Recruiting, training and creating leaders

The way the pros describe it, serious recruiting is a couple of steps shy of big game hunting.

The hunt for good copy editors requires stealth, clever tactics and perseverance, according to Walter Middlebrook, associate editor for recruitment at Newsday, and Jerry Sass, former copy desk chief at the The Oregonian and now a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Successful recruiting that reaches a diverse pool of copy editors is rooted in three essentials, Middlebrook told the editors:

  • A financial commitment by the company to training and development.

  • A managerial commitment to recruitment that starts at the top, which includes identifying a single person as a linchpin, one who knows where the jobs are and can bring editors and potential hires together. That editor must then be given time to make connections and work the phones. While at The Oregonian, Sass said, he spent about a day on recruitment in every two-week stretch.

  • Commitment from individual copy desks to help reach out to the three hunting grounds that good recruiters frequent: high schools, colleges and working copy editors.

"You can't get at kids early enough," Sass said. "High school - you've got to be out there talking to them."

Sass and Middlebrook said both of their papers work hard to maintain relationships with area high schools through workshops at the paper and classroom visits.

"The dividends these things pay are not necessarily anything you can see right away," Sass said, "but they really pay off in the long run." He urged editors to design high school outreach programs not just as training and recruitment efforts but also as a way to attract young readers. "You're attracting them not just to read the paper, but to work there," he said. The mention of "young readers" also will catch the attention of circulation-conscious editors, Sass said.

Middlebrook particularly admires the high school outreach programs at the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Memphis Commercial-Appeal and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Such efforts are time-intensive, and sometimes copy editors must participate on their own time. You might be surprised who volunteers for such programs, Sass said. "It's amazing how rejuvenating it can be for older copy editors, too, who you think may be near burnout," he said.

"They just love going out. They come back re-energized for everything they do."

Working with high schools requires time editors don't think they have, but "it just works," Sass said. Reward volunteers by slipping them a day off the books, or perhaps another department, such as community affairs, has money for outreach efforts. Work with the top editors to find a way to show the paper's appreciation.

"But even if you don't have that kind of a climate," Sass said, "it's incumbent on you to work to foster that kind of a climate. And it's not impossible, even if you have a Neanderthal rock in the editor's seat."

The hunting ground at the college level revolves around contacts with journalism schools, student newspapers that aren't associated with journalism schools, and job fairs. Job fairs, editors were told, is where recruiters must hone their skills.

"Most of the people who come to the national conventions don't know how to recruit," Middlebrook said, "and they don't know how to use the job fair."

Middlebrook urged editors to push for attending national conventions despite budget cutbacks because that's where the students are. But working a job fair, he said, is more than sitting at a booth and taking applications.

"One of the first things I do as a recruiter is go around to all the booths and say, 'What are you looking for?'" he said. By the time he sits down in his booth, he knows what all the openings are.

Middlebrook then urges young people who aren't ready for Newsday to visit the booths of smaller papers that have appropriate jobs.

"And they'll play me," he said. "I love this because I can watch them the whole convention. They play me. They're not going to do it. They're going to spend that first two or three days working the big papers."

By then, recruiters from smaller papers "are frustrated as hell because no one's sitting at their desk. But that's the day when you're supposed to be in prime time because that's the day when everyone's finally had the reality check and said: 'No, I ain't got no job. I ain't got no job, and I ain't got no offers. I gotta work this room.'"

But at this point, Middlebrook warns editors from smaller papers, "you're pissed off and you're gone. ... I'm always the last one to leave the job fair," which means he and fellow up-to-the-last-minute recruiters are meeting "everybody."

"By the end of the job fair, we're dead, but I guarantee you we walk out of there with more information and more people," he said, which he can use to help make connections with his counterparts in the industry - and win "brownie points" with students because he got them jobs elsewhere.

"In two or three or four years down the road when they're ready to make their move, they will call me again and say, 'What's going on?'" Middlebrook said. "Now knowing what's going on in my shop, I've got a better shot at trying to find a home for them. Maybe in my shop or maybe in some of the Tribune Company's shops."

The key, he said, is building a relationship. "There are students out there who will keep coming back. And they will keep introducing themselves. And you have to be there for them. If they don't have what you need, guide them. Help them get to the next stage. That's when you start the buzz, those relationships." Regional job fairs are also prime areas to find potential copy editors.

"The New York Times sponsors a workshop on copy editing at every convention only so that they can get a list of who those people interested in copy editing are," Middlebrook said. "From that perspective, I hate them, but I have to applaud them." The smart recruiters have to "infiltrate and sneak our way in" to the Times workshops to see who is participating.

With so many newspapers on the hunt, Middlebrook said, you have to become a "stealth recruiter." Hang back and listen to the good students ask intelligent questions. Then track them down afterward. Find out what hotels they're staying at. Slip them a card and ask them to breakfast. "It's ugly, but it's war."

Sass suggests that smaller papers can snag good candidates by trying yet another strategy, one he used when he was news editor in Salem, Ore. He would tell students this:

"'I know you want to talk to all the bigger papers. I know that you may end up there. I think that's a wonderful thing as a career ambition. What I can do is function as a kind of graduate school for you. You can come here straight out of school or from another job. I can teach you as much as I possibly can. When you've got enough stuffed into your head that you want to try to go somewhere else, I'll help you get a job somewhere else, at one of these bigger papers.' I used that very, very successfully and got some terrific graduates and people with a year or two of experience."

The key is to offer them a service, "even if you don't have anything else going for you at all," he said. And when you do land a good intern, Middlebrook said, make sure it's a good experience. "If you bring them in and you give them a horrible experience, then they hate you and they hate us for the rest of their careers," he said. Middlebrook became a "spokesman" for the students: "Be nice to us. Help us get adjusted to your shops. Help us figure out how to maneuver in your shops. Keep me busy. Challenge me. Make sure I'm busy. Don't let me sit in a corner."

Making mid-career hires can take patience, perseverance - and the help of a good computer system.

Middlebrook and Sass use the same tactics to find experienced copy editors at conventions that they use to find students at job fairs. "I track graduates out of colleges for years at a time until I've got an opening that's suitable for them," Sass said.

Middlebrook maintains an extensive database so that he can track people for years, often beginning when they're interns. When department heads tell him they like an intern, he said, "I'm going to follow that person until hell freezes to make sure I'm in touch."

But perhaps the toughest nut to crack, they said, is how the job of copy editing is perceived by journalism students. Some journalism schools have no editing courses; others have only one, and many don't make it a requirement. "Columbia, for instance, has none," said Middlebrook. "This job is getting lost in the mix. So there's nothing to attract a young person to even think about this."

And as an industry, Middlebrook said, journalism hasn't invested in the kinds of programs that will make an impression on young people. Other industries are "pumping big money into developmental programs, finding kids from the city and sending them into school. We are nowhere in that mix. ...

"When LeBron James comes back home with his million dollars, everyone wants to be a basketball player ... One of the problems with copy editing is we haven't decided how to make this an attractive job."

Newspapers help solve the problem when they bring high school and college students into the newsroom and let them see what copy editors do. Bring students in during the school year, Middlebrook said, "so they can go back and say 'My God, do you know that they do this thing every night? Do you know you can sit down with the news editor and talk him out of putting a story on page one?'

As an intern in Boston, Middlebrook said, he saw such exchanges happen first-hand.

"That made me understand the power of the desk," he said.