By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
Recently I shared some sad but hilarious real-life examples of TV news job applications gone horrendously awry (The Job Applicant Darwin Awards). This of course begs a question: what does a really good job application look like?
Every news director is different, so my answer to that question will be personal. Some things are universal; all news directors look for basic talent and craft skills. I also seek a sense of passion, hoping to separate the nice people who just want to be on TV from those who see it as a calling. Job applications demonstrating the latter are the ones that get my attention the fastest.
Showcasing is the key. Buzzwords and phrases telegraphing “passion,” “a proven track record of success,” “an award-winning journalist,” and so on have become so common as to mean nothing. The key is not to tell me that you have a fire in the belly to make a difference, but to show it.
The first opportunity to do this is the cover letter. To be frank, most candidates waste their cover letters, filling them with language assuring me they’re the best candidate and saying how much they’d love to move to my city, how they always wanted to be a journalist, how they’re ready for the next step, etc. None of this means anything.
So what does? Rather than come up with a “how to” list (there are plenty of those out there) once again I’m going to present an example. The sample paragraphs below are fictional, but are inspired by the many cover letters I have received over the years that made me sit up and pay attention. As you’ll see, this one begins with a personal anecdote.
“Dear Mr. Carr:
“When I was a kid my best friend, who lived two doors down, lost both parents in a car crash on New Year’s Eve. The driver who killed them was drunk. Relatives came and took away my friend, whom I never saw again. I was three and a half. This was my first inkling in life that all was not always right with the world. I was, of course, at the time helpless to do anything about it. But I never forgot it.
“In high school, some of my classmates died in a wreck. Once again, alcohol was involved. This time, I was in a position to do something. I wrote a three-part series on the issue for my school newspaper. The incident and the follow-up stories inspired a school rally on the problem of teen drinking and driving. I can’t say for sure whether this saved lives. I hope it did. But what the coverage and rally definitely did do was to impress on me the power of the written and spoken word to bring people together. The experience inspired me to go into journalism.
“Last month I got another reminder of the power and purpose of our profession. I took a call from a single mom with two young children who was facing eviction because her ex-husband was behind on his child support. With the encouragement of station management, I aired a series of reports. At first, state bureaucrats did not want to talk. I was persistent. Several things happened. One, viewers and a local charity stepped forward with cash assistance, which prevented the eviction. Second, the state finally did swing into action, locating the deadbeat dad and taking the enforcement steps necessary to get the payments flowing again. And third, a local state legislator proposed a new law to beef up enforcement resources, a lack of which had led to this case slipping through the cracks in the first place. A sample of my coverage is included on my video link.”
Do you see what happened there? The candidate didn’t have to tell me she was a focused, passionate, effective journalist. She showed me. So at this point I’m on the verge of being impressed.
And then I find this paragraph:
“I’m particularly interested in your newsroom because you have built a reputation for covering the same kinds of stories that drive me and that I know how to do. Your station slogan and marketing position showcase an investigative style. The content of your website backs this up. And I noticed that last year you won an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting in your region and also a national Murrow for best website. This is exactly the kind of station I’m seeking for my next employer. I believe my job skills and interests will fit very well with team you have developed.”
Okay, now you can officially color me impressed.
What happens next? Well, at a very minimum that candidate’s video compilation reel will get a thorough review—not just the cursory ten-second glance-over that some receive. At this point, good cover letter notwithstanding, the video still has to speak for itself. Good résumé reels start with a few standups and live shots (if such technology is available to the candidate), followed by three or four stories. The content of the stories will depend on the nature of the job being sought; a general assignment candidate will need to provide a range of styles (spot news, an original enterprise report, a feature, and so on), while an investigative or consumer candidate would concentrate on just those kinds of stories. If the reports pass muster and the candidate demonstrates competitive communications and reporting skills, then an interview invitation might follow.
During the job visit the candidate will arrive professionally dressed. I’ll be asking more questions about what drives the candidate, why he or she got into the business, what that candidate believes she can do to advance my newsroom’s strategic plan, and so on. I expect the candidate to ask me probing questions as well, giving me the opportunity “sell” the newsroom and show that it would be a good place for that person to grow.
If all goes well, at some point a job offer will follow. I get asked this question a great deal: “Should I present a counter offer? Will there be room for negotiation?” I have been a news director in medium markets and also a large market. For reporter gigs, the answer to that question is the same for both: the salary offer usually will pretty firm. There might be more wiggle room for certain other kinds of issues—for example, length of commitment, the need to take time off for an upcoming wedding and so on. That said, management negotiation styles do differ from place to place, and it never hurts to make a reasonable counter offer. In any case, I would never advise anyone to take a job at a salary they can’t live with. But on the other hand, usually at this level for candidates money is not the primary issue. Working conditions and career opportunity are.
As I said at the top, my list of things I look for is personal. However, I’ve never met a news director yet who had no interest in finding quality candidates that are committed to the profession. There are no silver bullets. It’s a competitive world out there. An excellent cover letter and demo reel will not guarantee a job, but they will move you ahead in line—sometimes, way ahead. If you are a competitive journalist, you’ll have a good story to tell. It won’t hurt to tell it, and it might hurt not to.
Good luck to you.
Forrest Carr is a former TV news director who writes novels, does talk radio, and blogs. You can find his musings on The Bashful Bloviator.