When You’re Trying to Figure Out Who Will Make a Good Journalist

In 40 years at the Washingtonian, I looked at thousands of resumes, many from applicants to the magazine’s internship program, and every editor has his or her own ideas of what kind of person will make a good journalist.

I suspect I differed from many editors in that I mostly ignored the education part of  resumes. I glanced at it but never thought good grades at a top school had much to do with the kind of common sense intelligence needed to be a good reporter and writer. That thinking was reinforced by a conversation with a senior lawyer at one of Washington’s top law firms. He said he had learned to be wary of top law school graduates—as judged by grades. “They’re great in the library but most of them couldn’t try a case if their life depended on it.”

With intern applications, I looked with the most interest at summer jobs. The first deal breaker was an applicant being a lifeguard at the local country club pool—the kind of job where you’re just hanging out with the kind of people you already know. I liked kids who had worked at real jobs that brought them in contact with different kinds of people and taught them what real work and real life was about.

You do need a b.s. detector when reading resumes. One of our daughters, when she was a sophomore in a well-known DC high school, said that the kids talked a lot about what could they do in the summer that would look good on their college applications. Did the applicant just build a nice resume that suggested little real engagement with different kinds of people?

We put a lot of effort into finding good interns because a fair number of them stayed on at the magazine or came back after several years elsewhere as editors or writers. We always thought evaluating someone over a three or four month internship was the best way to find good staff. I told many of them, “Keep in touch with us, let us know what you’re doing,” hoping that at some point they might come back.

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