July 23, 2015

Recently, NPR Visuals announced that they would allow applicants to resend cover letters for their fall internship positions. They felt that their hiring process had not been a level playing field for everyone.

The issue of diversity has been a topic of constant discussion within the journalism community. While BuzzFeed has tried to come up with an investigative fellowship for mid-career journalists of color, ProPublica launched an Emerging Reporters Program for student journalists of color.

So what led the NPR Visuals team to start the hiring process from all over again?

“I throw off every other cover letter that ledes with how much they love NPR. Or ‘I grew up listening to NPR in the backseat of a car‘. That is such a boring way to start a letter,” a manager joked while looking at intern applications at NPR. The editor of the visuals’ team response was simple:

“Why don’t we just tell people to not write the typical thing? People don’t know what a good cover letter reads like. It is either good coaching or luck of the draw that someone is going to write something that inspires me,” said Brian Boyer, editor of the combined code, design, video and photo team within NPR.

NPR Visuals’ attempt is an effort to target the general problem in the hiring process. “With any job interview, there are people who are good at speaking and people who are not. There are people who have been coached and people who haven’t,” said Boyer. According to him, this effort is more about how can we level the playing field with regards to coaching. “A lot of inference we’ve had from people who applied for this job is – it’s weird, they are already insiders,” he said. “They already know everybody. They already speak the language perfectly. They have had that one great professor, or an organization that can help folks. And not everyone has that opportunity.”

In an effort to help everyone prepare better, his team outlined the entire hiring process in a blog post. Part of it also includes how they would send a list of potential questions before the actual interview takes place.

After you submit a resume and cover letter, our selection committee will read through all the applications. We’ll reduce the list to approximately 8-10 candidates by eliminating applications that don’t have a cover letter and resume or who clearly aren’t a good fit for the team.

If you’re one of these candidates, two or three folks from the Visuals team will conduct a 30 minute Skype interview with you. You’ll get an email before your interview with outline of the questions you’ll be asked in the interview and also given the opportunity to ask any questions beforehand. The questions may vary a bit from interview to interview based on your professional experience, but we will be as consistent as possible.

Boyer also asked the news community what was the best possible way to tackle this – and the team got some interesting responses. But one that stood out to him was about feedback.

“One piece of advice we got from people was giving everyone who interviewed with us really good feedback. Basically, re-coach them so as to how to do better next time, which can be a little labor intensive but it seems like it could be a really good thing. If we find that this is working for interns, I think this is something that I would want to do for full-time jobs as well,” he told Poynter.

And then they talk about why this is important:

Everyone on the Visuals team wants to open our field to the best people out there, but the process doesn’t always work that way. So we’re trying to make the job application process more accessible.

Applicants with strong cover letters and good interview skills naturally tend to do well in this process. Often, those skills are a result of coaching and support — something that not all students are privileged to have. To help candidates without those resources, we’re being more transparent about our process and expectations.

We’re certain that we’re missing out on candidates with great talent and potential who don’t have that kind of support in their lives. We think knowing our cover letter expectations and interview questions ahead of time will help level the playing field, keep our personal bias out of the interview process, and allow better comparisons between candidates.

Traci Schweikert, senior director, human resources and the lead for the internship program at the organization, agrees.

“Brian’s is a great way to try to further the conversation to folks who might not know NPR, who might not know journalism,” said Schweikert.

A typical fall internship cycle at NPR consists of 50 people, and nearly half of them end up in news and programing departments. Though it is hard to replicate being as prescriptive as the Visuals team, Schweikert’s team is eager to learn.

“In Visuals, we try to approach everything with a scientific method. What’s the hypothesis? The hypothesis is that if we attempt to eliminate aspects of privilege in hiring, then we will find a more racially, demographically, socio-economically diverse applicant pool. So, now we are running an experiment. And if it works, we’ll work with it and tweak it and try it,” said Boyer. “We’ll know once the results are in.”

Do you have hiring experiments of your own? Share them with us in the comments!

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I report, write and produce interactives for Poynter.org as the institute's 2015 Google Journalism Fellow. Tweet me @gurmanbhatia or email at gbhatia@poynter.org.
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