January 4, 2007

When big newspapers lay off staffers, recruiters at other newspapers pay attention.

The Philadelphia Inquirer became the focus of that attention earlier this week when it laid off 71 newsroom staffers. Many of those journalists were young; I suspect all of them were highly qualified. Recruiters reacted, making calls to staffers, sending e-mails to them and, in at least one case, posting a comment to one of their blogs.

Wait, a comment on a blog?

“Greetings!” it reads. “The Virginian-Pilot, based in Norfolk, Va., is a 200,000-circulation daily newspaper serving residents …” The ad goes on to list four job openings — a copy-desk chief, a sports editor, a designer and a reporter. A Business Week blogger who noticed the comment called it a “silver lining” to a sad situation.

Denise Bridges, director of newsroom recruitment at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, said she posted the job ad as soon as she saw the blog entry.

“When I saw that blog in Philadelphia, I thought, ‘Oh, great, here’s a way I can get the word out to people quickly,’ ” Bridges said in a telephone interview Friday.

In the wake of other big layoffs, Bridges said, she has called reporters directly, sent e-mails and posted ads to journalism listservs.

“I post job openings pretty much anywhere I can,” she said.

Makes sense, right? More job ads mean more potential applicants. And, unlike formal job-listing options, posting a comment to an entry on a popular blog is free.

But this is a tough time for Philly’s journalists, and I wonder if a tactic like this one is too aggressive. When, after a lay off, can you recruit without being insensitive? What rules of taste should recruiters follow to keep their work both rigorous and gentle?

For some reflection on those tough questions, I called Joe Grimm, recruiting and development editor for the Detroit Free Press, who writes Poynter’s “Ask the Recruiter” column.

Recruiters must consider tone, Grimm said, when working in the delicate climate that follows a big layoff.

“You want to do it in a way so that you’re seen as helpful,” he said, “rather than as a predator.”

Grimm said that once he finds out who’s been laid off — which is a challenge in and of itself — he prefers to e-mail journalists who appear to fit the openings he might have. Doing so puts control in the hands of the potential applicant. It gives him or her the chance to respond on their own terms.

Getting a phone call from a recruiter immediately after being laid off, Grimm said, can be jarring.

So, what about posting a job ad in a comment to a staffer’s blog? Too aggressive? Or a smart and innovative recruiting method?

“I think that this is fine,” Grimm said. “It’s just a little bit stiff. … It’s all about how you write it.”

The ad does feel as though it’s been used before. Next to each opening is an identification number, not something that is likely to make the recently laid-off journalist feel welcome. But the tone of the message is friendly, and Bridges is, after all, offering jobs.

So far, Bridges has received two responses to the job ad. Both were from journalists who wrote to tell the recruiter they thought that posting the ad on the blog was nice. Neither of them works at the Inquirer, and neither is looking for a job at the Pilot.

Is posting a job ad as a comment to a blog a novel idea? Definitely. A nice one? Maybe. An effective one? It might be too early to tell.

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I'm a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times Magazine.I also produce…

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