Sometimes, the First Impression Is the Last

By: Randy Dotinga

It may be the top newspaper in the City of Brotherly Love, but heaven help the journalists who addressed their resumes to the newsroom of the “Philadelphia Enquirer.”

Arlene Morgan, former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, tossed the envelopes right into the trash. “If they didn’t know how to spell Inquirer, they shouldn’t work there,” Morgan said. She is now an assistant dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York where she drills the importance of accuracy into her students. But even if they get the newspaper’s name right, job candidates can still stumble while trying to get a foot in the door.

Here are some tips from the experts — personnel directors — on how to do the right thing when you apply for a job, whether it be delivery driver or publisher or anything in between.

1. Follow instructions: When you see an ad for a newspaper job, do what it says. If you’re supposed to send a resume to the human-resources department, don’t expect to get special treatment by sending it directly to the circulation manager.

Newsroom applicants “will send resumes to the editor or the managing editor, and lots of times those applications will sit on their desks under a pile of mail. Six months later they’ll turn it over to whoever’s doing the hiring,” Morgan said. “And people don’t wonder why they don’t get answers.”

Trish McConnell, director of human resources at the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, emphasized the importance of paying attention to those three little words: “No phone calls.”

“We truly mean that,” she said, especially when a position may attract hundreds of applicants. “If there are specific instructions, there is a reason. It’s not that they don’t want to be bothered.”

And don’t assume that a forbidden phone call will make someone think you have initiative. “We like people who can follow directions,” McConnell said.

2. Get the names right: You won’t get anywhere by addressing a cover letter to a pressroom supervisor who went on disability six months ago. While the Editor & Publisher International Year Book is a great resource for names and positions, double-check them by calling the newspaper.

Be warned that a harried receptionist or a clueless temp might give you wrong information about someone’s title or name spelling. You may wish to add an extra level of safety by checking the newspaper masthead or Web site, or calling the human resources department.

And, of course, get the newspaper’s name correct, down to whether there’s a hyphen (there is in Green Bay Press-Gazette but not in Portland Press Herald) and whether “the” is capitalized (yes for The Macon Telegraph, no for the Tallahassee Democrat).

“This is important whether you’re applying for a newsroom job or a press room job or a classified advertising sales job,” said Kay Tucker Addis, editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and a former human resources director. “A mistake suggests someone doesn’t care enough about me and the company to pick up the phone and call the organization to find out the correct name and spelling.”

3. Write a creative cover letter: Try to keep your future boss awake. Applicants for newsroom positions especially need to make sure their cover letters sparkle because they’re the only bits of unedited copy that editors will see. But all applicants should try to set themselves apart by sounding crisp and upbeat.

“Trying to sell yourself in a cover letter is a very good thing,” Addis said. “What can you do for me, how can you make my newspaper a better newspaper, how can you make my sales department increase revenue? Allude to your track record and how you’ve done in the past.”

4. Don’t harass people: Expect that your resume will sit around for a week or two before anyone looks at it. Don’t call the first day. “Sheer paper flow doesn’t allow us to look at them that quickly,” said Karen Mrsa, human resources director at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Penn. “People have to have the patience to give the process time to work.”

Mrsa recommends no more than one or two follow-up e-mails or phone calls. “E-mail is much quicker and easier,” she said. “It’s much easier to log on than to try to answer 24 phone calls after coming back from lunch.”

You could try to call repeatedly and risk turning into a pest. But a nuisance just may get noticed. “Even though I sometimes get tired of the diligence, persistence does show me that someone’s interested, and it will make them a name that I won’t forget,” Addis said. “I’d go more overboard on that. You’ll know when you’ve crossed the line.”

COMING NEXT WEEK: You’ve got an interview. What should you wear? What should you ask? And what happens next? The experts weigh in.

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