The best rejection letters I ever got

I hope this post will give hope to the exhausted college grads out there who haven’t gotten hired yet. (Tip: Be patient. Good things await.)

Wednesday night Derek Willis tweeted “best internship rejection letter I ever got.” And it linked to this letter from the News & Observer’s Judy Bolch, who is listed as “editor/staff” in her signoff. Those of us who know Judy think she’s better described as columnist/wordsmith/friend.

But this isn’t about Judy, it’s about the letter she wrote Derek. It starts: “You’re just the kind of intern I’d love to have: bright, talented and eager. Some day, I’ll probably be reading a list of award winners and there you’ll be.” I forgot to describe another side of Judy: she was clearly a good judge of talent. Willis went on to work at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and now, ProPublica.

Which made me think: How did the News & Observer reject me when I applied there years earlier? I pulled out my file of rejection letters — yes, like every lifelong journalist I’m a masochist. There are 17 of them from the period of my life when I was working my way up (or down) in the business.

Here’s one from the N&O in 1978.                                                                                  FullSizeRender (12)Those who knew Bob Brooks would recognize that concise writing and succinct tone immediately. A year later, I applied again, and this time, I heard from Hunter George.

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That was nice. Not as nice as Judy’s to Derek, but I suspect there is justification for that. No doubt Derek was better than I was.

Here’s one I got from the Charlotte Observer a few years earlier, notable only because the editor’s assistant misspelled my name, and the editor, whose name I’ve deleted, didn’t catch it.

FullSizeRender (10)And others are typical — all nice, all rejections.

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Bear in mind, I wasn’t applying for an internship. I was at the Asheville Citizen, in my second reporting job at the time.

Seventeen rejection letters, and that doesn’t count the number of resumes I sent around the country that were never answered. (Not answering job queries seems to be the common response from media companies these days, which strikes me as highly disrespectful of the people who want to work for them.)

Of course, there is a happy ending. Later in 1979, the N&O hired me as a reporter.

So keep at it.

Why add stress to your audience?

What if you knew that one of the major story lines in your paper added to the daily stress of your readership? Would you react to that? Would you figure out how to help your readers process that storyline differently?

What if you knew that “news” in general, added to the stress of your viewership? Would it change your news judgment on what and how you broadcast?

The latest report, not on news per se, but on American stress: “Americans cited “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling.”

Think about that for a moment: “The most frequent daily stressor on their lives.”

This is my hometown newspaper, but on any day, you can find newspaper front pages similar to this across the country.

No. 2 on the list was “Watching the news.”

What does this mean for news organizations? A great deal, but my guess is that few will give the survey a second thought. They have enough surveys and enough problems. After all, news consumption is up, even as people actually paying for newspapers has declined for years and the audience for broadcast news is sinking.

But it’s a huge opportunity for those that want to think seriously about their future. Yes, the news is stressful, but your reporting of it doesn’t always have to be. Go out and talk to people and listen to what they tell you. Here is a short version of what I’d say:

* Give less about political bickering. Fights between politicians create a great deal of smoke but little fire. This story about an ethics accusation that is quickly disproved is a good example. Most people don’t care about the kind of middle-school fighting that makes up today’s politics. I know it’s election time and these stories happen. But understand that people are angry at politicians and government. Figure out how your coverage acknowledges and adapts to that.

* Give me less about government operations that have little impact on people. Rather, present government stories from the vantage of how actions affect real people, rather than politicians.

* I know better than to suggest TV turn down political ad money. But you must realize that people hate attack ads. They even make me – a political junkie – change the channel. (This is my favorite: “People don’t like political ads.”) I don’t know how you alleviate that — would fact-checking them hurt your bottom line? — but I’d get your experts working on it.

* The axiom of “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” may work to increase viewership, but it is a dereliction of your community responsibility. This fear-mongering is wrong on every psychological level. And there is data for that and the unnecessary stress it puts in viewers’ minds. Most of us are not consumed by murder or break-ins or traffic fatalities. Few of your viewers know the victims. What is the public service value you’re offering?

* Give me more of two things: investigative reporting and stories of success.

Investigative reporting implies negative reporting about government. But focusing on issues that matter to your readers and viewers is the key, which leads back to asking them. For me, I’d say cut through the bullshit and tell me what’s what. If a politician speaks political double-speak — and watch “House of Cards” for what that is — don’t quote them or call them on it.

