Landing journalism jobs in a tough market

The following five tips may sound like the same old common-sense advice that has been offered for years to students who want to land their first job in a newsroom. But, having screened many applications for jobs and internships, coached many students before job interviews, and talked to many employers after interviews, I know that just because these steps are obvious, doesn’t mean they are always followed. Often, they are forgotten. Too often, in fact. This week, as many as 45 students applied for an unpaid internship at CBC. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd like that. Gone are the days when anyone could expect to land a job, or even an unpaid internship, just because they were smart, talented and qualified. After all, when the job market is this tight, many of the other applicants will also be smart, talented and qualified. So, when people are looking to choose one person from a crowd of good applicants, they start by looking for reasons to move some names from the “maybe” list to the “no” list.

Here are a few things to do if you want to avoid getting moved from the “maybe” list to the “no” list too soon.

1. Proofread your cover letter and your resume to ensure they are free of all spelling and grammatical errors.

Don’t trust yourself to do this. Once you have worked on something for a long time, your eyes will only see what they expect to see. They won’t notice there’s a letter or apostrophe missing. When you are completely finished, ask someone with a sharp eye to review it. Even small typos send the wrong signal to any editor.

2. Research the job and make sure your letter outlines what you would bring to that job.

You may have a resume you send to every job for which you apply, but be sure the cover letter you send with it is not just a generic cover letter. Show that you understand the nature of the job for which you are applying, and provide some evidence of your qualifications for that specific job. The skills required for a job copy editing at a newspaper are quite different than those required as an associate producer for a radio morning show. In this job market, especially, it is less important for you to explain why you want the job, than it is for you to explain why they should want you for that job.

3. Study the product – the newspaper, magazine, radio or television newscast where you want to work.

The internet makes it so easy to review past issues of any newspaper, watch most TV newscasts, or listen to podcasts of old radio shows or items. There is simply no excuse for failing to do it. If you are applying for a broadcast job or internship in Saskatoon, for example, it is not enough to research issues in Saskatoon. It is essential for you to watch or listen to the broadcasts from that station. Study them, so you can discuss the product and even provide some constructive criticism or analysis, if asked. Do it, too, so if and when you are asked in a job interview, you won’t be embarrassed and humiliated by having to admit you didn’t read, watch or listen. That will throw you for the rest of the interview.

4. Be a consumer of news.

It’s not enough to read the newspaper the morning of your job interview, or watch the newscast the night before. If you want to work in a newsroom, news should be a part of your life every day. Employers these days are fond of asking questions to test whether you know what’s in the news — not just this week — but last year and even what’s coming up next month.

5. Be prepared to show you are a self-starter.

When employers consider j-school grads, they know the applicants have some basic writing, editing, online and broadcast production skills. What they want to know beyond that is whether the candidate is a self starter. The question we are asked most often when we are asked for references is whether the candidate can work without a lot of direction, anticipate demands, jump in and do what needs to be done, or whether they need and expect a lot of guidance. Competent employees are easy to find, especially in a tight job market. Outstanding employees are those that show a lot of initiative, who find ways to contribute and be productive without being asked. In workplaces where there are too few employees, that’s never been more true.

This list is just a starting point. Feel free to add your suggestions to the list.

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At last, a facelift for Canwest papers

It’s a welcome and refreshing change. The Ottawa Citizen and its sister papers at Canwest have been undergoing a major renovation for months and this past weekend they unveiled the results and invited us to inspect them.

Here’s a look at the Citizen’s website on Sunday night.

The results are impressive. Of course, the old site was so ugly and so unfriendly to users that even a small touch up would have been welcome. This is much more than that. As the online tour of the new site explains the pages are wider, the navigation is clearer, the layout is cleaner and the opportunites for readers to comment on stories and blogs and contribute photos are much greater. What’s more, there’s finally a prominent showcase for the photos, videos and multimedia features that used to be so hard, if not impossible, to find. On his blog, the managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, Kirk Lapointe, described that as a major goal of the redesign.

“We were creating a lot of content but didn’t have the platform to exhibit it. Our journalists operate in a Web-first culture and wanted a site of their own making. Now we have one.”

As with anything new online, some of the links still bring you to blank pages. There’s a video player on the page about Ottawa Senators that plays no video. Other prominent links to features from the front page bring you to pages on the old site, which serve as a reminder of how unattractive and clunky the old site was. There also seems to be no way to subscribe to RSS feeds from the main page. I assume those are temporary glitches that will be fixed over time.

The search tool, which was next to useless on the old site, seems quite effective now. Thankfully, you can sort search results by date and relevance to find the most recent stories on a subject easily.

These days news organizations are judged by the look and content of their websites and Canwest journalists were embarrassed by how dated and dowdy their look was. Now they can stop apologizing. They have an attractive new look and a useful new vehicle for news and multimedia content.

