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Meredith Artley: Here’s what we look for when we hire young journalists, j-school grads or not

The managing editor of CNN’s digital operations says coding and multimedia skills are becoming more common among new hires, but that specialized knowledge is getting hard to find.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Meredith Artley, vice president and managing editor of CNN Digital, offering insight on what she’s seeing when she looks to hire digital journalists today.

At CNN Digital, we’ve welcomed more than two dozen digital journalists in the past year to strengthen our web and mobile sites (and an additional few dozen more in non-journalism positions like research, product, operations, and business strategy). It’s wonderful to be at a company that is investing in journalism and in digital journalists.

It’s a far more competitive market than even five years ago. That’s great for me and my peers in the industry who are hiring. But for the applicants, it places a premium on not just showing us that you have the skills, but showing what you uniquely can bring to the job. The job goes to people who don’t just have the skills, but to those who demonstrate knowledge and curiosity about the job, the company and the broader digital landscape.

The main mistake I see recent college grads make in interviews — and sometimes not-so-recent grads as well — is an expectation of a one-way conversation. I’ve seen candidates with strong resumes who haven’t appeared to have done their homework or haven’t come with their own questions. It could be anything — tell me something you like or don’t like about CNN, ask me to describe the culture of the newsroom, share an observation about a competitor. Just don’t expect a passive experience where we ask the questions, then you supply answers and wait for the next question. I’ve always seen interviews as an opportunity for a conversation, and to learn if it’s a right fit for both parties, no matter what side of the table I’m on.

Skill-wise, people who have the killer journalist/coder combo have been a hot commodity for some time. But those candidates now are becoming easier to find thanks to schools evolving their programs by melding programming and journalism courses, and people who learn interactive reporting skills on the job.

It’s getting harder to find specialists in certain beats. There are generalists galore. A broad curiosity about the world is a good prerequisite for landing a job in journalism, but the resumes that show specialized interest and experience in a beat or topic are increasingly rare and precious — health, foreign affairs, science, education, religion, to name a few.

I remember when I landed my first journalism job — I had the luck of graduating from the University of Missouri in 1995 with some actual web journalism experience already under my belt. Those things, along with a connection with an alumnus I made at school, eventually got me in the door as one of the first web producers for The New York Times. During the interview, I was proud of my journalism degree from one of the best j-schools in the country. My wonderful and frank boss-to-be, Bernie Gwertzman, told me he didn’t necessarily “believe in” journalism degrees. He noted that some of the best journalists he knew had deep expertise in a topic and then learned how to be journalists. I wouldn’t change my own path for anything in the world, but I don’t consider a journalism degree to be a job requirement.

Also, the resume is no longer queen. It’s one of many tools for your potential employer to get to know you better, and it’s rarely the first impression we get of a candidate. I generally hear a name or recommendation from someone inside or outside the company. If I get an email, remember — the message will be read before the resume. Sometimes I’ll hear the name of a candidate, and then me or someone on the team will do a quick search to look at that person’s digital and social presence. We may not see a resume until much later.

At a big global company like CNN, we have a well-oiled machine of recruiters, HR staff, and relocation experts. I’ve been working as digital editor for more than 15 years, and looking back at the scrappy hiring practices of web sites in the late ’90s, it’s a luxury to have this support in identifying the best talent out there. While the recruiting and hiring process has changed dramatically, much of the basics remain the same.

Photo by David used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • bbdoodles

    Ms. Artley, if I attended a j-school in which I was taught the opposite (that being a generalist is sometimes more important than being a specialist, or as my professors put it, “a one-trick pony”), then how do I properly market myself to someone like you?

  • Maggie Mae

    “and then me or someone on the team will do a quick search”

    Good editing and writing skills seem to be lacking in digital journalism these days.

  • Meredith Artley

    It’s a question better suited to a discussion over drinks but I’ll try here.  I get what your professors are telling you re being a one-trick pony, and being versatile is indeed good guidance for job hunting. But it doesn’t have to exclude exploring areas and beats that interest you.  Could be politics, wine, foreign affairs, environment, health, tech etc. Or perhaps you have a major Instagram following or know a lot about video editing. It opens you up to those jobs, and even you are a candidate for a more general reporter/producer/editor, we know we have a go-to person for certain topics.  Having some depth and expertise in clearly defined areas and disciplines simply makes you a stronger candidate. 

