Hands and keyboard

Advice from employers on how to write a CV and covering letter for a job in journalism

Credit: by Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Whether you are just starting out in journalism or a seasoned reporter thinking about a change in job this year this guide is for you.

It includes interviews with the HR managers and editors who sift through hundreds of covering letters and CVs.

This guide is intended to help your application avoid the shredder and includes the perspective of those recruiting for jobs at the BBC, the Telegraph, local title the Kentish Gazette, consumer magazine publisher Future Publishing, financial services news website Money Marketing and here at media news site Journalism.co.uk.

How many people are you competing with?
  • Local weekly newspaper for Canterbury, the Kentish Gazette, received 40 applications for a recently advertised reporter role.
  • A freelance position at Journalism.co.uk received 82 applications (more on that later).
  • Money Marketing receives between 20 and 100 applications when it recruits.
  • The Telegraph receives around 75 to 100 applicants for a journalism role, a more specialised position such as a business reporter role generates around 40 applications.
  • The Guardian expects between 100 and 120 applications for a typical reporter role. It can be up to 300. An entry-level position generates around 600 applicatons.
  • An entry level BBC job leads to several hundred applications.
  • The BBC trainee scheme receives several thousand applications.
Your job is to make yourself stand out. You'll do this through demonstrating your competencies, skills, experience, creativity, awareness of deadlines and understanding of newsDaniell Morrisey, career writer and BBC talent executive
If you are to be successful in getting past the first hurdle and get invited to interview, your CV and covering letter must get you noticed.

"Your job is to make yourself stand out," Daniell Morrisey, independent career writer and talent executive at the BBC, told Journalism.co.uk. "You'll do this through demonstrating your competencies, skills, experience, creativity, awareness of deadlines and understanding of news."

Vogue's managing editor personally goes through every CV for all journalism jobs and work experience positions, according to the personnel department of Conde Nast, publisher of the fashion magazine – so make an impression.

This Journalism.co.uk guide on how to apply for a job – and how not to, illustrates typical mistakes.

Written in 2005 but still relevant in 2012, it explains how the online-only publication received 82 applications for a freelance position and only three of those people were able to follow all of the instructions:
  • Five applicants sent a CV with no covering letter.
  • Six had significant spelling or grammatical errors.
  • One made a mistake in the name of the person receiving applications (naming Mr Thompson Mr Thomas).
  • 48 applicants did not specify skills in job description.
  • 79 made no reference to key point in job description.
It is vital that you show initiative and basic research skills. When owner and managing director of Journalism.co.uk John Thompson tweeted to say we are recruiting, he was expecting journalists to be able to demonstrate their ability to track down his email address and send a covering and letter and CV rather than respond to the tweet asking what they should do next.

How long after a job is advertised should you apply?

Responses to this question vary. Thompson said: "I wouldn't be the first. I would spend time researching and working on an application. If an ad is running for four weeks, I would suggest getting it in within the first 10 days.

Leo Whitlock, editor of the Kentish Gazette says timing is not important. "You expect journalists to apply at the last minute. A deadline is a deadline and that's fine."

Expect to be Googled

In the social media age you should expect prospective employers to search for you on Twitter, LinkedIn and to Google your name. It is therefore worth Googling yourself to see what results are returned, checking your Twitter profile and being mindful of prospective employers when tweeting.

Covering letters

Covering letters are the most important part of the job application, according to Thompson. Gillian Pears, senior HR manager at Future Publishing, agrees.

"Applicants need to look more carefully at the person specification and really tailor the covering letter.

"It is vital that people think about whether or not they have the right experience for the job that's being advertised," Pears said.

A covering letter should detail your skills, refer to each point in the person specification and give an example of how you meet each of the core competencies listed.

"Show them that you have researched the company," advises Morrisey. "A good covering letter is about a page. Just enough to outline why you would be relevant to that company for that role."

Whether writing a covering letter or a BBC application online, refer back to the advert.

Always go back to the job description as your base. Think of the core competencies as headers – and consider using them as headersDaniell Morrisey
"Always go back to the job description as your base," said Morrisey. "Think of the core competencies as headers – and consider using them as headers."

Applicants that stood out during the last recruitment round of the Kentish Gazette were those who had taken time to look at the newspaper and have a view on it.

"We liked people with story ideas, who seemed to know about our campaigns and what we've been doing as a newspaper," Whitlock explained.

Phil Hammond, head of recruitment at the Telegraph, agreed that research is crucial and advises including links to your work.

