praise or awards you’ve received, etc. You shouldn’t inundate a prospective boss with stuff by and about you. You just want to email a few clips with the resumé, but a hyperlinked resumé becomes a portal to your career for the boss who wants to explore beyond a few stories.
Showcase your work
As I explained in a 2011 post, if you use digital tools to showcase your work, you show both your skills and your work to prospective employers.
Recommend people on LinkedIn
I’ve written dozens of LinkedIn recommendations over the years for colleagues I’ve worked with. Many of them reciprocated with strong recommendations for me. After we learned of Thunderdome’s demise, I wrote recommendations for some of the colleagues I’d worked most closely with (I meant to write more, though I got busy and didn’t finish that work; if we’ve worked closely together, email me and I’ll write a recommendation or tell you why I won’t). I’ve been writing recommendations for several years, long before LinkedIn started offering and encouraging “endorsements.” I haven’t started doing endorsements, which just choose an area where you’d endorse someone’s skills, such as journalism, blogging or social media. I prefer the more detailed and personalized written recommendation.
If someone whose recommendation you would really appreciate doesn’t reciprocate when you recommend him or her, ask for a recommendation. It may be a little awkward. But you want to know if the person just missed the notification of your recommendation or was too busy to reciprocate at the moment. If the person truly wouldn’t recommend you, you want to know why. Maybe you can repair that relationship and/or learn something important about yourself. At the least, you’ll be careful not to list that person as a reference.
Excellent advice here from Tom Meagher:
Move quickly when you find out about opportunities. Don’t dither and apply with all due haste. Don’t miss out on being a candidate because you waited a week to apply.
Make a strong pitch
Whoever is considering you for a job is getting lots of pitches. You need to make yours the best. Tom again:
- Don’t send vague, general inquiries, even if you’re friends with the hiring editor. Put your best foot forward and apply as if you’re writing to a total stranger.
- Don’t just recite a litany of past accomplishments. Tell the hiring organization how you’ll meet their needs. Write about what skills they want and how you can do everything they need and more.
Prepare for your interview
Research both the organization and the individuals you will be interviewing with. Check the people on LinkedIn to see what mutual connections you might have (they will show in the right rail when you’re looking at someone’s profile). If a good friend or former boss shows up, email or call and interview that person about the person you’ll be interviewing with. This works better sometimes than others; I accept LinkedIn recommendations from any journalist who wasn’t connect and more than once I’ve told people asking for an introduction that I didn’t really know the person LinkedIn showed as a connection. I can’t provide much intelligence for my friend, but I still contact the person, who initiated our LinkedIn connection, and put in a good word for my friend.
In researching a potential boss, you might just learn trivial things like hobbies or favorite sports teams, but a little talk about shared interests, even trash talk with the fan of a rival team, helps develop a personal connection during an interview (Jim Brady, a lifelong Met fan, hired me, knowing I was a Yankee fan, the last year we won the World Series; trash talk in interviewing didn’t hurt me; trash talking for sports fans is a bonding experience). But if you learn about the person’s or organization’s professional priorities and strategy in your research, you can tailor your pitch perfectly in the interview.
Kevin Anderson is surprised how unprepared candidates have been for interviews for openings he has filled recently. His tips will help you prepare.
Tom Meagher adds this advice:
Do your homework. Know about the organization you’re applying to. Understand their product and their needs. … Come to the job interview prepared with specific anecdotes about your work. Anticipate what kind of questions they might ask and tell them about how you tackled those problems in the past. Ask a lot of questions and do your reporting here.
As you do your homework, anticipate possible questions relating to the company’s priorities and strategy. Practice your answers out loud. (I turn off the radio when I’m driving before an interview and war-game possible questions and answers.)
Look your best
I say this as a person who’s never been particularly attractive. The hair that used to be unruly is now thinning, my nose has always been large and I look rumpled even in nice clothes. But look the best you can for an interview.
A few years ago I experienced age discrimination that was serious enough I consulted a labor attorney (a longtime friend). While I didn’t end up suing, I decided to shave the beard that had turned white (I originally grew the beard as a young assistant city editor with a baby face, wanting to look a little older). The attorney wouldn’t give me legal advice about shaving my beard, since employers shouldn’t discriminate based on age. But as a friend, she told me, yes, I’d look younger clean-shaven, and that would probably help in job-hunting. I don’t like shaving and the beard may come back. It’s wrong that looking a bit younger probably helps me in my job hunt, but I’m not able correct that wrong and I don’t want to be hurt by it any more than necessary.
I don’t often wear a tie or a jacket, but I wore them for job interviews. On one interview at a very casual workplace, my attire stood out enough that one of the people interviewing me commented that it was more a jeans place than a jacket place. Still, it’s better to stand out by being overdressed than underdressed. (I got an excellent offer from that employer.)
Nail the interview
Relax and be yourself in the interview, however nervous you are. The prep steps described above will help. Answer honestly. You can’t win the game of guessing what answer the prospective employer wants to hear. And if you do win, you might get into a job that’s not a good fit for the real you. Be genuine in an interview, unless you’re truly an aggressive person. Then you should tone down a bit in manner, but still answer honestly.
Don’t be passive in the interview, though. Don’t just answer questions. Ask some, too. The employer isn’t the only one trying to decide if this job is a good fit. Ask smart questions that will help you decide whether this is a place where you will thrive and advance and enjoy your career.
