Transcript

Ask The Post

Peter Perl
Assistant Managing Editor, Training and Development
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; 12:00 PM

This Week: The Post's assistant managing editor for training and development, Peter Perl , was online Wednesday, May 24, at noon ET to answer your questions about The Washington Post's hiring, promotion and staff development.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Perl: Welcome to washingtonpost.com. We have quite a few questions from around the country & I will try to reach them all within our hour. Thanks for joining us.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi,

I'm a journalism grad student at Northwestern. How does The Washington Post train its young reporters?

Peter Perl: We train them largely on-the-job by matching them up with editors who have the experience and teaching ability to point them in the right direction, answer their questions and edit their copy. We also pair them up with "professional partners" who are veteran reporters who help them adjust to the environment of a large and demanding newspaper. In individual cases, we also match them with a more experienced reporter-mentor to help them on a particular aspect of the craft.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Peter,

For young reporters interested in ultimately obtaining a job at The Post, what kind of advice would you offer? What kind of work are you looking for? I'd like to know specifically what kind of clips or work experience you might be looking out for.

Peter Perl: Generally speaking, we are looking for people who have at least three to five years of professional experience and who show spark, energy, creativity, and reporting & writing ability. We are also looking for diversity in all forms, not just racially & ethnically, but in diversity of backgrounds, interests and skills.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Mr. Perl:

Thank you very much for having this forum. I have always wondered how the paper's hiring process works for recent college graduates who are interested in joining the field but do not have an extensive journalism background. Many of the internship programs that I looked into as an undergraduate student favor Journalism and Communications majors. What about the English, History and Poli Sci majors who write well, know what's going on but were not editors of their campus paper?

Peter Perl: Journalism is still a profession that you can enter without a specialized degree. Many liberal arts and even science and engineering majors somehow find their way into the profession without a journalism or communications degree. Media internships are indeed the best way to start, but my suggestion would be to pursue a job at a weekly newspaper or a small daily publication and learn the basics of the craft first. I was actually a high school English teacher whose first journalism job was as a "stringer" covering a little rural town in Connecticut for 25 cents pay per column inch.

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Hartford, Conn.: My secretary's child is interested in a career in journalism. One young journalist I know, coming out of school burdened by tens of thousands of dollars in college-loan debt, has to work two full-time jobs because the pay at most newspapers is so crummy. How does someone come out of college and get onto a decent-sized, decent-paying newspaper? What are the best schools?

Peter Perl: That is a really good "real-world" question. Most people who get into journalism do so because they love it; they love the story-telling; they love the adventure; they love the "insider" view of the world. Few get in it for the money, and, in fact, salaries at newspapers generally lag many other options for recent college grads.

You reach the goal either by being so unusually gifted and talented that you can land at a decent-sized, decent-paying paper in your 20s, or by "paying your dues" at a smaller paper or two first and then moving up. There are quite a few terrific J schools--among them Maryland, Missouri, Columbia, Berkeley, and others I am leaving out...

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Kensington, Md.: Peter, congratulations on your promotion. In your opinion, what is the biggest problem in the world today? Is there a solution or acceptable way to correct it?

Peter Perl: This question is clearly a plant. I see from Kensington, Maryland address that this is probably my mother, Ethel, who is 88, and her friend Carolyn, who is a Web-savvy grandmother. My answer to your question: the biggest problem in the world, as in the workplace, is communication. If people communicated better, internationally, nationally and locally, we would have a better chance of solving problems. How's that Mom?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Peter, I was wondering about the researcher positions at The Post-- what kinds of things does a researcher do, and how? And how does one become a researcher at a newspaper or magazine?

Peter Perl: Researchers are highly valued at The Post and other good newspapers. They perform a huge variety of search functions, usually on the Web. The Post was fortunate enough to win 4 Pulitzer prizes this year and in our newsroom celebrations, several researchers were cited as being indispensable parts of that great work. Again, we would look for highly skilled people with several years experience.

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Clarksville, Md.: I am interested in working WITH The Washington Post's media division as a stringer/freelancer providing audio of important speeches and lectures. Whom can I speak to about establishing such a working relationship?

Peter Perl: I would address your inquiry to our Web subsidiary, Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. Specifically to Jim Brady, at executive.editor@wpni.com.

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Washington, D.C.: So how important do you think J-school is? Would a young political science major (who didn't write for the school paper) be better off "doing her time" at small papers or going back for the master's in journalism?

Peter Perl: I don't mean to duck your question, but either route can work, depending on which environment you will find more stimulating. You could enroll in grad school and get some professional internship experience during your schooling and end up as a very attractive job candidate. If that's not your thing, go the small-newspaper route.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you send journalists abroad to train or get a perspective on the work and society they are covering in the U.S.?

Peter Perl: We currently have 19 foreign bureaus with 24 correspondents, plus extra staff in Baghdad during the Iraq war. They receive training and orientation for overseas work, but we do not have the resources or luxury to send people overseas to learn about their coverage in the U.S.

