The internet has changed the way people apply for jobs in the television news business. No longer do candidates send news directors VHS tapes or DVDs of work examples via the postal service, instead they forward links to YouTube accounts. No longer do applicants go to the library to research TV stations, instead they search station web pages and peruse LinkedIn profiles.
Still, there are some tried and true elements to landing a TV news job that are timeless. One of the sometimes overlooked elements is the cover letter.
KPIX TV News Director Dan Rosenheim admits, when he’s looking to hire a reporter at his CBS station in San Francisco, the cover letter isn’t his most important criterion. “There are basically three dimensions that I look at in a candidate,” Rosenheim said. “One is their work record and resume, the second is the interview and the third is references.”
Still the cover letter does have value as a professional presentation tool. “A lot of stuff comes in unsolicited at times when I’m not necessarily looking,” Rosenheim said. “And that, in particular, is where a cover letter has an opportunity to pique my interest.”
Here are four tips Rosenheim suggests to make sure the cover letter helps win the job and doesn’t just end up tossed onto the “better luck next time” pile.
1. Don’t oversell. Candidates can say whatever they want in the cover letter, but don’t think the news director isn’t going to find out the truth, eventually. By reading the resume or calling the references, it’s not that hard to discover an applicant was a production assistant writing for the morning show and not the producer writing for the morning show.
Rosenheim recounts a recent experience he had with a candidate who oversold: “I got an application from somebody the other day who said, ‘I am a great reporter, I’ll make a difference for you. I’ve worked in Los Angeles, New York, for the network.’ And I looked [at the resume] and all those jobs were internships and apprenticeships. But from reading the cover letter it made it sound that they’d been the lead reporter at those stations.”
Rest assured, news directors who feel they’re being subjected to a bait and switch will move on to the next applicant.
This even applies to students looking for that first job. “Be transparent, be straightforward, be truthful,” Rosenheim said. “Don’t pretend you can do more.”
He suggests something like this: “My experience as an intern has given me invaluable experience that I now want to use as an entry-level reporter. Going to school in Professor Perez’s class has provided me with a great academic grounding and now it’s time for me to get my feet wet in the real world. And I’d love an entry level job where I could do some reporting.”
2. Be authentic. It’s only natural for applicants to lay it on a little heavy in the cover letter, pointing out why they are the right choice and everyone else isn’t. In fact, that’s kind of the point, right? A cover letter is designed to get the news director to pick the person who wrote it. But Rosenheim says self-promotion can go too far.
“The cover letter is an opportunity to get my attention, but it’s very tricky, because if it’s at all gimmicky or self-serving, it has the opposite effect,” Rosenheim said.
The KPIX news director is in search of authenticity. “You don’t get authenticity when somebody says: ‘You really want to hire me.’ I get letters that say, ‘You will be so happy that you hired me. I make news directors happy everywhere I go.’ Come on.”
Instead, Rosenheim prefers a more hard-nosed approach that avoids – let’s call it what it is – BSing the news director: “I’m an experienced journalist with a track record of breaking stories and I’d love to bring that to your station. I love San Francisco and I admire KPIX. You’re a place I’d really like to work.”
3. Be direct and get to the point. Rosenheim makes a connection between writing in the newsroom and writing the cover letter – the styles are similar.
“Most of what we write [for the newscast] is expository, it’s direct, it’s straightforward, it’s not fiction,” Rosenheim said. The same goes for the cover letter. “You want it to be short, but, just as when we promote a news story, we look for a nugget. Think of the sell. What’s your strength? What are you selling?”
Someone who can get to the point in the cover letter is also showing an ability to write a clear, tight 20-second voice over.
So what is the point of the cover letter? That’s Tip 4.
4. Give examples. All employers want to know what the candidate sitting across the table brings to the table. What is that person going to add to the enterprise? It may be the ability to cover all kinds of stories. Or perhaps she’s an expert in aviation, applying for a job in Houston covering the Johnson Space Center. Maybe he’s the ultimate number cruncher who can do government budget stories better than anyone else. Whatever it is, highlight it in the cover letter.
“Short, sweet and to the point,” Rosenheim said. For example: “I’m really good at coming up with original stories, here are three I’ve done in the last six months – bullet, bullet, bullet.”
Let the cover letter direct the news director’s attention toward what the candidate adds to the newsroom.
To be clear, the cover letter is not going to convince a news director to hire someone to fill a TV reporting position if the resume reel is unpolished (blue video and poor grammar) and the work history listed in the resume isn’t appropriate (trying to jump from, say, Macon to Manhattan). Still, job applicants should remember cover letters are another opportunity to persuade and to demonstrate the skills and expertise that might land the job.
“Why should I hire you and not someone else?” is the essential question Rosenheim asks himself when he’s got a job opening. “Some of it may be I like the way you look on tape,” he said. “But the cover letter is your opportunity to say ‘I can get you scoops,’ ‘I’m a self-starter,’ ‘I have great story ideas.’ That’s something I look for.”
Simon Perez is an assistant professor in the Broadcast and Digital Journalism Department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Before teaching, he spent 25 years reporting for newspapers, magazines and TV stations across the United States and in Spain. In the summers of 2012, 2014 and 2015 he returned to his former job as reporter for KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons he hopes to bring back to the classroom at http://www.simonperez.com/blog-1/.