As journalists, we tell stories, weaving layers of detail into narratives that engage the public and help them make sense of their larger world. And yet, our melodic ledes and carefully woven bits of prose rarely translate to the way we craft our job descriptions.
I’ve read a lot of journalism job descriptions that start off with a dry description of the organization, written by a detached omniscient narrator, before diving into a list of qualifications that someone needs — often layered with jargon and wording that would likely turn a lot of good candidates away before they even applied.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I was reminded of this last week, when Maureen McMurray, New Hampshire Public Radio’s Director of Content Innovation and Audience Development, tweeted that she was “composing a public media job description...and boring herself.”
What’s an ideal description, she asked?
Several people responded, including Adam Ragusea, a journalism professor at Mercer University and the host of the public media insider podcast, The Pub.
“It's funny, we're all experienced storytellers,” he wrote, “but we need to be reminded to "show, don't tell" when it comes to job postings.”
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This might mean addressing the candidates directly and walking them through a typical day, as Meetup does, or having a clear “About you” section that describes exactly what a candidate should be comfortable doing, which Github does. It could mean “trying a good, better, and best style when describing what kinds of experience/skills/characters you seek,” as Bec Feldhaus Adams, the editorial project manager at WAMU suggested. Maybe you list what candidates will learn, who they’ll work with, and where they’ll ideally be in a year.
Or it could mean making it really, really clear why someone might want to move to New Hampshire to become the next Executive Producer of the Creative Production Unit, which is the job that McMurray is trying to fill.
I reached out to McMurray to learn more about what motivated her to rethink the job description for the Executive Producer role, which was a job she previously held. I also dug into a lot of research about crafting good job descriptions — and getting them in front of a diverse candidate pool. Here’s what I learned:
1. New roles often don’t fit with traditional job descriptions.
McMurray says she felt like a traditional description didn’t quite work for the job she’s trying to fill.
“Traditionally, our job postings have been broken down into bullet points listing off responsibilities, requirements, and preferred skills,” she says. “As I was writing the description, I realized that the bullet-point format didn’t capture the spirit of the NHPR or the position. I also realized that not everyone is ready to pick up and move to New Hampshire. If we want to attract a diverse pool of candidates, we need to sell the state and the station.”
She added a paragraph explaining who the executive producer would work with, and explained exactly what the person would do. She also made it really clear what their ideal candidate would look like, and tried to lay out some of the intangibles she was thinking about.
“When I’m chatting with my friends about my job, I say 'Oh, it’s actually a great gig!' and then I talk about the team: How lucky I am to lead such a talented group of producers and hosts. How cool it is to experiment with storytelling and format. How fun it is to joke around in the studio. How great it is when a producer makes a creative breakthrough. And how gratifying it is to produce work that resonates with the audience," she says. “I don’t lead with, “I maximize efficiency and effectiveness.”
If you have a job description with jargon-y terms, cross them out and try to think of ways you might describe them to someone you know. (This might be easier in a storytelling format.)
2. If you want to attract a diverse candidate pool, you have to post the job publicly.
Stacey-Marie Ishmael lays this out in her excellent essay “Lessons in inclusive hiring: what I’ve learnt.”
“There’s an insidious practice of folks simply emailing their contacts and saying, 'we’re hiring for X, know anyone?' and never posting a job description,” she writes.
This limits the pool considerably to people already connected to an existing network. And because the portion of people of color in newsrooms has decreased over the past decade and journalists of color hold less than 10 percent of leadership roles, this also perpetuates the lack of diversity in newsrooms.
3. It’s important to cast a net for new hires outside of your existing networks.
In her 2015 manifesto on diversity in public media, "This American Life" producer Stephanie Foo laid out an action plan for journalism organizations to step outside of their comfort zone when making hiring decisions.
The entire piece is brilliant, but the paragraphs that struck me the most were about her previous employer, the public radio show Snap Judgment and how they advertised for new employees:
From the get-go, instead of posting on journalism job sites, Snap posts on Craigslist. It means they get thousands of applications, but it makes for an incredibly diverse applicant pool.
