Sunday, October 5, 2008

Job interviews: Stuff you can ask, stuff they can't

First, just for the heck of it, here are 10 things employers can't ask you.

Then, here are some thoughts on things you might want to ask them. Many job candidates really want to know some basics like "What's it actually going to be like working here?," "Is the boss a pain or not?" and "Where can I go from here?"

So I brainstormed questions that might help you find some of those answers in a newsroom environment. I don't suggest you ask all these, just use them as a way to think about what you really want to know and how to find that out. Hope it helps your process! And please, send suggestions or tell me if you disagree with any of this, or have other ideas.

Ask the bosses
Particularly if you get to meet the person who'll be your direct supervisor:

I'd like to get a feel for what's expected. What's a typical week or day like?
(Often, you really want to know something quantitative like how many stories do reporters file a week, or how many pages you'll be asked to lay out each night. But of course quantity's not the only issue, and there are many variables. Stories can be long or short; copy-editors can move quickly or spend time on details; designers can do pages quickly or spend time making them great -- or do only a few pages but also be asked to tone the photos and pull the wire copy.)
How long have you been here? What did you do before this?
Does this seem to be a helpful person who will teach you, a knowledgeable person with a strong background who knows many things you can learn, a good leader whose management style you can watch?)
How do (reporters/copy editors) normally get feedback on their work? (How will I learn, mostly?) Sometimes editors have a lot of time to sit down and go over changes in a story with you; sometimes, there is more of a hurry and your story or headline will just be"fixed" for you, but they might explain later what happened.
If I do well at this job, what is it likely I would move on to next/after a few years?
(You probably don't want to seem like you're already eager to leap to your next job, but also, bosses should generally be glad to hire someone who wants to improve and/or move up in the organization.)
Generally, what are career paths are like in this department or at this paper? (Do copy editors move up to be page 1 designers or to be copy chiefs? Do reporters move to bigger beats? Or on to larger papers?)
Let me make sure I've got the basics down: Like the working hours -- night shifts are not all the same, and most people who work days in news are expected to work at least occasional nights or weekends. If you're a city council reporter, what night meetings will you go to? Also the pay, vacation policy and benefits. Not deal-breakers, necessarily, but things you don't want to be surprised by later, and things that might help you decide between two otherwise similar positions.

Ask the coworkers
If you get a chance to talk to people on your level (reporters/copy editors/designers), you have an opportunity to gather some information that might help make your decision:

What's working here like? (They might not say "Horrible," but they probably won't say "Great!" unless they mean it.) When does it get really busy, and what's that like? Do you like it here? What do you like best about it?
I'd like to get a feel for what's expected. What's a typical week or day like?
(Same as above)
How do people normally get feedback on their work here? (Might be a different answer than the boss gave...)
How long have you been here? What did you do before this? (How much turnover is there here? Low turnover could mean there's little chance to move up -- but it could also mean people are happy working there.)

We have an advantage here: Journalism is one field where asking lots of questions is a sign that you're going to be good at your job. (And a journalist who doesn't ask questions... well, that can be a bad sign!)

Please feel free to send me more questions, opinions or advice. What would you ask? What has helped you in the past?