Journalism’s hiring transparency problem

Why do publications make it so hard to figure out what they're looking for?

Last week, a journalist friend emailed me to say that several of her colleagues had just been laid off, and she would appreciate any job leads she could pass along to them. I get emails from hiring editors all the time, so I did a quick comb through my inbox. And I quickly realized that the vast majority of those queries didn’t link to a public job listing or even give their blessing to be forwarded far and wide. They just wanted to know if I personally had any recommendations.

I’m aware that, in many cases, the editors contact me so that they can check a box. “Well, I tried to find some female candidates. I emailed Ann,” I picture them saying. “If she doesn’t know someone, how can I be expected to? No one can say I didn’t make an effort.” While I pride myself on knowing many excellent journalists who aren’t white, male, and straight, often I can’t think of a good person to recommend for a job. As BuzzFeed Deputy Editor Shani Hilton put it, “we don’t have some secret diverse pipeline of reporters we’ve been hiding.”

So I ask the hiring editor whether it’s okay for me to pass along the question, or if the job listing is posted publicly so I could, say, tweet a link to it. Shockingly often, I’m met with a “no.” They want specific names, not exposure for their listing. This makes me want to scream. Is your hiring process really that top-secret? Are you too busy to consider applications from people who haven’t already been vetted by someone you know? Or are you just lazy about spreading the word? And if any of these things are true, why are you surprised that you’re not getting a diverse group of applicants?

Many companies have HR rules that state all jobs must be listed publicly. (Although even at those places, sometimes there’s a shortlist of candidates before jobs are even listed.) Sometimes the problem is a time gap between when a publication knows it’ll be hiring, but it’s not ready to officially declare the positions it’s filling. John Cook, editor of the national security reporting startup The Intercept, recently said that he’s looking to hire people who are “Not white. Not male. Fast.” Clearly he’s aware of the criticism of the lack of racial and gender diversity of new media startups. But when I hunted for job listings on The Intercept’s website and that of its parent company, First Look Media, I came up empty-handed. “We’re still in the process of figuring out what positions we’re going to be hiring for,” Cook told me via email.

The problem is even more pronounced for freelancers, who perform a low-level version of the job hunt every time they try to figure out how to pitch a new publication. People who have lots of connections already can just ask a colleague for information about how to pitch a specific publication. But for outsiders, most outlets don’t make it easy to figure out who to pitch—or even what sorts of things they tend to assign to freelancers. The higher up you go on the prestige and payment hierarchy, the harder it is to figure out. The New York Times has a corporate job board and op-ed submission guidelines, but if you want to know which sections publish reported work by freelancers, you’ll need a personal connection to find out. Some media-gossip sites, tweets, and personal blogs contain more details about what editors at the country’s biggest glossies and newspapers are looking for from freelancers. But reliable intel is typically available only by word-of-mouth.

Why don’t sites make this information easy to come by? While many editors claim to want more pitches and applications from a more diverse group of journalists, it’s hard to take them seriously when they don’t make such information easy to find and share. If you’re an editor who has complained (or even noticed) a paucity of pitches from women and people of color, ask yourself: Do we make clear how to pitch us? To outsiders, not just those who’ve already met us? Is that information public and shareable? Because when it comes to finding the best journalists with the most diverse set of ideas, a public posting is a lot more useful than a private query.

Of course, some publications are doing it right. Gothamist recently updated its fairly detailed specs. Many sites offer broad guidelines and have a general-submissions inbox. A few go into serious detail about what they want from freelancers. The west-coast upstart California Sunday Magazine has a comprehensive email it sends to any writer interested in contributing. It includes a long, involved answer to the question, “What makes a story right for someone else, but probably wrong for The California Sunday Magazine?”

This level of detail is actually helpful to outsiders and is a tacit acknowledgment from the editors that they and their networks don’t know every good journalist working today. Just because someone doesn’t have a personal connection to every publication in the business doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas and the skills to execute them.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk