Decoding the Resumes of Journalists

By Jack Limpert

In 40 years editing a magazine, I looked at a lot of job applicant letters and resumes and quickly said no or maybe.

The maybes got a second look. Every potential writer or editor was different, each job was different, and I probably thought differently from most other editors about what made a good journalist. In all my talks with other editors, we never got into how we screened possible hires.

Looking back, I had a bias toward people with life experiences kind of like my own. Do other editors think that way? Again, I don’t know.

My life experience was not a straight line into journalism. I did well in high school, flunked out of a chemical engineering major after a year of college, worked at a variety of jobs, served in the Air Force, and went back to college, working my way through the last three years at the University of Wisconsin as a bartender. Then a year of law school at Stanford and a lucky break that got me into journalism.

I was 26 when I went to work for UPI, surprised at ending up in journalism but loving the action and unpredictability. A lot more fun than being a chemical engineer or lawyer.

At age 34 I started as a magazine editor and over the years did a lot of hiring. With a bias toward people who had lots of different life experiences.

I saw all those early jobs—pumping gas, selling aluminum storm windows door to door, working in a paper mill, doing office work in a box factory—as a more important part of my education than college classes. I hung around and drank with all kinds of people. The three years tending bar during college was at least a master’s degree in human behavior.

When I became an editor, I thought what we did—as magazine editors and writers—had a lot of impact. We helped our 350,000 readers in Washington see the world in the way we described it. We wrote about people with power and people who had hit bottom. I think my life experiences—plenty of failure, exposure to all kinds of winners and losers—made me slow to put people down, reluctant to see them all good or all bad.

So when I looked at job resumes, I probably enjoyed too much saying no to people who had gone to top schools and had manufactured a sterling resume but whose work experience seemed mostly being a summer lifeguard at their country club pool. I liked the resumes of people who had been through some failure, some ups and downs, some effort to finally get it together.

I always thought journalism needed less attitude and certainty, more empathy and skepticism.
Postscript: How do you manufacture a sterling resume? One young woman we interviewed went to an exclusive private school  in Washington and she later told me that in ninth grade her classmates began talking about what summer activities would look good on their college applications. Their focus was not on what they’d learn or enjoy but on what would look good. My guess is that for many of these kids that state of mind continued through college: What can I do that will look good on my resume?



  1. Amy Worden says

    Diversity in all its forms makes for a stronger newsroom. Sadly, it’s often hard to find.

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