June 28, 2021

Jacob Sutherland was taught by the Career Center at the University of California, San Diego to always write unique cover letters for internship and job opportunities. In his eyes, it’s just a best practice.

“(The Career Center) kind of said that it’s always good to write a fresh one because they can tell if you’re just filtering out language, so that’s just a personal thing,” Sutherland said.

So when he decided to apply for The New York Times Fellowship for the second year in a row, it was natural that he spent serious time on it. The fellowship consists of a yearlong stint at the Times doing the work of a full-time journalist. He sorted through clips to submit, rigorously typed a 650-word cover letter and edited it until his eyes couldn’t bear to look at the bright screen any longer.

His detailed efforts would lead to annoyance months later when he and numerous other applicants were scrolling through social media and came across a public announcement from the Times introducing the hired fellows.

They learned they didn’t get the fellowship — but that wasn’t the issue. It was the fact that they hadn’t been notified of their application status for months. They didn’t know where they stood in the process until the Times made the public announcement.

Some journalists say it’s just the way things are in the industry. Others say it raises an intriguing question: In an industry built on communication, why is timely communication difficult to come by?

In an emailed statement to Poynter, the Times said it typically only notifies applicants who get interviewed. (Some people who didn’t interview reported receiving a rejection email after the fellows were announced.) This year, some interviewed applicants who ultimately didn’t get a position were notified later than the company intended due to an “error,” which was not disclosed in the response, the statement said.

The company did not reply to an email with follow-up questions. The Times’ director of newsroom fellowships and internships, Theodore Kim, declined an interview.

“I’ve come to learn that this is not, this should not, be the standard when applying for fellowships or jobs,” Sutherland said. “I don’t want to say I regret applying, but it is like you put a lot of work into this application, so I would just expect at the very least a little bit of more timely communication.”

In newsrooms, the audience is the first priority. Organizations send newsletters and subscription notifications to thousands of people on a routine basis. But pointed communication doesn’t trickle down to the people who occupy company hallways — or at the very least, apply to do so.

For people like Emma Yasinski, a freelance science writer who applied for the Times’ fellowship, it can take a lot to build up confidence to apply for long shot industry opportunities.

“I thought, ‘(Getting the fellowship) would have been cool, but I guess that (the process) is closed,’” Yasinski said. “It would have been nice to get an email, but, you know, they’re busy. I’m sure they had thousands of applicants. … It’s a good practice to respond to applicants, but it wasn’t totally unexpected that they didn’t.”

Yasinski has had positive experiences with other organizations, like the Association of Health Care Journalists, who she’s always heard back from for different opportunities in the past. In one instance, when she earned a fellowship, “They said, ‘You can’t put anything on social media until we make this announcement to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.’”

“I think for a media company the No. 1 responsibility is to the readers. But after that, yeah, I do think that it’s their responsibility to reach out and let applicants know the status of their application,” Yasinski said.

“It’s a courtesy; it’s a professional thing,” she said. “It’s never fun to see the announcement and be like, ‘Oh, look, I guess it wasn’t me. I had no idea what was going on.’ … I think you just maybe feel a little more respected. You feel like they got your application and cared enough to send you something in response.”

Jennifer Walter, a card story editor at Inverse, said she was somewhat able to empathize with those who tweeted about not hearing back from the Times. Though she’s had positive experiences hunting for opportunities, she remembers a time when it took her two hours to apply for a job with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network and she didn’t hear back until late.

“I just remember the amount of time it took for the application to be filled out, for me to fill it out, was just a little bit (wild) for the fact that I didn’t get a rejection until like a month after I saw someone tweet about actually getting the job,” Walter said. “These people probably applied for the fellowship, were waiting and waiting to hear back and then didn’t really know that they hadn’t gotten it until they’ve seen it posted on the website.”

A satisfactory response could be something as simple as a timely automated email, Walter said, “something that just says, ‘Thank you for applying … your strengths and talents are still strengths and talents. They might just not be a good fit for us right now.’”

