No journalism schools invited me to speak at commencement this year. Same as last year, and the year before that.
They're making a big mistake. I could tell the graduates something useful for a change. If you want the secret to a perfect martini, ask a drunk. If you want advice on getting your first newspaper job, ask the editor of a small paper.
Some of the many résumés I get are alarming. One woman informed me that, "having a master [sic] degree in communication" from a prestigious Western university, "I apply for your open position." Another candidate confided that he had written for an adult-oriented newsletter. He enclosed reviews of skin flicks and strip clubs, one of which employed entertainers with (in the applicant's professional judgment) "butts to die for."
The garden-variety blunders? Misspellings. Grammatical errors. Bad photocopies. Windy cover letters.
Most graduates – and other applicants – could improve their job prospects by simply applying good sense and careful workmanship.
Here's some free advice from a Grumpy Old Editor:
1. Keep it simple. Some job applicants package their résumé and clips in expensive binders. A few of them seal each clipping in a plastic page protector, as if it were an heirloom, and then encase it all in a three-ring notebook. Those fancy binders don't fit in my file cabinet so I strip off all the packaging and staple together the bare pages. Save your money to buy stamps for more applications.
2. Keep it short. I have a newspaper to run. I don't have all day to review your life story, fascinating as it is. Edit your résumé until it fits on one page. Ditto for cover letters. In fact, if your letter fills more than half a page, I probably won't read all of it. (Am I hurting your feelings, kids? Tough.)
3. Can Johnny write? You've dreamed of being a writer all your life, and I can grant your wish. So don't send me a letter that begins, "Hello, my name is Johnny Jayskool, and I saw your job notice at the Porcupine State College placement office." Where you saw my notice is irrelevant. And if I decide your name is worth knowing, I'll look for it in the customary place – at the bottom of your letter.
I thirst for evidence from your letter that you have the intelligence and skills to be a professional journalist – and the ability to write an imaginative lead. Write one.
4. Be professional. Libraries have books describing the proper format for a business letter. Read one.
5. Get it right. Don't misspell my name. Lousy first impression. And don't forget to revise your text from one application letter to the next. I commonly receive letters, neatly addressed to me, expressing a heartfelt desire to work for some other newspaper.
6. Proofread. If you're applying for a job as a writer or copy editor, don't use your cover letter and résumé to demonstrate your incompetence.
7. Include clips. I need work samples. If you don't bother sending them, I won't bother hiring you.
Send work that's relevant to the job. If you're applying to do layouts and headlines, send layouts and headlines.
But always send your best stuff, too. If you're applying to cover education and your best stories are about crime, send whatever education clips you have, but also enclose your best work overall.
8. Give me references. Some numbskull a few years ago ended his résumé with the phrase "References available on request." Now it's the biggest fad since bell-bottoms. And just as dumb. Restaurants don't tell customers, "Silverware available on request." If I'm going to consider hiring you, I'm going to call references. Don't make my job harder.
9. Use e-mail. Employment advisers say to follow up your application with a phone call. It's reasonable advice, unless you're me. When I'm screening applicants, I may receive 25 or 30 résumé a week. Just reading them strains my time. Do you think I also want 25 or 30 extra phone calls?
But remind me you're out there with a brief, friendly e-mail: "I sent a résumé for your copy desk opening. If it hasn't come, please let me know and I'll send another."
10. Be ready for my call. That joke recording on your answering machine was cute when you were a sophomore, but it's a liability in the job market. Replace it with something businesslike. Also, coach your roommates to answer the phone like adults. Chatting with the cast of "Animal House" irritates me.
There you go. Ten rules, a nice round number. They won't get you hired, but they might get you an appointment to see me. Remember to wear socks.
Epilogue, 2011 – Thirteen years after writing this essay, I regret its snarly tone. It was funny at the time, but it doesn't reflect my personality or management style. In real life, I try to treat employees and job applicants with respect and compassion.
--Clark Walworth, publisher and editor, The World, Coos Bay, Oregon