Having said that, we do send reporters--including youngish ones--on overseas assignments that give them a richer view of immigration issues and life in the U.S. Specifically, we have recently sent reporters on extended trips to Africa, Korea, and El Salvador to write about the extended families of recent immigrants to America. This produces some rich journalism. We currently have one reporter who covers the "bridge" between central America and our Metropolitan Washington region and she travels on occasion to Central America.

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Dallas, Tex.: Are you responsible for hiring? It seems to me the reporting in The Post's Metro section is pretty thorough, but what does a reporter have to do not to end up in the Frederick bureau?

Peter Perl: We have some terrific journalists from other newspapers who start their careers here working in bureaus. I posted this question because we specifically have a reporter from the Frederick, Md. bureau who is currently covering the Iraq war from Baghdad. One of our challenges is to offer a rewarding career path from a suburban bureau to wherever else the reporter wants to go. Some terrific veteran reporters cover the Washington suburbs and do a great job, considering it a career destination.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Peter, what would be your advice to a young, would-be journalist who's got lots of great freelance clips, but still can't land that reporter job? Go to J-school? Move and pay your dues at Podunk News? Or keep at the freelance work (for both local and national publications) until it turns into something more. Does The Post, for example, ever hire regular freelancers for full time jobs? Thanks!

Peter Perl: We rarely hire freelancers to staff jobs (unless they are superb journalists who have written for major publications) although historically there have been exceptions to that general rule and undoubtedly there will be in the future.

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Va.: Does The Washington Post hired an promote people with disabilities? Are there any disabled reporters?

Peter Perl: Yes, we have several people, reporters and editors with disabilities.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Lots of questions about young people interested in working for The Post ... but what about those of us who are older and worked in organizations not traditionally deemed journalistic in nature? How often does the Post hire people who've had 10+ years of experience writing and editing for nonprofit organizations, school systems, etc.?

Peter Perl: That is rare, but not unheard of. We have specialty sections of the paper--Book World, Home, Health, etc.--in which a specialized background is particularly highly valued and we occasionally make non-traditional hires for specialties.

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Orange, Va.: Do you ever worry that possible commitments reporters at The Post have to supply content at the other Post brands like the Web site or radio station might take away from their development as actual news gatherers?

Peter Perl: That is a very good question and it's a challenge that we are all struggling with in the organization, from our support staff to our top editors. We are trying to serve a broader audience on a variety of "platforms" and we, like other papers, are doing it with shrinking staff. So we try to work smarter.

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Washington, D.C.: How can one go about writing op-eds for the post?

Peter Perl: Just submit them to the Editorial Page Editor, at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington DC 20071--or dig up the online address here on the web-site.

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Houston, Tex.: I remember reading that there was a "star system" at the Post and that it was an antagonistically competitive environment. Is that still true?

Peter Perl: To be candid, some people have historically complained about the existence of a "star system" here, as at many organizations. We do indeed have people who are "stars" but not everyone would agree on who precisely is on the list. The goal of newsroom management is to give everybody their best chance to show that they can shine. Not everyone will be a star, though everyone ought to have a chance to prove their full value.

I do not think, though, after 25 years here as a reporter and editor that we have a "competitively antagonistic environment." We have a lot of talented, ambitious people--and sometimes they may clash; usually not.

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Annapolis, Md.: Cover letters. I've tried the plain business style cover letter with no success. I then resorted to a more anecdotal eye-catching version. Same result. I've been freelance reporting and applying to various jobs for nearly a year now. I've come to view the job hunt all-too-similar to winning the lottery. So my two-part question for you is: What are the winning numbers? Is there a way to boost the chance that an editor will at least open my application packet? And should I even bother applying to newspapers via online services like journalismjobs.com? I follow up with a phone call to make sure they got my application packet, but that's usually the last time I speak with them. I know there's no magic bullet answer to these questions, but I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to hear your advice. Thank you for our time.

Peter Perl: A difficult question: some pieces of advice. First, do some great journalism. That will catch people's attention and also make you more successful and happier. As to the letters, make them lively and try to catch the attention of the busy editors who read them--but don't go overboard and try to be too brash or too cute. Good luck to you. And also, Be Patient.

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Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Mr Perl,

Does The Post have a purely performance-based compensation plan like other for-profit businesses?

Or does The Post award pretty much the same pay raise to everyone in each grade like the civil service.

Peter Perl: We have a combination pay system. Many employees are covered by a union contract with the Communications Workers of America and receive pay raises that are negotiated by contract. The newsroom also has a "merit pay" system in which we review the entire staff twice per year and try to reward as many people as we can for excellent work done.

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Narragansett, R.I.: Hi Peter,

Congratulations on your promotion. It has been a long time...Cranston East,1972. Since communication is our greatest problem, it's about time that I said "hello."

Peter Perl: Wow. This question is from someone who knew me almost 35 years ago when I was a student-teacher in Rhode Island! Please contact me offline at perlp@washpost.com.

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Alexandria, Va.: I read your paper online. It's my homepage. We're living in a multimedia world. Your site is good but it could be better. What is your staff doing to learn about how to report for the Internet? And I'm not talking about blogs.

