October 15, 2018 (Updated )
When I was 17 I did my first ever journalism placement at my local paper, The North Devon Journal. I had a great week, and it was my first experience of working in a live newsroom, with all the drama you could imagine in an extremely rural town.
There weren’t any sheep on the agenda that week, but I did get to go out with a reporter to see where someone’s boiler had burst and made some towels wet, which astoundingly (or not) made the front page.
And, excitingly for myself, they even let me loose on a few NIBs (basically short write-ups of about fifty words), which had the thrilling headline “invite to grunts, donkey wallopers and snow drops” (it was about ex-servicemen and women) Unsurprisingly, that one hasn’t made the portfolio.
Less Is More – And It’s Not Just About The Publication
It might seem obvious that I wouldn’t keep a story I essentially rewrote from a press release when I was 17 in job applications (no matter how excited I was at the time) but this doesn’t appear to be universal knowledge – or we all just forget about it in our excitement at having work published.
As part of my job at Journo Resources, I spend a lot of time talking to people looking to get their first few gigs in journalism, and a surprising amount of people seem to whack every single thing they’ve ever written on the internet into their portfolio.
Similarly, while recruiting for a digital producer at RightsInfo I went through more than 100 applications – many of whom pointed me to a page with an endless number of writing samples. This is simply not the way to do it.
Editors Are Busy – And It’s About Quality, Specialisms, And Breadth
Coming from the joint perspective of a hiring manager and a person who has applied for a hell of a lot of jobs, I strongly believe there are some compelling reasons to be picky:
- Editors are busy people: You’ve heard this before, and before I started editing stuff in a newsroom I also thought this was a massive cop-out. It isn’t. Having been the person to shift through 100 CVs, I simply don’t have time to look to look at 57 clippings per person. I need to see your best ones, and I need to see them straight away. When you’re faced with a massive pile of CVs it’s pretty overwhelming, and to be quite blunt, I don’t have time.
- It’s about your specialisms or breadth: Okay, I get it, this sounds contradictory. But when editors look at your portfolio you probably fall into one of two camps. Either you’re going for something specialist, in which case you need to show them that you can consistently report on a topic or issue, or you’re aiming to show a range of skills, like picking a feature, a straight news story and a video piece. You’re curating your best bits to show off exactly what you can do – not just throwing everything you can find at them in the hope some sticks.
- You’re showing off how you can be concise and make good calls: Being a journalist means making decisions. What is the top line? Which story should be leading the site on the front page? It’s always harder to criticise your own work, but picking out a concise list of your best does bode well for your news judgement.
- It’s about quality, not quantity: Sure, a lot of online news sites might expect you to write a lot of copy in a day, but that doesn’t mean they want to read a lot of your copy when you apply. The fact you’ve written more than 100 articles if a cool stat for you, not your portfolio. Editors want to know what you can produce at your best, not when you rewrote some wire copy. If you’re going to covering breaking news, you want to show them breaking news at your best, when you found original quotes, respun the angle, or broke the story yourself. After all, why would I read another story if the first one wasn’t great?
Speaking to Journo Resources, Pulitzer winning journalist James Ball agreed. “No-one will ever read more than two or three clips on your website – so you need to make sure that whatever they click on, it’s among your very best work.”
“And check back on it often, to make sure everything is still as good as you remember it. Leave the 200-word NIB for your mum: she’ll still think it’s great. Hopefully.” Good job he hasn’t read my NIB about donkeys then.
Wakelet is a free to use online content curation platform, which allows you to save links and present your very best pieces of work in a clear and engaging way. You can even save content to different collections for different types of job.
Ed Gove, the former Deputy Digital Editor of the Royal Television Society, also told Journo Resources that less was definitely more. “Reading job applications is a small part of my job, and without fail, I have to do it at a time when I am up to my eyeballs in other things to do,” he explained.
“What I need from you is really very simple: I want to see your best work. I want a handful of excellent pieces that show your range and demonstrate what you can offer me if you join our team. I don’t have time to trawl through your entire back catalogue. You’re not ABBA!”
So, How To Pick? And How Many?
You’ve decided to go for the less is more approach, but just how many is less? You don’t want the page to look empty, but you also don’t want anything on there to not be worth it – if an editor doesn’t like the first thing they read, the probably won’t read another.
The sweet spot for your website is probably between five and ten pieces. Editors won’t read all of these, but they’ll see you’ve done a decent body of work, and pick the one which feels most interesting to them.
Want more career advice? Here’s exactly what you need to do to get your CV noticed.
When you’re looking for pieces, pick the ones which represent you best as a journalist. If you’re looking to get into human rights reporting, pick the pieces you’ve written about human rights. If you’re looking for a trainee job, you want a broad skill set of interviews, newsy pieces, and features.
“Remember,” adds Ed Gove, “your best isn’t necessarily your longest piece, or the piece with the most famous person, or the most clicks. It’s the piece that represents who you are best”. Similarly, it’s not about having the most impressive byline. It’s all very well and good if you got published in the New York Times, but if it was a NIB no one read, probably not worth including.
Think about it a like a CV – you’ll probably have a master template which you tweak for each job application. Have a master portfolio, and if you’re applying for different kinds of jobs have different portfolio links to send to each person. It might sound like a lot of work, but you’ve already done the pieces – you’re just picking your best ones and showing yourself in your best light.
This content was independently produced and edited by the in-house team at Journo Resources, and made possible with the financial support of our sponsors at Wakelet. Wakelet is one of our select partners who share our values for quality journalism and provide a free digital clippings portfolio service.