  • Ckey

     I was going to say the same thing…glaring error!!!  That’s my pet peeve…subject verb agreement.  Ugh!!! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/delani.bartlette DeLani R. Bartlette

    And that’s a big pet peeve *I* have with what’s required of journalism hires nowadays…that is, more and more and more. We’re expected to be photographers, videographers, social-media experts, and now coders too. Seems like “writing” and “research” aren’t really important anymore, as evidenced by the quality of “journalism” we see today.

  • JWH

    I’ve moved on to another career now, but I recall that when I finished undergrad in 1997, there was  a certain expectation that before you tried to work for a national outlet — the Post, theNYTimes, CNN, and so forth — you should build skills in smaller-market pubs.  Is that expectation still there today?  Or should a recent grad just shoot for the moon?

  • MizTiger

    I couldn’t agree
    with Meredith more. As a Missouri journalism grad who worked as a newspaper
    reporter for a short while, I sometimes had this sense that I didn’t really
    know what I was reporting on. Yes, I learned a lot about writing, interviewing
    etc. at Missouri and that helped me do a decent job as a reporter but my non-journalism
    knowledge was very shallow even though I didn’t realize at the time. After my
    journalism days, I went and got a MBA from a very good school and have been
    working in one of the world’ largest corporations since. I strongly believe
    that I would be a lot better journalist today because of my experience than I
    was back in the day.

     

    My suggestion to
    current students is to broaden their knowledge base as much as possible. Do a
    double major in business, science, arts, health etc. or at least get a minor. To
    illustrate the point  Meredith made, who
    would you rather hire as a health reporter – a new journalism grad or a new public
    health and journalism grad who has done an internship at the state public health department. Social media has made the news as it
    existed irrelevant. I don’t need to read New York Time to learn that we have a
    public health crisis or to hear what the experts are saying; I can use Twitter for
    that. I read it to learn something that might be getting missed or misinterpreted
    by the ‘experts’ and you cannot tell me that unless you have a deep knowledge of the topic. 

     

    Journalism is a
    great liberal education base to build on and I am happy I went to Missouri.
    There have been numerous instances,  back in the MBA and in my job today, where I have
    directly used the skills I learned. I just wish I had built on that great base
    when I was at Mizzou as opposed to much later. 

  • Andria Krewson

    “Young” in the headline?

    My cohort in UNC’s master of arts in technology program has two age modes: 26 and 51.

    Those at 51 have years of traditional journalism experience and are adding or enhancing all these skills that CNN seeks.

    So can Nieman and others get away from this “young” thing? “Student” shouldn’t  imply “young” or at the beginning of careers anymore. Artley does a good job of Not Using That Word in the text; it’s the headline, which travels far and wide, that’s the issue.

  • http://procause.com/about/ matthughes

    I am strongly considering enrolling in Missouri’s grad program for Spring 2013.

    My background is in sports-marketing and business development so I’m definitely hoping to mesh my ‘expertise’ with a solid journalism layer. 

    I really appreciate your insight. 

  • MallieSae

    Another article touching on how employers don’t “believe” in journalism degrees and how some of the *best* journalists learned on the job, blah blah blah. Please direct me to these so-called employers who prefer to hire writers without degrees and sign me up. Articles like these subtly try to discourage j-school graduates and deter potential students from applying – something that’s disconcerting when you consider the competitive hiring landscape has made many journalists believe the only way they can land a job above $30k is by going back to school and to further their education – and thus separate themselves from the pack. 

    The top journalism schools put students in debt for decades (which I personally believe is absurd given the average journalist’s salary), but you get what you pay for, so please don’t post quotes from 1995 inferring that the money spent and education gained from these schools is essentially a waste of money. I have a hard believing any employer – if having to choose between between a potential employee with a master’s degree and one without – would choose the latter unless their resume blows the former’s out of the water. 

    I realize intangibles and personality during the actual interview matter, but stop trying to scare potential j-school students into thinking an education – and subsequent debt – isn’t worth it. 

  • TomB

     Amen to the three of you! No excuse for not knowing grammar!

  • robert hart

    Dear Nieman Journalism Lab editors,

    I’m sharing very useful article this with my journalism students.

    However:If, by “coding” you mean writing in a programming language, good for you. If, however, you are referring to working in HTML or CSS, neither of which are programming languages, as “coding” you are using the term incorrectly. It’s like the difference between a burro and a burrow: One is an ass, the other is a hole in the ground. A good journalist should know the difference.rh

  • Monica Morales51

    Ms. Artley I have one question, what if a person has had a lot of experience as a journalist but did not go to college, would CNN still hire that person?