Applying to be a reporter when all you've got is old news
January 24, 2019 7:38 AM   Subscribe

My local paper has an opening for a freelance/part-time reporter, and I want to apply. The paper asks for a resume, cover letter, and three clips. My clips are ancient, from college over a decade ago. My relevant credentials are all ancient, really. How do I apply with such out of date experience and materials?

My credentials coming out of college were great and I have plenty of clips from back then, but unfortunately, all that stuff is over a decade old at this point. For a few years after graduation, I pitched stories here and there to different papers/media outlets, but nothing got picked up. To put food on the table, I did content mill writing, but those articles had to be written to the content mill's bizarre formula and about the content mill's bizarre chosen topics, so they're not things I could or would submit as part of an application to an actual paper.

I don't really have any recent published samples to share at this point. The most relevant recent experience I have is that I am currently producing a radio show on local civics and current affairs. However, I have no published printed material to submit from that, and I don't have any finished episodes to share at this point. Besides, that work is unpaid and I got the gig just by virtue of my enthusiasm for it.

Should I write a few drafts of sample articles? Should I submit some nonfiction that I wrote for grad school even though it's in the wrong format for the paper (as in, it's written as an informative memo)? Should I submit some of those ancient clips?

This job is completely within my wheelhouse, especially since it's meant to cover beats in local governance, planning, business, schools, police, transportation, and other news. I am sure that I can do the work, but I'm at a loss as to how to convince the paper of that!

Also, any help on what traits/skills/experiences to emphasize in the cover letter and resume would be much appreciated.
posted by rue72 to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Are you a good networker and/or have a lot of relevant contacts? Assuming yes for your (very relevant!) show.

Don't discount your old clips - they show you can write. Same with your content-mill pieces, which show you can produce. Add an ability to schmooze so the city hall folks will return your calls, and you're hired!
posted by headnsouth at 8:07 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

My husband is a reporter and had been a print journalist for about a decade. Then, he made a move to other forms of media and did next to no writing for ten years. He got laid off and wanted to return to writing and similarly, his clips were pretty old.

It didn’t matter.

He tells me it’s like riding a bike. You’re a writer and those clips will show your skills. And he wrote a killer cover letter that showed he could still write.

Don’t discount yourself! Go for it!
posted by polkadot at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Seriously, you sound like a great candidate with demonstrable skills and current area-specific experience. See if you can create a clip or transcript of upcoming material for the radio show, or at least try to make sure there's some kind of placeholder web page advertising the show-in-progress if they look for it.
posted by asperity at 8:22 AM on January 24, 2019

Don't send things in different formats (memos) - news style is extremely specific and being able to write well in a different style doesn't guarantee you'll be a good news writer.

I'd send a couple of old articles and one up-to-date sample article, which is newsy, current, and of specific interest to the newspaper's readership (and something that hasn't yet appeared in the paper). I might also be tempted to include a list of original story ideas*. They want to know not just whether you can write well, but whether you can generate ideas when you're coming in to a blank page every morning.

Mention the radio show on your resume. Maybe if you have a finished excerpt, put it on Soundcloud and include a link (assuming it's a digital submission) just to prove it's more than "I've got an idea for this thing I'm gonna do one day it'll be so good, I just need to get organised."

(*If your story ideas are any good, the newspaper will steal them, but that's fine, their purpose is to get you the job, not for you to get to write them. If nothing else, you've made their week easier by giving them some stories for the next paper, so they'll be favourably inclined).
posted by penguin pie at 8:25 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

First, I would write a damn good (i.e, well-written) cover letter that demonstrates that you've been following the stories and how the local paper is covering them closely. Your samples are important, but a well-written cover letter that tells the story of why this job makes sense for you next goes a long way in explaining away any misgivings they may have about content mill and different media formats. In a world of generic, your interest in that specific job and beat should leap off the page. In the interview, you need to shine in all the normal ways, but you absolutely have to bring ideas. Maybe you don't get the job right away, but you need to leave the room with them thinking: you can write, you have a driving interest in the beat, and your ideas exhibit a curiosity, news sense, and that you know where to start looking. Even if they don't hire you right away, you should stick in their mind in a positive way.
Good luck.
posted by history is a weapon at 10:12 AM on January 24, 2019

Not print news, but I got a journo job with clips I had written myself but that were never published. They were looking for someone who had writing chops but also demonstrated they were really enthusiastic and motivated.

Might also be worth asking them if they could give you a writing test if they’re not sure about your clips for some reason.
posted by forkisbetter at 3:41 PM on January 24, 2019

Former newspaper writer here. Most papers these days are downsizing/not hiring full -time staff and are likely in need of decent freelancers/part-timers who are reliable and can write well. The age of your clips shouldn't matter. They may give you a tryout story, bonus points if it's your pitch. This could increase to more work if you are found to produce good work and meet deadlines.
posted by greatalleycat at 10:37 PM on January 24, 2019

Thank you, everybody, for your advice.

My application might not be half bad after all! A portfolio of one sample story and two ancient clips sounds solid. If the paper wants to see more, they can always ask. The content mill and entertainment industry stuff is pretty old by now (2010-2012), but I'll include it on my resume anyway. I'll definitely include my community involvement stuff, including the radio show, since that's recent, relevant, and seems like a good way to show I'm adequately "connected" locally. Right now, I'm mostly focused on putting together 5-7 fleshed-out pitches that I would actually like to write, so that I can include that list in my app as well.

That said, the radio show proposal was formally accepted by the station this week, which means that next week I'm going to have to start scheduling interviews and recording material (and writing newsletter blurbs announcing that the proposal was accepted, etc), so I need to back-burner the newspaper application until the show is launched. Once I'm a few episodes in and have all that new research to mine, it should be easier to put together a spec article or two in any case. Fingers crossed that the position won't close by the time the show is off the ground (but frankly, even if it does close, I'll still pitch myself to the paper as a freelancer!).

Thanks again, for the practical advice AND for the votes of confidence -- it means a lot.
posted by rue72 at 8:09 PM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

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