Mind Your Cover Letter

By: Randy Dotinga

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns looking at the three vital parts of a job application packet — cover letter, work samples, and resume.

If you’re a newsroom job applicant, Dallas Morning News recruiter Selwyn Crawford may be your dream come true: He couldn’t care less about your cover letter.

Spend five minutes on the letter or five hours, it makes no difference to Crawford. “So many people anguish over it when they should worry about whether they’ve got a good-looking, well-done, and correctly spelled resume, and whether their clips are strong,” he said.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many recruiters, editors, or hiring directors like Crawford. While a snappy cover letter probably won’t get you a job on its own, a carelessly written one could easily land your whole package in the circular file.

Here are some tips to make sure the first glance at your application packet isn’t the last.

* CHECK EVERYTHING: Get a name or position wrong and you’re doomed. Consider the experiences of Dana Eagles, the newsroom recruiter at the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. He happens to have X and Y chromosomes. But you wouldn’t know that from some of the cover letters he gets. “At least 10-15% mangle my name or presume that I’m a woman because I have one of those unisex names,” he said. Not exactly a good way to make an impression.

When it comes to the spelling of names and correct positions, don’t rely on anything other than a call (or two) to the newspaper office itself. Even the newspaper’s own masthead may be out of date. The people who answer the phone might not be reliable either, so make sure to double check.

And if you’re applying at dozens of newspapers, bring in a second person to make sure you don’t get anything mixed up. “One person applied to work in a bureau that we don’t have in a city that is not in our circulation area,” Eagles said. “If you’re doing mass mailings of a lot of applications at once, you have to make sure you [address] them to the right newspaper and put them in the right envelopes.”

* BE SPECIFIC: What kind of job do you want? Advertising rep, circulation receptionist, copy editor? If you don’t know, the person reading your cover letter won’t know either, said Connie Sage, recruiting director for the Landmark Publishing Group, which publishes The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; The Roanoke (Va.) Times; the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.; and Landmark Community Newspapers.

“What drives me the craziest are people who don’t know what they want to do,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m looking for something in either journalism or P.R.’ And we recruiters just kind of roll our eyes.”

* PLAY UP YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Write about what you’ve done. If you want to be an advertising rep, tell how you landed a big account. If you want to work in the press room, mention your areas of expertise.

* BEWARE OF GIMMICKS: Sometimes they’ll work, and a recruiter will remember your cover letter forever. Sometimes they’ll fail. Be unique at your own risk.

* DON’T BE DULL EITHER: If you’re applying for a writer position, for example, give more than your name, rank, and serial number.

“A cover letter gives you an indication of the type of reporter and storyteller the person might be,” Sage said. “If it starts out, ‘Hello, my name is John Doe,’ you think, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be really boring, this person can’t write.'”

On the other hand, recruiters are unlikely to be enthralled by stories about your personal life, your desire to move to a warmer climate, or how thrilled you’ll be to live near your favorite aunt. Just ask Crawford, the Dallas recruiter.

“I really want to know whether an applicant can write or copy edit or take good photos, not whether their father read them the New York Times on the day of their birth, or they used to toss newspapers, or they’ve been to all the ends of the earth and journalism is still all they want to do,” Crawford said.

On that, at least, other recruiters are in agreement with Crawford.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Should you show off your best articles in a fancy $10 portfolio from the stationary store, or just attach them with an old-fashioned paper clip? How many work samples is too many? Learn the best — and cheapest — ways to show off your accomplishments to a future boss.

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