The new look deserves more than just a passing grade.

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Tough job market for journalism grads

It’s that time of year again in j-schools across the country. Major news organizations are sending reps to interview top journalism students for summer internship programs. As usual, students who have made the interview shortlists are busy cramming for the interviews, desperate to impress with their skills, experience and passion to be storytellers. Landing a summer job in a newsroom would be their dream come true.

But this year it’s all happening against the backdrop of announced layoffs, hiring freezes, suspenions of internship programs  and warnings that things will only get worse in newsrooms across the country.  In Canada, first it was the news that Canwest would eliminate 560 jobs across the country. Then it was CTV’s turn. So far the CBC has announced there will be no layoffs — at least for now.

We read and hear a lot about the impact of these cuts on today’s journalists and newsrooms.  We don’t hear much about the impact it’s having on students — the students who competed hard to get into popular journalism programs, then worked hard for years to meet the requirements and are now about to head into what is the worst job market in years.

To the surprise of many, especially journalists, it has always been true that some students take journalism degrees even though they don’t want to be journalists. Maybe they once did, but changed their minds along the way and decided to complete the program anyway. Maybe they never really did. Still, they saw some value in learning writing, communication and critical thinking skills, as well as learning to meet tight deadlines. They put those skills to good use in any number of places from grad school, to law school, to jobs in government and the private sector. 

Clearly, though, others are here because their dream is to be a journalist. They remain enthusiastic about the idea of getting paid to find and tell stories. They are able to work in any medium, willing to work in more than one medium at a time. They are web savvy.  They are flexible. They do not resist change. In other words, they have what the news media needs to renew itself.

There are those who argue that this is actually an exciting time for journalism because it will have to reinvent itself to survive.  Pat Thornton, at the Journalism Iconoclast makes that point in this post.

“Journalism is at the beginning of a tectonic shift and massive upheaval, and yet, I consider this to be an incredibly exciting time to be in journalism.

We stand on the doorstep of history. We’re watching the reinvention of a critical industry. This is not an evolution — we are a part of a revolution.

And that’s why I’m afraid. I know that journalism will be stronger than ever in 20 years, but what will tomorrow hold? The journey through revolution will claim many careers.”

I hope a few summer jobs for a few journalism graduates this year will keep them inspired and connected enough to this business to be part of the renewal.

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Young journalists need multimedia skills

Young journalists need multimedia journalism skills if they want an edge in today’s job market.

That’s what the new day editor of The Globe and Mail, Jim Sheppard, told students and faculty at Carleton University’s School of Journalism on a recent visit. Sheppard says when The Globe has jobs to fill, it wants to find the best journalists out there. But, he said, if candidates have multimedia journalism skills, they will have an edge over candidates who don’t. He compared it to being bilingual. It will never be the primary reason someone gets a job, he said, but it will give journalists an advantage over those without such skills.

Jim Sheppard’s advice to journalism students:

As for the skills students might want to develop, he listed ones that some Globe journalists now use:

  • Taking and editing photographs using Photoshop
  • Recording and editing audio using Audition
  • Producing narrated slideshows using Soundslides
  • And, possibly, shooting and editing video using Final Cut Pro

Students asked him whether the paper’s long-time reporters and editors were excited about the move to multimedia journalism at the paper. His answer was essentially – no, not all of them. At any newspaper in North America, he said, there are people who want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend change is not happening. Others welcome it. He estimates at the Globe, about 10 per cent of the staff are resisting change, another 30 per cent are excited about it and the rest are taking a wait and see approach. At this point, he said, reporters are told that working on stories for the web is voluntary. But, at the same time, he said the message is clear that co-operation is essential to the new integrated approach to the web and print operations at the paper.

He described it as a more light-handed approach than the one taken at the where he worked before joining the Globe three years ago.

Sheppard compares the approaches at The Globe and Mail and the Washington Post:

Sheppard’s advice to students confirms the advice other online journalists and journalism educators have been offering online and in classrooms recently.

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Staggering growth in online audience at the Globe

Unlike most newspapers in North America, Canada’s Globe and Mail is not losing newspaper readers these days. But while the growth in readers of the traditional newspaper product is modest, according to Jim Sheppard, the executive editor of, the growth in numbers of people visiting the  is “staggering.”

Sheppard told the faculty at Carleton University’s School of Journalism recently that the Globe’s web audience has grown by 50-75 per cent this year. Some of the growth may be attributed to Canada’s recent federal election and the economic meltdown, as the Globe is known best for its coverage of both politics and business news. But weeks after the election, he says, the audience is holding.

And, he says while the majority of visitors to the site still come for the text stories, the numbers show more and more people are going to the multimedia and interactive packages.  Few, however, are bothering to watch the videos. That’s unfortunate as some of the Globe’s video documentaries, such as Boy in the Moon and The Art of Leonard Cohen are compelling and often included as examples on sites that showcase great newspaper videos. They are also featured prominently on the Globe’s website.

