Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hiring/J-degree: Austin American-Statesman

Part of a series in which professionals answer the question that students often ask me: Do you need a journalism degree to get hired in the field?

Many thanks to Sandra Kleinsasser, Executive News Editor of the Austin American-Statesman, for her answers. Sandra oversees the day and night news production desks as well as features and business production desks -- that is, the designers and copy editors.

When you hire a reporter or a copy editor, how important is it for an applicant to have a journalism degree?

It is not a steadfast criterion for a copy editor. We have hired folks without complete degrees or even degrees in other fields. I once tried to hire an editor who had a degree in library science. He was an awesome copy editor, but he decided to go to another paper instead. Many applicants have English degrees as undergraduates or even graduate degrees.

Why do you look for a journalism degree, or what do you look for instead of that?

I look first for practical experience. Internship, college paper, newsroom experience. I am also interested in curious individuals who love to learn and who love journalism. They must be ethical and communicate well in writing and in person.

Is the picture different for entry-level applicants vs. experienced applicants?

We occasionally hire someone straight out of school. I look for enthusiasm and drive, willingness to learn, practical experience such as internships or work on the college paper. I am impressed by proven leadership, such as managing a yearbook staff. If a candidate does not have a journalism degree, I look for coursework that supports some of the skills they will need. Ethics of journalism is important. AP style is critical for a copy editor. Knowledge of publishing software (for print and online) tells me that a candidate is more ready than someone with only knowledge of theory.

We administer a test that gives us a good idea of a candidate's expertise in grammar, spelling, style, editing, headline writing and current events. A certain score does not guarantee success as a copy editor, but taken as part of the whole package, it does tell us a lot about an individual. We also ask candidates to critique the paper and to write an autobiography.