Job-hunting Horror Stories

By: Randy Dotinga

Welcome to the first issue of E&P’s Employment Line, a weekly e-mail newsletter exclusively for subscribers to Editor & Publisher magazine. Each week, we’ll cover the career news and trends affecting all aspects of the newspaper industry from the newsroom to the press room, and every department in between.

One editor failed to return follow-up phone calls after three job interview sessions. Another skipped town for a day-long seminar, leaving an applicant to cool his heels in the lobby. And a third sent a rejection letter, postage due.

Job-hunting horror stories? Yup. Nearly everyone who’s ever applied for a job in a newsroom has at least a handful. These just happen to be my most memorable encounters, the tales I swap with other journalists.

“Just as candidates are making first impressions in the hiring process, newspapers are too,” said Joe Grimm, the newsroom recruiter at the Detroit Free Press. “Newspapers need to know that the way they handle candidates reflects on them and will be remembered — for good or for bad — for years to come.”

But that message isn’t getting across. At many newspapers, the newsroom is the only department allowed to do its own hiring, with little input from human resources. Editors are often left with no guidelines about how to treat job candidates with respect. Large newspapers should be the most circumspect, considering they often have their own full-time recruiters or hiring editors. But bigger isn’t always better. The editors responsible for my worst job-hunting experiences worked at the top newspapers in San Diego, Sacramento, and Minneapolis.

James G. Wright knows the drill. He’s an assistant metro editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and recently went to a series of three interviews at one of the nation’s largest newspapers. But he couldn’t get an editor to return his calls afterward. A few weeks later he came across a wire story announcing that someone else had gotten the job. “It was very strange and disheartening,” he said. “I actually felt quite hurt, not that I didn’t get the job, but that they never called, never responded, never said, ‘Sorry, you didn’t get it.'”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Bosses can make the lives of applicants easier and uphold their newspaper’s good name by following a few simple rules:

* Acknowledge applications and return messages. “It ain’t hard,” said Eric Hubler, an education reporter at The Denver Post. “Do what I do for a living: make calls and answer calls.”

* Be clear about the status of a job opening and your interest, if you have any, in a candidate. “Searching for a job is like dating,” Hubler said. “No means no and yes means yes, I get that. But what does ‘maybe’ mean? What does ‘feel free to keep in touch’ mean? A direct answer to a direct question could save us both some time and heartbreak.”

* Keep track of the welfare of your applicants when they come to visit your newspaper. Tell them where the restroom is and offer them something to drink. Grimm, the Detroit recruiter, heard from a reporter who went to an interview and was left sitting for an hour in an empty office. “By the time they came to get her, all interest she had in working at that newspaper had evaporated,” he said.

* Follow-up after every single interview with a call, letter, or e-mail. Don’t leave someone hanging, even if you have absolutely no news to report. Some newspapers might want to follow the example of The Monterey County (Calif.) Herald. Cara Brennan, who manages human resources at the paper, met with editors and set down rules about contacting applicants after interviews. Personnel departments don’t have a reputation of being touchy-feely for nothing. Ask for their advice on how to track applicants and treat them fairly.

* Be kind to job hunters, even if they don’t have a drop of experience. Nearly a decade later, Victoria Stagg Elliott, a reporter at American Medical News, still remembers a recruiter for Gannett who dismissed her stack of clips as “a couple of articles” at a job fair. It was early in Elliott’s career. “I felt awful,” she recalled. If you’re an editor, you may have gone through the hiring wringer yourself. Make sure the sins of your bosses stop with you.

And if you’re the job seeker, try not to take these snubs personally. They’re probably not excusable, just as they’re probably not a reflection on you or your skills. More likely, they’re the result of overworked, stressed-out managers.

COMING NEXT WEEK: How to impress your future boss. We’ll tell job seekers how many times to call, what to wear on that job interview, and how to follow up.
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Freelancer Randy Dotinga is based in San Diego. Please send your comments and suggestions to

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