He told Journalism.co.uk that the quality of applicants to the Telegraph's graduate journalism job scheme gets better every year.

"The standard gets higher and higher. It's amazing to see the standard of work produced by university students."

Covering letter check list - do:
  • Do send a covering letter, even if not asked for.
  • Most employers will request that you submit applications by email. Paste the covering letter into the body of the email as this is your first opportunity to grab attention.
  • Consider what you write in the subject line of the email.
  • Address the recipient by name. If you do not know the recruiter's name or gender then find out.
  • Follow instructions.
  • If you are asked not to telephone the newsroom, do not call.
  • Customise your covering letter. "We can spot blanket bombing a mile off," said Thompson, managing director of Journalism.co.uk.
  • Be succinct. Write in single sentence paragraphs to demonstrate your skills as a journalist.
  • Ensure you check, double check and get someone else to proof read your application to avoid errors. On the immediate reject list of the Kentish Gazette were "those who got my name, the name of the paper, or the spelling of Kent towns wrong", the title's editor, Leo Whitlock, explained. "Some were very obvious spelling mistakes, others which fell foul/fowl of spell checks/cheques. These put you off from the very beginning," he added.
  • Even when journalists are at a level of experience that warrants an application to a national, grammatical errors and punctuation problems are not uncommon and this "upsets the challenge of getting through to the next phase of the application", Hammond from the Telegraph said.
  • "Demonstrate enthusiasm and get across your passion for writing", advises editor of Money Marketing Paul McMillan. "It comes across when someone has those attributes."
  • Focus on your experience that is relevant to the role, Hammond from the Telegraph said. If it is a sports or business role, for example, concentrate on demonstrating work in that area.
  • Include links to your work. None of the applicants submitting covering letters and CVs for the position at the Kentish Gazette did this but it is something that would have impressed editor Leo Whitlock.
  • Make sure the links guide the editor to your best work; do not highlight second-rate work.
  • Suggest story ideas for the publication.
  • If you are not living close to the location of the advertised position, explain that you are prepared to relocate and suggest the required notice period.
  • Be aware of location when applying to local newspapers. "Ideally they would live in the patch," according to Whitlock from the Kentish Gazette. "It's not a deal maker for me but would be for some editors."
Covering letter check list - do not:
  • Do not simply send a one line covering letter saying "this is my CV".
  • Do not be too descriptive, advises Whitlock. Write a covering letter as you would a news story.
  • Do not criticise a would-be employer by saying "your site is crap and I can make it better", warns Thompson.
  • Do not expect the HR manager or editor to research you. "You have to make your case," says Thompson.
  • "If you are rejected, take the news graciously", he adds. "Don't send stroppy emails – everyone knows every one else in this industry."

Remember that a CV is that your marketing documentDaniell Morrisey
When asked how long a CV should be, recruiters' opinions vary. John Thompson from Journalism.co.uk advises keeping your CV to one page, particularly if you are a first and second jobber.

Phil Hammond, head of recruitment for the Telegraph, says one page is preferable. "Two pages are acceptable but one page is ideal".

"I would say one, two or three – but make page one the place with all the key information," suggests career writer and BBC talent manager Daniell Morrisey.

CV check list - do:
  • Send your CV by PDF, advises Thompson. Some newsrooms will not have Word and unusual fonts and formatting can cause problems. Use the "save as" option within Open Office or a free service such as Zamzar to convert to PDF.
  • "Don't just give the titles and dates, but give examples of stories you have worked on," suggests Paul McMillan, editor of Money Marketing.
  • Make your CV easy to read by including bullet points, advises Morrisey. "Make sure it is easy to scan and that your experience, qualifications and skills are quite obvious. Avoid essays and avoid negativity."
CV check list - do not:
  • "Remember that a CV is that your marketing document," advises career writer and BBC talent executive Morrisey. "Don't list failed exams and there is no need to go overboard in explaining why you left a previous company as those questions can be asked later on."
  • Be wary of the infographic CV. There are some great examples out there – and also some terrible ones. Perhaps the best place to include this CV format is on your blog or website.
  • "Think about how your CV is going to be used. It will be photocopied so if sending a hard copy, avoid unusual papers such as acetates," Morrisey advised.
  • Do not be too creative with the format. "Very occasionally this can be a good idea but it can go spectacularly wrong," he said, explaining that he once received a CV on a cushion.
Journalism.co.uk is also writing an interview guide with advice from the employers interviewed for this feature.

Useful articles:
How to: apply for a job – and how not to
How to: prepare a killer CV

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