Is there a journalist among us who doesn’t ache when another round of layoffs hits the industry? When we learned about this month’s Gannett layoffs, I remembered back to 2009, when the industry bleeding first intensified.
I was guiding the leadership and management programs of the Poynter Institute and writing for Poynter.org. Helpless to stop the cuts, I hoped to at least speak up for those who lost their livelihoods.
I knew then, as I do now, what a gift journalists are to any employer. So I wrote this open letter of recommendation: “Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist.” As you will see, other than treating Twitter like a novelty that not everyone might understand, my message stands the test of time. I just wish it wasn’t needed today.
Dear Potential Employer:
Please accept this letter of recommendation for the journalist applying for your job opening. I know this is unorthodox — a generic reference letter. But permit me to explain. Thousands of men and women who made journalism their vocation have lost their jobs. For many, telling a community’s stories through words and images is the only career they’ve known.
They didn’t leave their jobs; their jobs left them. Many are still shell-shocked, wondering if potential employers in other fields will place any value on the things they do best.
That’s why I write this letter. I don’t pretend to know the individual who’s applying to you, and certainly, every journalist is unique. But as someone who has spent decades hiring and firing, coaching and mentoring journalists, I know a bit about their skills and values and what they could mean to your organization.
I also know that journalists may not be comfortable appearing to brag about what they do well; self-esteem can get downsized pretty easily these days.
So permit me to make their case to you. Here are 10 reasons you should hire a journalist.
1. Journalists will improve the writing, photography or design in your organization.
When journalists volunteer for church, school or civic organizations, they are inevitably asked to work on communications projects. Their writing is clear and succinct; their photography and design skills make whatever they’re working on look more polished and professional. They’re sticklers about copy editing and will raise the quality of even your internal memos.
2. Journalists deliver on deadline.
Their work lives have been defined by deadlines. Blowing a deadline is a cardinal sin in the newsroom culture. Tell them when something is due and you’ll get it — or you’ll get a bulletproof reason from a nonetheless-contrite employee.
3. Journalists are multitaskers.
In recent years, journalists have been required to do more with less. Reporters and photographers took up videography, editing and blogging. They file stories for print, broadcast and online, some while also tweeting. (If you don’t know what tweeting is, ask during the interview. Don’t worry. It does not involve stomach upset.)
4. Journalists are quick studies.
Imagine a job in which you have to learn things every day, then turn around and teach those things to others. That’s exactly how I’ve described the challenge and absolute joy of journalism at student career fairs. That skill set demands that journalists take in and process information with extraordinary efficiency and clarity, a benefit in any line of work.
5. Journalists are critical thinkers.
They’ve been trained that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Journalists know that asking why and why not, looking at multiple perspectives, digging beneath the surface, challenging conventional wisdom, discerning patterns, finding context and thinking about “what’s next” improves any story. Just as it improves job performance in most any field.
6. Journalists get answers faster than most.
Even in social situations, you’ll find friends rely on their journalist buddies to gather information. Scout the restaurant. Get the background on the car I’m thinking of buying. Vet the new school superintendent. Help me find the best doctor for my condition. Journalists know how to do research — fast.
7. Journalists know how to use the web.
Your organization may or may not have embraced all of its online opportunities, but journalists know firsthand why the Internet matters. Sure, some news folks adopted an online mindset more slowly than others, but now many are well-equipped to help you execute online strategies — blogging, creating video and audio, connecting through social networks. They’ve been brought up to speed in the past several years as their newsrooms expanded their horizons.
8. Journalists have a great work ethic.
If you’ve ever complained that your team has a 9-to-5 approach to the job, hire a journalist. Some may think they’re crazy, but they’ve often followed stories, not schedules. They’ve dropped everything for breaking news. They’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to catch a perfect picture of the moon or listen to a source who could talk only in darkness. They took on the work of laid-off colleagues while still doing their own, for as long as they could. And they still have energy.
9. Journalists have a solid moral compass.
Imagine signing on to a job where you promise not to accept gifts that others could, must take pains to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest, should keep your opinions to yourself, are expected to question authority while respecting the law and to recognize that your work carries the opportunity every day to do good or harm.
Journalists didn’t just sign some statement saying they’ll comply with the organization’s policies, file it and forget it; they chose a profession that embraces a code of ethics and wrestles with its obligations daily. You might think they’ve fallen short over the years. But if you want to ask a great job interview question, ask journalists about some of the ethical minefields they’ve successfully walked and how they made it through while minimizing harm.
10. Journalists are loyal.
That’s why they’re hurting right now. The journalists you may hire have been faithful to their vocation, even when the going got more than tough. They’ve adapted, learned new skills, added duties, taken pay cuts and furloughs, mourned the loss of colleagues and coverage, and kept on doing work that mattered. What does that mean to you? Speaking as a management coach, I say it means this: hiring journalists presents you a terrific opportunity. Give them a job they believe in and they’ll work like hell to help you succeed.
Then: Group Leader, Leadership and Management Programs, The Poynter Institute
Now: Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago