The Cover Letter
We’ve been sitting on a question in our inbox. Courtesy of Ceillie Gordon it goes like this, “What should we put in our cover letters when applying for journalism internships and jobs?”
It’s a good question, and one I’ve answered more or less before (see here and here and here and here).
The TL;DR version of each is to basically get your online presence in order, which means: create a portfolio of your work and/or a blog that demonstrates both what you know about the subject matter of the organization that you’re applying to and how you present that information (aggregation, original reporting and musings, etc). If your current online presence (say, on Tumblr) is a bunch of Justin Bieber gifs and other blinky things, consider launching something new that digs into ideas and content you’re looking to pursue. Spend time on this. Spend 30 minutes to an hour a day for a few months and you’ll have plenty to impress whoever it is you’re applying to. Then, in your letter, link to this. Talk about this. Show whoever it is you’re writing to that you’re invested in the subject and know about it.
That said, be human. Express your personality. Show people what makes you tick. There’s neither harm nor foul to include in your cover letter something along the lines of, “While my journalistic interest is in commodities pricing and international trade, I must admit a cultural fondness for animated Justin Bieber gifs which you can see at my personal site, Viva La Bieber.”
See what I did there? I combined a bit of the professional seriousness with the fun of your personality. (And as an aside, I had no idea that Viva La Bieber existed as a Tumblr but wasn’t surprised to see that it actually does.)
Yes, it may turn some hiring people off but it will also turn some hiring people on. There are a lot of smart people out there and hiring decisions often come down to whether or not — all else being equal — the person applying will fit into the culture of the existing team. We are, after all, going to spend a lot of time working together. And for you, you’ll have a better time working with people who get your Bieber fetish than with those that look down their nose at it.
About this time last year I received a cover letter from Jihii for an internship opening we had. She will hate me for what I’m about to do but since she doesn’t know I’m writing this I’ll take the hate in hopes that maybe her example might help you.
Here’s some of what she wrote.
I cannot tell you how happy I was to see your Tumblr post about the internships in NYC.
This is a good start. She knows our Tumblr and isn’t just blindly mailing out cover letters.
After a brief biographical overview (she grew up outside of New York City, studied at a small liberal arts college in California, was editor in chief of the school’s student magazine and worked on an independent documentary project) she writes:
I wrote my senior thesis on literary journalism and how it can survive and be developed in a new media age… ie: how can multimedia/web tools help hit the same emotional spots and create the same visceral experiences that literary tropes traditionally have? That’s one of my biggest research interests at present and FJP’s work is one of the few places I feel I can bring that conversation up.
See what she did there? She linked her interests to ours by demonstrating previous work that dovetails into a question we occasionally pursue. She also outlines what she would like to pursue in the internship and this is her taking a chance. Does she know we’re interested in the topic? Generally yes because she know the type of themes we’ve been publishing.
She then goes on to tell us about her overall digital skills and then what she’s done since graduating:
Right now I’m… waiting on some admission decisions for graduate studies in journalism. I’m working on a documentary film with some friends on undocumented Latino immigration. I’m curating a Tumblr that is kind of my own version of FJP: navigating media (thank you for the inspiration!) and I’m also doing some freelance writing. I just finished up an internship at The New Press in all things publishing, and I’m currently working at Columbia University Teachers College Edlab.
I’m there because I’m fascinated by all the ways technology is revolutionizing communication and I’m getting the opportunity to learn a lot about design and multimedia. I write a blog on Data Visualization for them (I adore infographics) and I’m also working on putting together an exhibition on dataviz.
Sprinkled throughout her cover letter were links to her online work which is important. It’s one thing to say you’ve done X, Y and Z. It’s another to actually show it. End result: If you follow the FJP you know that Jihii’s been with us and, arguably, writes and posts the more thoughtful material we have.
So, how to write your cover letter: think inverted pyramid, tailor it to who you’re sending it to, provide concrete examples of relevant work you’ve done and link to those examples where possible.
And yes, your resume should be online (and here’s a wonderful, funky example of one that’s making the rounds).
Hope this helps. — Michael
Have a question? Ask away.
Image: Twitter post from Scott Leadingham.