Peter Perl: Great question. We are constantly trying to improve it. Our Web site has been very successful by many measures--traffic, advertising, awards--but we are redesigning it to make it more user-friendly, and we have begun training our "print" journalists in video reporting. I'm sure you have seen some of the videos already and you will see more. We actually have a training session in two weeks to give some of our print people hands-on training for multimedia.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Perl,

I'm interested in the profile of your entry to mid level journalist. Do you seek individuals who have pursued journalism all along, or are you also interested in people with different backgrounds who are good writers?

I'm a 26 year-old professional. In my last job (assisting a high level policymaker) I wrote a number of op-eds and other articles. I have a Master's, significant public policy experience for my age, and have been told consistently that I am a good writer. Would I be considered?

Thanks.

Peter Perl: My candid answer is that you would be a longshot and it would be difficult to land a job directly at the Post. We have, though, had a few hires in recent years who have come to work for our editorial page and for specialty sections who had legislative and government backgrounds.

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Columbus, Ohio: I am a journalist who ditched a career in business to go back to school in my late 20s. I just graduated after two years with a degree in journalism. I have some good clips and I landed a fellowship at the Poynter Institute this summer. But come late July I will need to find a job. What are the best sources or places to find writing/reporting jobs?

Peter Perl: Congratulations on the Poynter fellowship. It is an excellent institution and you must be talented to get that. The Poynter people will give you better advice on this than I could.

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Curious: I'm not a writer, but I'm curious. Why wouldn't you hire freelance writers for staff jobs?

Peter Perl: We use many freelance writers for freelance stories. Usually, those writers require a considerable amount of fact-checking, training, and attention. Once they have proven themselves to be accurate, reliable, good reporters and writers, their work is used more frequently. After some time, freelancers may get hired into staff jobs. We wouldn't hire directly into a staff job unless and until we really knew what we were getting.

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Newark, N.J.: Two questions: 1. with all the veterans taking buyouts at the paper, does this mean you'll be replacing them with some younger, less expensive talent? 2. how do you get on The Washington Post "radar" to get hired?

Peter Perl: To clarify your question, we have a limited number of veteran journalists ages 54 and up, who are taking advantage of an early retirement offer that expires on May 30th. We don't know the specific number yet. Over time, we will again be hiring. The best way to get on our radar is to do great stories of the kind that we'd like our readers to see.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: What do you look for in reporter candidates? I know a lot of past notable Post reporters didn't have college degrees, (the late Marjorie Williams comes to mind) yet turned out to be terrific writers. Which counts more: education or experience?

Peter Perl: Good question. I'd say experience. We have a number of great people who never got around to finishing college. We also have a summer intern program in which we look for diversity and make a conscious effort not to just hire people from big-name colleges.

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Baltimore, Md.: Any examples of Post reporters who are successfully delving into Web-reporting?

Peter Perl: A fair number of journalists are exploring this...personally, I have recent seen streaming video done by Peter Baker, David Nakamura and Nelson Hernandez, and we have a many others who are experimenting or will in the future with cross-media work.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm surprised to learn that journalists have union-negotiated contracts, like teachers and policemen. Why is that?

Wouldn't a merit-based system make more sense for brainy knowledge workers in the 21st century?

Peter Perl: To put this in context, the union negotiations only cover minimum pay levels and incremental raises. We try to simultaneously use the merit pay system to address the issue you raise.

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St. Louis, Mo.: I'm a university senior about to graduate with a journalism degree. Since high school, I have dreamed about working for The Post in some way. What kind of experience or education is required to even be considered for a writing position at The Post? What is considered an "entry level" position at the paper for those aspiring to be the next Woodward, Bernstein or Priest?

Peter Perl: I think my previous answers would have given you a pretty good idea of what we are seeking. The vast majority of our hires begin their careers here as reporters covering local news on the Metropolitan staff. Some have excellent careers on the Metro staff, others move on. Dana Priest began her career as a copy editor and worked a variety of local jobs here before moving on to covering the CIA and winning a Pulitzer. Several top editors here also began their careers as copy editors, so there are many different paths.

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Atlanta, Ga.: My high school age son is interested in getting into sportswriting. What would be the best preparation for eventually entering that branch of journalism? Should a student begin to focus on a particular subject matter area as early as college? Thank you.

Peter Perl: He should do as much writing as he can. He should follow his gut and his heart in deciding what he is really interested in learning about and writing about. He should keep at it.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: I work as a trade journalism editor. Some years ago, I hired two interns in consecutive summers, both upper-level students at a prestigious university's school of journalism. Both turned out to very poor writers and communicators. How important is it that your hires come from well-known and respected schools of journalism? Do you ever "beat the bushes" to find talented people from lesser-known schools of journalism?

Peter Perl: Yes. The best schools don't always produce the best journalists. We have found some great ones who did NOT attend the big-name schools.

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Reston, Va.: Assuming one has a music degree and a background in writing, who does one approach to become one of your stringers who give sort criticism of concerts and other performances that I see reported virtually daily in Style?

Peter Perl: Call the paper and ask to be connected to The Style section, and someone will answer your question. Good luck.

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Peter Perl: We've run out of time. Some very interesting questions. We actually like to hear from our readers and web-site visitors. I can be reached at perlp@washpost.com.

Thanks.

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