Journalists and bad job-hunting skills

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

I don’t know if this is the case just in China or everywhere, but a great number of journalists I interview lately have remarkably poor job hunting skills.

It seems that I’m spending this week – like most weeks — up to my eyeballs in recruitment ads and job applications. This time, we’re hiring for a bookkeeper/office manager and freelance writers and copyeditors for a new online magazine about central and western China.

I’ve been seeing resumes from people with nice academic backgrounds and truly horrible work histories. Sure, there’s always the chance that they’re evil people who can’t keep a steady job because of their hobby of murdering drifters. But I tend to assume the simplest explanation — they don’t know how to job hunt.

This is sad because there are so many books and other resources for job hunters, and it all really boils down to research and networking — two things that reporters should be excellent at.

I understand that the market is saturated and it’s hard to get started, but there are a few things that I look for on a resume and from an applicant that I hardly ever see — and the bad job market can’t possibly be to blame. Among them are:

* Commitment to journalism. Even during stints as a waitress, does the applicant continue to write freelance articles, contribute to professional organizations, take courses, even volunteer as editor of the local library newsletter? Something? Anything? Or do they just give up? I don’t want to hire people who give up easily.
* Basic professionalism. Is everything spelled right? Are parallel grammatical structures actually parallel? This is a no-brainer. Why would anyone turn in a journalism resume to an editor before it’s been proof-read?
* Pushyness. If I don’t have a job available or at the right salary, does the applicant negotiate? Maybe there’s something else they can do to prove themselves, or while the right job comes along? I want a reporter who can’t take “no” for an answer. If the reporter is really, really pushy I might even create a job just for her. It’s a tough profession. I want tough people.
* Volunteerism. How willing is the applicant to do something that’s not in the job descriptio? I want to see evidence of participation in professional organizations, or taking on extra assignments. If it’s not in the resume, it’s easy enough to demonstrate — offer to help me out with a project. There’s always things I’m working on that I need help with. Even if it doesn’t directly lead to a job, it will certainly lead to good recommendation or referral.

On the other hand — and I hate to admit this — I have a soft spot for applicants with no job-hunting skills. I see someone with a decent educational history and job record but an misprinted resume and ugly shirt and an inability to look me in the eye, and I think, “If I hire this guy, he’ll stick around for a while, because he doesn’t know how to job hunt.”

I’m not proud of this. And I feel guilty, and compensate by helping writers out when I can. I’ve been known to copyedit applicants’ resumes. (Okay, that’s not from guilt — I just can’t stop myself. I even copyedit restaurant menus.)

Freelance writers are even worse. Which is funny, given that they, in effect, are constantly job hunting.

Here’s what I often see from freelancers:

* No website. In this day and age, how can you not have a website? The quickest, cheapest way to do it: get a free blog from Google (Blogger) or Terapad, which are the two services I recommend most often. Blogger, however, is blocked in China – which could either be a good, or a bad thing. Post your bio and your resume in the “about” section, and your clips as blog entries. You can back-date your blog entries, so you can post your clips by when they appeared. Depending on the kind of permission you have from your old editors, you can either post the whole article, or just the first couple of paragraphs and then the link to your original story. You can add a couple of articles a day until you’ve got a nice selection of clips to look at – which brings me to the next point:
* Just one clip per pub. Writers often provide a list of publications they write for, plus one clip each from a handful of them, presumably their best clip. I wonder: did the magazine drop them after one story? Were they so hard to work with that the editors never wanted to see them again? More than a nice clip, I want to see evidence that the writer had a long-term, successful relationship with an editor. In the past, when clips had to be copied, editors probably didn’t want to spend their time wading through stories and just wanted to look at a handful of the best ones. Now, I want to see all the clips. Yes, the all the hundreds — or thousands — of stories. Maybe the best ones can be featured in a special section somewhere, but I want to be able to browse. Is the writer consistent? Able to learn new subjects? Have a broad background — or have depth of knowledge in a particular field? These are all good things to know.
* Goofy email address. It costs $10 (or less) per year to register a URL. Gmail will cost your email for you, for free, at that URL. So you don’t need to have a account. You can use, and still have Gmail’s great interface. Many small businesses are using it these days to host their corporate email. Freelance writers should, too, or invest in an email hosting service.
* No testimonials. Many editors would be happy to give writers a quote testifying to their ability to meet deadlines or to produce usable copy. For some reason, however, most writers never ask. It’s okay to ask. The worst that could happen is that the editor woud say no, and blame corporate policies. I want to help my best freelance writers stay in business, which means that they need a steady flow of work. And if they get too busy to write for me — well, I’m sorry to see them go, but I’m also happy for their success. I bet other editors feel the same way.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for either freelance or staff work – or a summer intership — look me up. I’m always checking my email.

Signing off in Shanghai,