She said those who make it a lot further in the process deserve personalized, constructive feedback, a notion that management at WRC-TV, a prominent NBC-owned station in Washington, D.C., also believes.

WRC, similar to the Times, said it doesn’t reach out to its hundreds of applicants who aren’t interviewed because of the time it would require.

But the newsroom doesn’t make public announcements about those who ultimately get the positions. If applicants don’t receive a phone call or email well before the listed internship start date begins, it means they didn’t get it.

“We don’t publish an announcement about who got in because it’s not as prestigious to get an internship here (compared to) The New York Times or something like that,” said Mike Goldrick, WRC’s news director. “But it’s still common courtesy if someone has gone through the process and certainly at least made it past a certain cut that you want to get back to them and say, ‘Hey, it didn’t work out.’”

Goldrick said with the fast pace of the news business, it’s easy for something like communication with position candidates to be forgotten. It could be because of an oversight rather than a “deliberate flight,” he said.

“Sometimes when you get busy, you don’t pay attention to the finer points, and that’s something that is unfortunate.”

Ashley Alese Edwards, who oversees the Google News Initiative Fellowship for journalists of color, said it’s really difficult to reach out to hundreds of applicants to let them know they didn’t get a position. To combat that, she said applicants are told upfront that they will only be contacted if they’re selected.

“As someone who’s kind of running the program and who’s been in their shoes before, I make myself very available to talk to them about questions, to answer their questions, via DM on Twitter, via the email address,” Edwards said. “Even just talking to me in my replies on Twitter … I make myself very available. And I think that’s very important for newsroom managers to really be transparent and meet people where they are when it comes to these sorts of things.”

Edwards said there’s room for newsroom or program managers to be more helpful and thoughtful throughout their processes. There are norms in journalism that often keep people, especially journalists of color, out of the conversation.

“There was a kind of a firestorm on Twitter about people not sending follow-up emails when they pitch something, or not sending follow-up emails after interviews and stuff like that,” Edwards said. “I think it’s important that we should also be hands-on and follow up with people when we can. If we don’t necessarily have the time to follow up, we should kind of consider, ‘Does that person applying also have the same amount of time as well?’”

There are competing pressures larger newsrooms might face when communicating with applicants, such as miscommunication within the organization or not wanting to burn a bridge with a candidate who might get a call if a chosen applicant drops out.

Though at The Dallas Morning News, which doesn’t publicly announce its interns due to the frequency at which they’re brought in, it’s a priority to try to communicate with everyone who applies.

“If they didn’t get interviewed, that’s where they’ll get the rejection email,” said Jamie Hancock, the internship coordinator at the Morning News. “If they did get interviewed, then we’re going to speak to them; we’re going to talk to them. If someone got an interview with us (but didn’t get hired), we will follow up with them to say that we’re sorry that we couldn’t offer them the position.”

“I think to the extent that you can let people know, as early as possible and communicate as much as possible, the better.”

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Jaden Edison is a recent graduate of Texas State University, where he studied electronic media. He will attend Columbia University in the fall to study…
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  • This practice is simply rude and lacking in professionalism and collegiality. In the late Eighties, I took a mid-life break from my newspaper career to acquire a master’s in world religion; my goal was to cover religion for a major newspaper with the same seriousness accorded politics. When I earned the degree, I sent résumés to 250 papers, and the vast majority responded with thoughtful letters that expressed regret over hiring freezes or the lack of openings. Ultimately, I realized that my new specialty had rendered me unmarketable in a field that was drastically downsizing. But I will always cherish the kindness and encouragement so many editors offered, even as they were rejecting me.

  • This practice is simply rude and lacking in professionalism and collegiality. In the late Eighties, I took a mid-life break from my newspaper career to acquire a master’s in world religion; my goal was to cover religion for a major newspaper. When I earned the degree, I sent résumés to 250 papers, and the vast majority responded with thoughtful letters that expressed regret over hiring freezes or a lack of opening. Ultimately, I realized that my new specialty had rendered me unmarketable in a field that was drastically downsizing. But I will always cherish the kindness and encouragement so many editors offered, even as they were rejecting me.