February 16, 2022

On behalf of journalism applicants everywhere, I’m here to say that editing tests need a makeover.

If newsrooms are truly working toward a more inclusive and fair workplace, then that must also apply to how job candidates are treated.

I am offering these ideas to make editing tests a more effective and considerate experience.

Pay for time

The editing test is not a new phenomenon; this 2018 Columbia Journalism Review story talks about Beejoli Shah’s experience from 2015.

Shah applied to GQ and had “devoted 36 hours to writing 900 words of FOB (front-of-book) ideas, plus 3,000 more addressing the other three portions of the edit test.”

Shah was not paid for the effort.

Newsrooms can easily do better. If you’re asking applicants to devote hours to an exercise, show that you value their time by paying for it.

I did an edit test two years ago and really appreciated how the organization — Prism, a nonprofit newsroom established in 2019 — paid for my work based on the hourly rate of the job I was applying for. The pay was based on their estimate of the test taking two to three hours. It took longer.

I think job recruiters forget the amount of time someone puts into a good application.

You want someone to rewrite a headline for an 800-word story? Well, first they have to read that story. You want them to come up with three story ideas? Well, first they have to research what you’ve already covered, what stories are trending, what works with your audience.

If it’s part of a candidate’s in-person interview, set aside no more than 90 minutes on the test and still offer to pay. Consider something fun, too, like a $50 gift card.

Read to the end of the CJR’s story for Shah’s idea of setting aside money for your finalists pool.

Bottom line: Pay for someone’s time.

Make your tests manageable

In reading about different people’s experiences with edit tests, I have concerns.

The tests have ranged from pitching between five to 35 story ideas, actually writing stories, writing SEO and display headlines, and editing 1,000 to 2,000 words of raw copy. Some places ask for some form of all of them; some may even ask for more.

And I’m just talking about digital copy edits. Video or audio edit tests can be even more exhaustive.

To the newsrooms requiring this, I ask: Do you actually read/watch/listen to all the edits turned in? What are you really looking for by assigning these?

I understand that edit tests can be helpful in revealing the editor’s skills when it comes to AP Style, story structure, and an understanding of your organization’s audience. An edit test can make the difference between two strong candidates.

So I’m not saying toss the tests; I’m saying there’s a way to make the process less stressful, more meaningful and less exploitative.

And remember that editing is an acquired skill that can be improved over time. You don’t need someone to be perfect.

Here are just some ideas for digital edit tests:

  • If you want to know someone’s AP Style skills: Give them one tricky paragraph to edit, not a whole story.
  • If you want to know if someone has good story ideas: Ask them to look through your site’s work in the last month and pitch two ideas based on something you’ve already reported on. This way, the ideas are relevant and the applicant doesn’t feel pressured to find a new topic. And a story can always have a different angle or perspective.
  • If you want to know if someone can structure a story: Give them the most important pieces of a story (facts, context, quotes) and ask them to write a headline, lead and a nutgraph and then outline where the other parts would go. This way, someone doesn’t have to read through a long, poorly written story first, and you’re doing some proactive work in presenting the test.
  • If you want to know that someone understands how to write SEO headlines: Give them one story, no more than 500 words, to read. Ask them to write a display head and an SEO headline. You don’t need more than one example to see if someone understands the importance of keywords, and eliciting emotion or curiosity.

You don’t have to ask for all of these; assign the ones that are most important to the job.

Remember that not everyone applying has the same set of skills, so what may only take you 30 minutes could take someone two hours.

Also remember that a diligent applicant will spend a lot more time with this than you might expect.

Finally, remember that it takes time. Don’t assign the test over one weekend. An applicant could be working full time, or be ill, or be a caregiver.

Be considerate in your ask, because that reflects on the general nature of your shop. Make a good impression with your test; not a self-centered one.

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Kathy Lu has more than two decades of experience in journalism as a leader and manager. She founded her consulting business, Audiencibility, to continue her…
Kathy Lu

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