Help me get hired as a journalist for a daily paper
January 22, 2011 3:28 AM   Subscribe

Got a job interview at a reputable daily newspaper. Yay! Could you help me prepare?

In about a week, I'm meeting up with the editor for an interview and to "discuss what employment opportunities may arise at the paper."

I have a background in proofreading, editing, and teaching: English, writing, and philosophy. My CV is varied but in a way that's interesting and works in my benefit (right now). But I've never worked at a paper or as a journalist and I'm sure there are a lot of very obvious things I'm missing.

I'm preparing by making myself very familiar with all main papers and current affairs. I've seen this thread and I'm reading Strunk and White's Elements of Style (don't know why I hadn't before). In addition, I aim to get my hands on the latest AP stylebook. I know that I should be my normal self and exhibit an interest and curiosity in the field, the paper, and my interviewer. I'm also trying to think in terms of my strengths and what the paper might need to become even better (and to talk about this without being presumptuous).

I recognise that the market is very competitive right now and that they don't necessarily have any openings at the paper. At the very least, I want to make a good impression. Networking is a huge part of getting a job here. Ideally though, I'd like to walk in and convince them they should hire me. What else should I be doing?

Thank you!
posted by mkdirusername to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
* The biggest thing if you want to be hired: Have some specific story ideas you can pitch, which haven't appeared in the paper before and which you think are suitable for its readership. Know who you would interview for each story and be able to suggest follow-ups (this is assuming you want to be a writer rather than an editor).

* Have an opinion on the paper and be able to express it well - sounds like you've got this in hand, but remember to be specific - rather than just general approach or trends, have in your head bullet points on what you like and what they could do better (So not just "I like your political tone", but "Your comment section should be larger/smaller/more varied; you could use bigger pictures on right-hand pages; your entertainment pages should be aimed more at younger/older people"). Once you're in the interview you can gauge how many of the negatives you can drop in without offending the interviewer - possibly just one or two. Be able to compare the paper critically to its competitors.

* Make sure you've read lots of recent copies of the paper in detail and are able to discuss not only general current affairs but the nuts and bolts of how recent editions were put together. Do they always put a quirky story on p3? Why was a particular story the splash one day instead of being tucked on p6? (Doesn't matter if you don't know, but "I'm curious, why did you decide to splash on that story on Wednesday?" would be a good question).

* Know what kind of job you're aiming for - "journalist" is a very general term. Do you want to be a reporter, sub editor, feature writer?
posted by penguin pie at 4:18 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work at a newspaper, but not on the news side of things.

Providing our website with updates is a job requirement for many in the newsroom. Are you familiar with what the paper's website looks like? Do they have a Facebook and/or Twitter page? If they don't a least have a Facebook presence, suggest that they do. I'm amazed at the chunk of traffic that comes to our site from Facebook.

Would you be comfortable with providing breaking news to the website while writing your final story for print without feeling like you're scooping yourself? Are you okay with using your smartphone to take photos for web use?

You're here on MeFi, so I'm going to assume you're very Internet-savvy. Make sure they know as well.

Good luck!
posted by ladygypsy at 6:48 AM on January 22, 2011

The way in general that most people get hired in some capacity at newspapers is to make themselves indispensable.

You could come in with:

* Story ideas that you think are undercovered.

* News ideas about the community that are underlooked or unknown.

* Ideas about the paper's production or business that seem unachieved. (This is least likely something that you'll have insight in.)

* Issue with errors in the production of the paper. (Warning: potentially touchy subject!)

* Gaps in service or innovation in the delivery of news, either in print or online.

Obviously your suggestions should be tempered with both praise and knowledge of the current situation at the paper.

Most likely, the paper will have deficiencies in its online performance. The backbone of the paper's income will likely be from its print edition, and so the actual value of online performance will be underestimated. As said above, Facebook, even more than Twitter, is the key to news and opinion traffic success. Having digital ideas for performance improvements is major.

