Good Answers Are Hard to Find

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By: Randy Dotinga

Cub reporter Don Stanziano knew he was in trouble when the word “Seinfeld” passed through his lips during a job interview at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal.

It was back in the early 1990s, and the interviewer had asked Stanziano what he does in his spare time. Fumbling a bit, he mentioned television and his favorite show, which was little known back then.

“He looked at me and said, ‘It’s a sitcom?!’ I just know he thought, ‘How shallow,'” Stanziano recalled. “But I was making $15,000 a year. I don’t know what he thought I would be doing — hiking in the Amazon or feeding starving children.”

Stanziano didn’t get the job in the Rubber Capital of the World. He now works in public relations in sunny San Diego and makes several times his old salary, but he’s still haunted by the nightmare of many a newspaper applicant — the Bad Answer.

Of course, there’s no way to guarantee chemistry between an interviewer and interviewee. But to give you a leg up, here are some tips on how to respond to common job interview questions:

1. Where do you want to be in five years?

Editors interviewed for this story swore they never ask this question, perhaps the most cliched interview query of all time. “Most people don’t know what they want to be doing in five minutes,” said Gregory Favre, distinguished fellow at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., and former editor of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee.

But even if no one specifically asks about the future, employers will try to pin you down on your goals. Be prepared with answers that show you want to grow on the job, even if you’re not interested in moving to a higher position.

Newsroom job candidates, for example, can show ambition by declaring an intention to become editor someday or by simply saying “they want to be the best reporter they can be,” Favre said.

2. Why are you in journalism (or advertising or marketing)?

There are plenty of ways to answer this question, but they all have to show one thing: passion. If you’re an ad rep, mention the thrill of landing your biggest client. If you’re a reporter, talk about your favorite stories.

Whatever you say, make it clear that you have a pulse, which will immediately set you apart from other applicants. “So often there’s just no passion in their voices and you can’t detect any passion for journalism in their answers,” said Barry Robinson, administrative editor at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News. “The last thing an editor wants to hear is just a blah, boring response, like it’s an answer to any other job question. They want to hear some enthusiasm for the craft, for breaking news, for working on deadline.”

You could also talk about why you entered your field in the first place, but make sure any story you tell makes it clear that you didn’t just follow orders. “If someone says, ‘My daddy was a journalist,’ or ‘My mama was,’ I’m not too excited about that,” said Walter Middlebrook, associate editor for recruitment at Newsday in Melville, N.Y. “But the ones who rebel against their parents — they’re more fun to watch. That’s a fun interview.”

3. What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

Keep your ego under control when this question comes along. “The best people I know evaluate themselves the toughest,” Favre said. “I want someone who wants to get better. I don’t want anybody to tell me, ‘I’m the best damn government reporter you ever saw.’ I know that’s a bunch of crap.”

To really impress an interviewer, admit a weakness that isn’t a deal-breaker (“I enjoy stealing office supplies”) or a backhanded strength (“My incredible productivity annoys my lazier co-workers”). Perhaps you need to write tighter, improve the composition in your photographs, or do a better job of following up with advertising clients.

4. What do you do in your free time?

This can be a toughie. (Hint: Don’t mention “Seinfeld.”)

Middlebrook, the Newsday editor, likes to see applicants who have a life outside the newsroom. “It’s not a good sign if they say they’ve done nothing and their whole life is devoted to school, or if they say they’ve been working in the city and haven’t done anything to get to know the community,” he said.

Other interviewers shy away from these kinds of questions because of fears about lawsuits. Delving into an applicant’s personal life could bring up details about religion, age, ethnic group, or sexual orientation. And this knowledge could be grounds for a discrimination lawsuit if someone doesn’t get a job.

“I’ve trained recruiters who don’t realize the consequences that these questions could bring up,” said Edward Welsh, a human resources consultant in New York City. “As an interviewer, I don’t really need to know what you do in your personal life.”

If the trend away from personal questions continues, there is one bright spot: newspaper applicants may never again have to worry about disclosing their favorite TV shows in an interview.

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