Hiring the right 'face' for your community newspaper

By Marshel Rossow

Serve a solid internship and collect a variety of clips, but watch out for jeans and be wary of what you put on Facebook. Oh, by the way, bring some common sense to the interview.

Those pieces of practical wisdom are among the advice Minnesota editors and publishers offered job applicants in response to a survey that examined how newspapers large and small go about choosing the right "hires" for their newsrooms. Editors, publishers and other people involved in the hiring process at all 26 regular dailies and a random sample of 52 Minnesota weeklies were asked via phone and mail survey how they select the often-elusive best fit for a reporter opening. The papers' circulations ranged from 642 to 368,794, with all but a couple having circulations below 50,000.

More than a third of the dailies said they receive more than 20 applications for a typical job opening, but only about one in 10 of the smaller weeklies had that luxury; indeed, more than 40 percent of the weeklies said they usually get fewer than five applicants.

Those lower numbers of applicants for smaller papers don't translate into fewer candidates brought in for an interview.

About two-thirds of large and small papers said they usually interview three to five candidates, and about half said they interview a candidate more than once in seeking the right hire. Papers of all sizes made it clear that in-person interviews are usually a must: more than nine in 10 dailies and eight in 10 weeklies said they won't hire without talking with the candidate in person. (Exceptions were a few weeklies that said they might do a long-distance hire if the person offered impeccable clips and references and came across well in a telephone interview.)

The size of the newspaper doesn't make much difference when it comes to checking candidates' references. About half the dailies and weeklies reported they usually check three to five references, with the telephone as the favorite contact method. A handful of respondents said they go beyond listed references in their search for the right fit. Said one: "We call past employers whether or not they are listed as a reference."

As newspaper size increases, so does the importance of the applicant having a journalism degree. Perhaps reflecting the pick-and-choose ability of larger papers, more than three-fourths of the editors and publishers at dailies said an undergraduate journalism degree is a must, but only half the weeklies agreed with that expectation. Several editors of smaller papers said they are willing to expand their applicant pool by training local residents who show potential to fit into the newsroom; such applicants, the editors noted, have the advantage of already being familiar with the community.

In keeping with their willingness to train locals on the job, editors at smaller papers also had lower expectations of hands-on experience among applicants.

While more than nine of 10 hirers at the larger papers said previous experience is a prerequisite, almost a third of the hirers at weeklies said they would consider an applicant with no experience. Editors and publishers from all sizes of papers indicated there is room for improvement when it comes to applicants' job preparation. Asked to rate the readiness of candidates on a scale of one to five, where one meant poorly prepared and five meant very well prepared, almost half the respondents at both types of papers gave a "preparedness" score of three (46 percent dailies, 49 percent weeklies). An additional 28 percent of dailies offered a four, but 16 percent of the weeklies gave a score of only two.

The hirers did offer a glimmer of hope for journalism graduates who did more than just sit in class. Fresh journalism grads with student newspaper experience would be considered at almost three-fourths of the dailies and two-thirds of the weeklies. As one editor summed it up: "College journalists underestimate the necessity of hands-on experience." Another noted: "Too many fresh grads have not completed an internship or worked on a school newspaper.... There is nothing to distinguish them from other applicants."

It was interesting to note that an internship at a commercial newspaper carried more weight with hirers at all sizes of papers. About three-fourths of the hirers at dailies favored the working newspaper internship over student newspaper work. Hirers at weeklies were more forgiving, with one-third favoring the traditional newspaper internship but 57 percent saying such experience was neither more nor less desirable than student newspaper work.

To help verify an applicant's ability , most hirers turn at least in part to the old standby: clips. A full 100 percent of the dailies said they won't hire without examining the candidate's earlier work, and nine out of 10 of the weeklies make that requirement. How many clips are enough? Fifty-eight percent of the dailies ask to see five to 10 examples, and one-third require four or fewer. Among weeklies, about four in 10 want five to 10 clips; the same number will accept fewer than five.

To supplement clues from clips, dailies are more likely to require formal skills tests of candidates. More than 60 percent of the dailies said they give the candidate a formal test--usually a writing assignment or a test of spelling, punctuation and grammar. A minority (about four in 10) of the weeklies use formal tests, with an equal preference for tests involving writing assignment versus mechanical skills.

And why do candidates brought in for an interview end up not being offered the job? The No. 1 reason for dailies (45 percent) and weeklies (33 percent) was because the interview didn't go well.

Almost a quarter of the dailies reported turning down an applicant because of a gut feeling about the candidate's fit for the job and community; a much smaller 6 percent of the weeklies shared that feeling. But both types of papers (12 percent dailies, 14 percent weeklies) said the personality of the applicant factored into evaluating fitness for the job. Only 8 percent of the dailies and 4 percent of the weeklies actually stated that the candidate didn't seem to be a good fit for the paper. Those low numbers may be a matter of semantics--it's likely that such reasons as personality issues, weak interviews and gut feelings also might lead to a bad fit conclusion.

The final question of the survey allowed open-ended comments about the hiring process. A sampling of those comments shows first impressions are important, and common sense is a useful trait:

The first impression:

"Don't wear jeans to the interview."

"Dress for the interview like you want the job. Don't come in jeans or baggy clothes."

"A smile and proper dress attire goes a long way."

"Candidates need to dress the part. Professional."

The common sense:

"Some people are slow to apply. Apply quickly ."

"Respond to an opening as soon as possible."

"Get names right; watch grammar in letters and resumes."

"Rarely do candidates write a thank you note."

One editor observed that after he had trimmed his applicant list to two candidates, he made his hiring choice easily when he checked out both candidates on Facebook and saw a photo of one smiling happily with friends while holding a bong clip and a beer. The other candidate got the job.

As another editor simply stated, "Common sense goes a long way."

© Marshel Rossow

Marshel Rossow is the chair and professor of mass communications at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN. He is a former reporter, photographer and editor at Iowa daily newspapers. He can be reached at (507) 389-5522 or atmarshel.rossow@mnsu.edu. This article was excerpted from a paper he did for the 2009 Huck Boyd Symposium.

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