Several of my coworkers at Snap Judgment had no interest in public radio before they stumbled upon Snap’s Craigslist ads. Their executive producer, Mark Ristich, takes pride in that. “That’s why we hired ’em!” he always likes to say. “You can’t just go for the Princeton grads. The things that wow people normally, they don’t wow us. We want to know what your life story is, what your background is.”
I’ve benefitted tremendously from Snap’s hiring practices. When I interviewed to intern with them, I had zero official experience in radio journalism — I didn’t even know how to use a digital audio workstation. If my resumé had landed on your desk, you probably would never have considered hiring me. But in my cover letter, I promised to be the first one into the office and the last one to leave. Snap Judgment hired me as an intern, then after a whopping three months’ experience, they hired me as a full-fledged producer. I was 22.
If your idea of casting a wide net is by posting your job in some hard-to-find Slack channels and Facebook groups, then it’s likely that people not connected to existing networks will never have a chance to get their foot in the door. We must “rethink the path of a job listing,” as Billy Penn’s Jim Brady puts it.
4. Think about the language you use in your description.
Write short. Write for humans. Think about the subheadings you can use, and change them to be more human. Think about the keywords you use: women are much more likely to not apply for jobs because they didn’t think they were qualified (and are less likely to applied to ads containing words like ‘assertive’) so consider the keywords you use in your job description. Look at ways to include inclusive language and minimize academic experience, if someone has equivalent experience elsewhere. Read every single one of the responses to Erin Kissane’s tweet asking “for people from communities that are underrepresented in their fields to talk about language in job descriptions that makes them back away — and the reverse, wording or specifications that feel inviting.”
Put your benefits in the description — particularly if you offer parental leave, which means candidates don’t have to ask. List a salary range [Related: Comparing parental leave policies in American newsrooms.] And don’t be scared to ask for help publicly, as Maureen did — or internally at your workplace.
5. Think about how you might describe the position to a friend.
“Don’t be wed to format,” says McMurray. “Relying solely on bullet points can make a job description sound rote, and often misses the most important parts of the gig.”
But, she cautions, you may be limited by HR software — which often has specific fields that need to be filled out.
If this is the case, you can publish an alternative description on your blog or Medium and link to the official job description, or participate in an interview like this.
I asked McMurray what she would want to be included in her dream job description for the position she’s trying to fill, and she said this:
“Coworkers are key to making or breaking a job, so an ideal job description would include team introductions,” she says. “If potential candidates could meet the people I get to work with every day, we’d have thousands of applicants. A dream description would also provide more context on the community surrounding the station. We’ve got the “here’s what your work day will entail” covered, but what will the candidate’s weekend look like? Who will his/her neighbors be? What will the commute be like? (I walk to work, FYI).”
In other words, make it clear that you see the job as one part of the equation — but it’s just one part.
Have you seen a really great journalism-related job description? Am I missing more tips? Let me know in the comments or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll round them up and send them back out.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the academic affiliation of Adam Ragusea.
The internet has changed the way people apply for jobs in the television news business. No longer do candidates send news directors VHS tapes or DVDs of work examples via the postal service, instead they forward links to YouTube accounts. No longer do applicants go to the library to research TV stations, instead they search station web pages and peruse LinkedIn profiles.
Still, there are some tried and true elements to landing a TV news job that are timeless. One of the sometimes overlooked elements is the cover letter.
KPIX TV News Director Dan Rosenheim admits, when he’s looking to hire a reporter at his CBS station in San Francisco, the cover letter isn’t his most important criterion. “There are basically three dimensions that I look at in a candidate,” Rosenheim said. “One is their work record and resume, the second is the interview and the third is references.”
Still the cover letter does have value as a professional presentation tool. “A lot of stuff comes in unsolicited at times when I’m not necessarily looking,” Rosenheim said. “And that, in particular, is where a cover letter has an opportunity to pique my interest.”
Here are four tips Rosenheim suggests to make sure the cover letter helps win the job and doesn’t just end up tossed onto the “better luck next time” pile.
1. Don’t oversell. Candidates can say whatever they want in the cover letter, but don’t think the news director isn’t going to find out the truth, eventually. By reading the resume or calling the references, it’s not that hard to discover an applicant was a production assistant writing for the morning show and not the producer writing for the morning show.