The more you know about the business side of the paper and its performance, the more you'll be of use. Far more so than reading the AP stylebook.

In general, most people worm their way into junior positions like this, either by writing or actually literally just by showing up, though that's less easily done for editing and copyediting positions. At newspapers, everyone is generally short on time and short on resources. Making yourself a resource is the way in—so is being a fountain of ideas, and being bright, helpful, fast, cheerful, efficient and thoughtful.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:03 AM on January 22, 2011

Newspapers are struggling of late, for a lot of reasons. While this is not something I would bring up, I would be ready in case they bring it up. While no company wants to talk about negative trends to newcomers, newspapers are a very visible industry, and they are well aware of the current public perception. If you're questioned about this, don't talk about what you think the industry is doing wrong. Talk about what it does right. What do you see in the daily paper that you like? What do you see that you can't get elsewhere? What keeps you picking up the paper every day? Local publishers are well aware of the ails of the industry right now, but that's not as much their concern as the fact that they have a press deadline this evening. And they want to put out the best product they can at that deadline. Think positive and constructive, not negative and survivalist.

There are a lot of different positions at a newspaper. I work at a newspaper in advertising production, and have also done ad traffic, ad proofreading, and also pagination and plating of the paper. With your skillset, you may also be able to find a place in the marketing department. Other departments include production, circulation, and I.T. These are big operations, so there are a lot of things that need to be done every day to get the newspaper on porches by 5 am.

I will say this - in other jobs, deadlines are often a hassle more than anything. At a newspaper, there's nothing like the deadline rush. Right now my deadlines aren't as hectic, but when I was plating the paper, I lived for that madness that came about when final deadline hit. The industry has had its up and downs, but I've had a ton of fun working at the paper.
posted by azpenguin at 8:47 AM on January 22, 2011

I work at a news-type nondaily, and penguin pie is spot on about reading the paper first.

We've been interviewing lately, and my boss has been telling us about how he asks potential interviewees what they think of a certain column, or the website design, or the way we covered such-and-such a story.

Almost without fail, he says, the candidates blush and start spluttering and don't have anything to offer -- which says that they didn't even do their research, and haven't even got an opinion about our publication. BIG red flag.

Don't go in with a list of mistakes you've spotted in the paper unless you're hoping to work as a copy editor or proofreader -- the editor will be well aware that typos and grammatical errors have made it into the final version of lots of stories. (It's a budget problem as much as a staffing problem. Don't get me started on that ...)

And good luck!
posted by vickyverky at 9:46 AM on January 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you for your feedback. All of your answers have been useful to me and they're very much appreciated...

To put it together, I should:

know what position I'm going for;
have clear and specific ideas about something I can do well that the paper needs (i.e. pitch novel ideas);
know the newspaper really well;
know the paper's online presence really well;
temper any criticism with loads of praise;
be positive and constructive and avoid talking about typos (thanks for that vickyverky -- I've been amazed at the amount of mistakes I've spotted and I thought it looked irritatingly sloppy, I could have easily put my foot in my mouth. It's good to have a context).

I figure it's all about displaying professionalism, commitment, and competence and I wouldn't dream of doing less. Fingers crossed!
posted by mkdirusername at 3:01 AM on January 23, 2011

Couple more things: I thought azpenguin made a great point about deadlines. Another thing daily papers have in common is requiring their editorial staff to multitask. I'd be ready with some great stories about times you did that spectacularly successfully, and I'd offer them up before I was asked, if possible, like if they first asked about accomplishments of which you are proud.

Also, if you want to use the 'imminent death' of newspapers to your advantage, have some ideas of a sort of cross-platform variety -- 'new media'-type features that this paper doesn't utilize. Mix in brilliant ideas no one's ever thought of with blindingly obvious ideas that this paper hasn't yet implemented.
posted by troywestfield at 5:41 AM on January 23, 2011

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