Stories of success — last year I called the good news stories — inform and reflect the community more than political stories or crime stories. They reduce stress in people’s lives, and they get talked about.

Plotting your future in this news world is tough. What we know is that ignoring customers, doing little different and playing it safe isn’t the correct path.

When it’s OK to lie

Jeff Jarvis tackles an issue that has puzzled me — and most journalists, I suspect for years: people who think it’s OK to lie.

Isn’t telling the truth the norm in our society? Don’t you expect anyone you know — friend, family member, coworker — to tell you the truth? If they don’t, aren’t you at least disappointed? If caught in a lie don’t you expect your credibility to be diminished? Isn’t there a cost to lying in society?

So how could that norm be canceled for public figures, for politicians who insist we’ll have death panels or for performers on stage who think the spotlight forgives lies?

It reminds me of a suggestion my wife made back in 2006 when I was still the editor of the paper. “You know what you need to do? You need to create a standing column on public lies. You could fill it every day…. Jessica and Nick say they’re happily married. Angelina says she’s not dating Brad. WMDs. ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’

“You say you want readers to connect emotionally with the paper, to feel smarter after reading it, to be inspired and entertained. I guarantee this would be the most entertaining thing in the paper. You could call it ‘The check’s in the mail.'”

I didn’t do it. Yet one more regret I have.

What Santa Saw

The News & Record started a three-part Christmas fiction series today titled “What Santa Saw” that runs through Sunday. Susan Ladd’s first installment is promising. If it maintains that quality — and knowing the other two writers I believe it will — News & Record readers are in for a wonderful Christmas present. (It isn’t posted. You have to buy a paper or access it from the paper’s e-edition. It’s worth it.)

Before I left the paper, city editor Teresa Prout pitched the idea of a fictionalized serial so I was aware it was coming. I had reservations because there was going to be a different writer on each segment, and there wasn’t a lot of time. But I knew the writers were top notch; I had confidence they could pull it off. Besides, I was going to be gone by then so ultimately, it wasn’t my call.

Yesterday, Teresa, who is now the paper’s acting editor, answered a few questions about the serial.

Me: How did you come up with the idea?

Teresa: We try to offer something special for the holiday – something that will pull people away from their presents and their big meals and make them want to read.

Cathy Frail, the news editor, and I were brainstorming ideas for Christmas content at lunch one day about a month ago. I told her that we had some particularly strong writers on staff and that I thought we should take advantage of that. At the end of the lunch, we went out with the notion of having a seven-part series, by seven reporters, running the week of Christmas.

I brought the idea to our futures meeting, and while everyone seemed intrigued with the proposal, there was also concern that we didn’t have enough time to pull it off. Someone suggested waiting till 2012, but I thought that would doom the idea. I went out of the meeting planning to have three reporters doing a three-part story to run on Christmas weekend.

I picked a writing team with complementary styles. That they also had editing, writing and planning experience was a huge help. I went to them with the notion of working together to come up with a theme, a story arc and a cast of characters. My only requirements: lots of Greensboro touches, a tease at the end of the first and second stories, and a happy ending with Christmas spirit throughout.

Me: Why was the framework of “The Gift of the Magi” chosen?

Teresa: The team – Susan Ladd, Betsi Robinson and Margaret Banks – picked the theme. They chose a take on “The Gift of the Magi” because it’s a holiday classic written by a Greensboro author, O. Henry. This gave them a strong foundation for their work and a nice local touch. They did decide, though, to give their story a little more closure – and a true happy ending.

Me: What do you think the reader reaction will be?

Teresa: I think – I hope –that many readers will enjoy the story, read it aloud and maybe keep a copy.Tim Rickard is illustrating, so the artwork is beautiful. I know that some others will say this is a waste of time and space and that this is not what we should put on our newspaper. But really, serialized fiction has a long history of appearing in newspapers. And it is Christmas.

Me: What advice do you have for other papers that might want to try this?

Teresa: Go for it. Give yourself plenty of time since one writer can’t start till the other finishes. But I have to say that it took less time than I would’ve have expected. One of my writers had her part done in just four hours. Also get the right group of writers. My group was uniformly strong and they worked well as a team – getting together to plan each part, to determine what from the previous part would be brought forward, and to critique each other’s efforts and make suggestions. Last but not least, edit the story in its entirety for inconsistencies. You’ll probably find them, even with the very best of writers.

I really loved how the story turned out,and I think it’s significant that Susan, Betsi and Margaret are already talking about doing this again.