Rosenheim recounts a recent experience he had with a candidate who oversold: “I got an application from somebody the other day who said, ‘I am a great reporter, I’ll make a difference for you. I’ve worked in Los Angeles, New York, for the network.’ And I looked [at the resume] and all those jobs were internships and apprenticeships. But from reading the cover letter it made it sound that they’d been the lead reporter at those stations.”
Rest assured, news directors who feel they’re being subjected to a bait and switch will move on to the next applicant.
This even applies to students looking for that first job. “Be transparent, be straightforward, be truthful,” Rosenheim said. “Don’t pretend you can do more.”
He suggests something like this: “My experience as an intern has given me invaluable experience that I now want to use as an entry-level reporter. Going to school in Professor Perez’s class has provided me with a great academic grounding and now it’s time for me to get my feet wet in the real world. And I’d love an entry level job where I could do some reporting.”
2. Be authentic. It’s only natural for applicants to lay it on a little heavy in the cover letter, pointing out why they are the right choice and everyone else isn’t. In fact, that’s kind of the point, right? A cover letter is designed to get the news director to pick the person who wrote it. But Rosenheim says self-promotion can go too far.
“The cover letter is an opportunity to get my attention, but it’s very tricky, because if it’s at all gimmicky or self-serving, it has the opposite effect,” Rosenheim said.
The KPIX news director is in search of authenticity. “You don’t get authenticity when somebody says: ‘You really want to hire me.’ I get letters that say, ‘You will be so happy that you hired me. I make news directors happy everywhere I go.’ Come on.”
Instead, Rosenheim prefers a more hard-nosed approach that avoids – let’s call it what it is – BSing the news director: “I’m an experienced journalist with a track record of breaking stories and I’d love to bring that to your station. I love San Francisco and I admire KPIX. You’re a place I’d really like to work.”
3. Be direct and get to the point. Rosenheim makes a connection between writing in the newsroom and writing the cover letter - the styles are similar.
“Most of what we write [for the newscast] is expository, it’s direct, it’s straightforward, it’s not fiction,” Rosenheim said. The same goes for the cover letter. “You want it to be short, but, just as when we promote a news story, we look for a nugget. Think of the sell. What’s your strength? What are you selling?”
Someone who can get to the point in the cover letter is also showing an ability to write a clear, tight 20-second voice over.
So what is the point of the cover letter? That’s Tip 4.
4. Give examples. All employers want to know what the candidate sitting across the table brings to the table. What is that person going to add to the enterprise? It may be the ability to cover all kinds of stories. Or perhaps she’s an expert in aviation, applying for a job in Houston covering the Johnson Space Center. Maybe he’s the ultimate number cruncher who can do government budget stories better than anyone else. Whatever it is, highlight it in the cover letter.
“Short, sweet and to the point,” Rosenheim said. For example: “I’m really good at coming up with original stories, here are three I’ve done in the last six months – bullet, bullet, bullet.”
Let the cover letter direct the news director’s attention toward what the candidate adds to the newsroom.
To be clear, the cover letter is not going to convince a news director to hire someone to fill a TV reporting position if the resume reel is unpolished (blue video and poor grammar) and the work history listed in the resume isn’t appropriate (trying to jump from, say, Macon to Manhattan). Still, job applicants should remember cover letters are another opportunity to persuade and to demonstrate the skills and expertise that might land the job.
“Why should I hire you and not someone else?” is the essential question Rosenheim asks himself when he’s got a job opening. “Some of it may be I like the way you look on tape,” he said. “But the cover letter is your opportunity to say ‘I can get you scoops,’ ‘I’m a self-starter,’ ‘I have great story ideas.’ That’s something I look for.”
Simon Perez is an assistant professor in the Broadcast and Digital Journalism Department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Before teaching, he spent 25 years reporting for newspapers, magazines and TV stations across the United States and in Spain. In the summers of 2012, 2014 and 2015 he returned to his former job as reporter for KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons he hopes to bring back to the classroom at http://www.simonperez.com/blog-1/.