Sheppard says the Globe sees multimedia journalism as a high growth area. So, it has moved to integrate its web and print operations to better co-ordinate the way stories are covered for the web and later in print. Starting this week, the Globe will no longer have web only reporters. Instead when assignments are made, they will include web assignments. And, he says, editors will start earlier in the day to consider what elements beyond just text may be included in the full package that will be offered to readers and viewers online. 

As the Globe and other news organizations change their ways to attract and develop these new online audiences, he says, reporters and editors will have to adjust to thinking about themselves not as traditional journalists, but as storytellers.

Jim Sheppard, executive editor of talks about the new realities at the Globe

More later on his advice for aspiring journalists and journalism educators.

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Two great web versions of Obama’s speech

As others have pointed out, The New York Times provided a terrific version of the speech Obama’s historic speech on election night that includes both the video of the speech and a dynamic transcript which allows viewers to isolate sections of the speech and navigate to them instantly.

As well,  CNN provided an edited version of the speech as part of a terrific Soundslides package.  For anyone teaching students to produce audio slideshows, this is an excellent example of how to match audio tracks with appropriate visuals. Thanks to one of my students for finding this one. 

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The Globe creates a new editor’s role

The Globe and Mail has just named its technology columnist, Matthew Ingram, to a new role as Communities Editor. He explains on his blog that even he’s not quite sure what that means.

“As far as I’m concerned, it means a chance to apply some of those Web 2.0, “media is a conversation,” social-networking principles (the kind we started the mesh conference to talk about) to the newspaper that I work for, instead of just writing about what other content producers are doing. We’re talking about blogs, comments, interactive features, Twitter, Facebook, and much more. Some attempts will fail. Others (hopefully) will not. The reality is that creating communities doesn’t happen overnight. “

Ingram explains that rather than finding ways to create communities directly, he believes that will happen “organically” if the Globe finds the right mix of ingredients to offer its readers and approaches the challenge as a sincere effort to make news a conversation rather than as a way to push advertising. But he knows it won’t be easy.

“As I told the senior editors at the Globe, in order for us to do this properly, we need to be committed to opening up our content in ways we haven’t even thought of — including some ways that might seem strange or contentious, and which could at least initially be met with considerable internal resistance. Among other things, we need to make it easier for people to find our content, share our content, link to our content and even make use of our content (in some cases to create their own content). “

For those of us with an eye on the future of newspapers and journalism, this will be an interesting experiment to watch.

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Teaching vs. Learning

I’ve been thinking about the role of the learner vs. the role of the teacher ever since I read this recent post  Mindy McAdams’ blog Teaching Online Journalism. In it, she makes the case that students learn far more by doing than by sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher. It’s something any teacher knows, but not something always accepted by others.

The best way to learn is by doing. That’s what I’ve concluded, and I know it’s not earth-shattering — but some students (and journalists) are dead set on what they think of as “being taught.” They want to sit in a room and have someone transmit knowledge to them right there.

So, she says often the real challenge in teaching journalism is coming up with meaningful assignments that will truly test whether the students have “learned” what the teacher considers she or he has “taught” in the classroom.  So true. 

It also reminds me of a question we are asked far too often as journalism educators. When editors and journalists watch young reporters on the job or on internships, or when those same editors and journalists come through our schools to teach courses as sessional or contract instructors and find themselves less than impressed with something the students have done, they always ask some variation of this question: “Why were they not taught x, y or z?”  The assumption is that somehow those of us who teach journalism failed to address some essential journalism skill or issue in our classes. 

 It’s the wrong question. The question for journalists, educators and students should be “Why did the students not learn x, y or z?”

 The answer could be that the teacher did not develop meaningful assignments or did not provide essential feedback for the students on those assignments to ensure the students were learning what they were being “taught” or at least being told in the classroom. That’s something some teachers don’t like to accept, especially because that’s the difficult and time consuming part of the job.

Or, the answer might be that the student did not take adequate responsiblity for learning what the instructors tried to teach him or her, expecting instead, as Mindy suggests, to have the knowldege transmitted to them without having to learn it. That’s something some students don’t like to accept, especially those who are more focused on getting credentials than an education.

The best journalism teachers are the ones who understand that talking is not teaching. The best journalism students are the ones who realize that listening is not learning.

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This is an occasional blog that I plan to use to share my observations and pass on tips and advice to my students, past and present, about the practice of journalism in Canada today, especially mutimedia journalism.  I teach online and multimedia journalism courses and am particularly interested in the way journalism and newsrooms are changing these days and the challenges those changes create for those of us who teach  journalism. As a former broadcaster who teaches broadcast journalism courses, as well, I also have a special interest in and fondness for radio journalism in Canada.

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