Don’t arrogantly take over the interview, but if you ask a few questions that place the employer in the position of pitching to you, that’s a good shift in the psychology of the interview (if they’ve been pitching you, they’re going to want to make you a good offer).
Follow up the interview
Again from Tom:
After an interview, send a handwritten thank-you note and a longer email memo about what specifically you’ll do for them when you get this job. Use this to build your case.
My 2005 interview with Drew Davis at the American Press Institute was fairly quick, though we did cover a lot of ground. On my flights back to Omaha, I fleshed out some answers about how I would do the job and emailed them to Drew the next morning. A week later, I had the job.
That swift offer from API was rare. More often I’ve waited weeks or months for a job to take shape, even after I thought I nailed the interview and followed up thoughtfully. Tom again:
- Be patient. Nobody hires on your schedule.
- Stay in touch. Maintain a good sense of humor and recognize that when an editor says “We hope to decide next week,” they’re going to be delayed. Stories come up. Colleagues get sick and deadlines loom. The key is to stay on the radar without being annoying or angry. Maybe once a week or 10 days, send a quick check-in email. And in each one, include a graf or two about the additional research or thinking you’re doing about the job.
- There are a million factors at play in hiring decisions, almost all of which are out of your control. It is a slow, opaque process. Even if you don’t get a job you really want, be a good sport about it and leave things on a good note. You never know when you’ll be applying to that same editor again in a couple years, or when they might be applying to you for a job. This industry can be a very small world. You may miss out on a job today, but if you use it as an opportunity to build a professional friendship, it could lead to something later.
Some job hunts seem to take interminably long, testing the patience that I urged above. If you are seeking a job in reporting, photojournalism or copy editing, you’ll face a lot of competition. If you’re looking for a leadership job, opportunities aren’t very plentiful. Whatever position you’re seeking, random factors such as the connections of other job candidates can frustrate you. But keep searching. Several of my job hunts became very frustrating before they became rewarding. And I know some Thunderdome colleagues who were frustrated that jobs didn’t materialize quickly are now pleased that they persevered and found the right jobs.
Take the right job
Both times that I’ve been fired, and job-hunting in dire need, I didn’t accept the highest-paying offer I received. Money is important, and I don’t fault anyone who makes decisions based on money. But both times I accepted the job that seemed most right to me. If you have a choice and if you can afford to, I think you’ll always be happiest taking the job that’s the best fit.
Ross adds this advice:
Don’t take a job just because it’s there if it’s really not for you. I applied everywhere once I was laid off and got a couple interviews at places that really wouldn’t have been a good fit for me. Luckily, I didn’t take any of those but I can see where it’s easy to settle. Despite this business’s challenges, I don’t think it’s one where you need to settle, because everything is so fluid. You’re better off waiting for something you know you’re qualified for and can do well, than just taking a job because it’s there.
Once you get an offer, don’t assume that’s the final offer, unless someone specifically says that’s all they can pay you. Ask for money (I’ve been successful more often than not in these negotiations, whether I ended up taking the job or not). Ask for more vacation. Ask if the employer will cover some or all of your moving expenses (if you’d need to move). A couple times I got a “signing bonus” to help with other transitional costs. You might need to learn whether policies would allow or prohibit a spouse working there. I always make sure that my side business of training and consulting in the news business will be allowed (and if not, my price would go up).
Obviously you’re in a different negotiating position if you already have a good job and are interested in a new opportunity than if you’re losing (or have already lost) your current job. If you have a severance package (or savings) that gives you some time to keep looking, that also changes the negotiating position. But even if you’re in a weak position, you should negotiate. The employer has already decided he or she wants you, and probably didn’t start with the last offer. And even if they say no, you still have that offer to consider.
More advice from Tom Meagher
Tom sent along a few more pieces of advice.:
- Apply for a job every day, if you can. Don’t send out a burst of applications and then wait to hear back. Always be applyin’.
- Have a side project. If you’re unemployed for a long period, you want to have something to show for it. Start a blog covering a subject you’re passionate about. Launch a website. Build a news app. Use this as a chance to build something that you can put on your resume. “While I was unemployed for six months, I launched my own website, covering high school sports in my town, growing to a readership of 10,000 visitors per week.” Be entrepreneurial about your career.
- Have a hobby. This is an exhausting process that can take up all your time. Be able to step away from the grind of the job hunt. Go for a run. Watch a good movie. Bake a cake. Do something that you enjoy and helps you to recharge.
I’m not going to guarantee you that all of these techniques will result in a job for you. I know that lots of journalists are trying hard to find work in a profession that’s not hiring enough or paying well enough. Whether you follow these steps or not, sometimes you need some luck to land a job. When I approached Larry King, then the executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, in 2000 about possibly returning to work there, I couldn’t have known that the staff had just been urging the editors to hire a writing coach or that the editors had just had a story that they wished they could have assigned to me. Anyway, my timing was perfect and I got a better job to come back than it would have taken to keep me there two years earlier.
Other times you’ll have lousy timing, applying the day after the job was filled. Or you might have a similar name or look to someone who did a lousy job for that newsroom, and that subtle connection makes a subconscious negative impression in the editor’s mind that you can’t control or counter.
You can’t control the luck. But pursue your next job thoughtfully, and sooner or later, I think the luck will break your way, too.
What are your tips?
You certainly have some tips from your own job hunts. What are some tips to add to those I’ve shared here? Or some anecdotes that help illustrated the tips here?
Next: Some of my job-hunting advice deals with what you do while still working and happy to position yourself for your next job hunt. I’ll blog about that later this week.