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On a good little paper and the lost art of the cover letter

Let’s say I’m 25 years old. (Play along, please.) Let’s say I’ve put in three or four years at my local newspaper and I’m ready to move on. On December 17, 2010, searching for the next adventure, I go to JournalismJobs.com. There I see the Helena Independent Record is looking for a sports editor. The salary range is $30,000 to $35,000.

The newspaper’s ad reads: "The Independent Record, an award-winning 15,000-circulation daily in state capital Helena, Montana, seeks a dynamic sports editor with excellent leadership, writing and design skills to lead its four-person staff in this sports powerhouse city in the heart of the Northern Rockies."

I’m thinking, Montana?

"When you aren’t working, enjoy the myriad of recreational opportunities Helena has to offer in hiking, mountain biking, fly-fishing, skiing, boating and many more."

I’m thinking, They’re selling fly-fishing?

The ad also says: "This fast-paced newspaper needs a self-starter who can make an immediate contribution to achieving a high level of excellence in the print and online products with compelling sports page design, enterprising sports news and feature reports, and multimedia presentation at helenanir.com."

Better, sounds ambitious.

The local college football team, the Carroll College Fighting Saints, has won six of the last nine NAIA national championships. Helena high schools have won four state championships in the last two years. There is minor league baseball and junior league hockey. Because a Big Sky neighborhood is anything within a hundred miles, the University of Montana and Montana State are in the neighborhood. I have a Montana friend who says, "The IR is not a bad little paper, but not great, either. Helena’s a great little town." The town has an Old West, Victorian feel about it. The metro population is near 70,000.

"The ideal candidates," the ad goes on, "should have a journalism degree and at least three years of daily newspaper experience. The ideal candidate also must be able to effectively manage a sports staff, set the vision and priorities for coverage and print/online presentation, interact with the community, craft eye-catching designs at least two days per week via Quark Xpress, and cover some of the marquee sports beats as a writer."

Now I’m thinking, I want this job, I can sleep three jobs from now when I’m 50 and have eight deputies at The New York Times.

The ad concludes: "E-mail resume, cover letter, and writing and/or design samples to Editor John Doran . . ."

If I were 25 years old in these times of journalistic revolution, I’d be on John Doran’s doorstep tomorrow because the man is offering the ideal candidate – me! – a chance to take advice from Mark Twain, who once wrote: "Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. . . .Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Since I’m 25-plus, I settled for a nice telephone conversation with the editor. John Doran is 35 years old, a graduate of the University of Portland. He moved from weeklies outside Salem, Oregon, to the city editor’s job at the Missoulian in Missoula, Mt. He has been in Helena three and a half years. His paper runs a four-page sports section Mondays, eight pages Sunday, and otherwise fills whatever space advertising can sell. Once a sports editor himself, Doran has high regard for the men and women in America’s sports departments. He says there’s no reporting job with "the significant deadline pressures of sports. It’s not like covering a city council meeting where you get back to the office at 7 and have ‘til 10 to get it done." He thinks a good sports journalist can succeed anywhere in the newsroom.

In the first eight days of the Independent Record’s job posting, Doran received 22 applications. "Not a great response," he said. Especially disheartening was the quality of what he calls "the most significant" element of the application: the cover letter.

"We have one cover letter that is four paragraphs without a period," he said. "It was written in almost broken language. There was no resume and no clips. He misspelled my name and got the name of the newspaper wrong. Every young journalist out there should know there’s nothing more important than presenting yourself well in the cover letter."

I asked if the author of the offending letter has a job.

"He is currently unemployed," Doran said. A pause. "There may be no wonder why."

Doran’s own scouting has turned up a candidate ready to take the job. He wouldn’t name the man, but said he’s familiar with Montana sports, has experience in the West, and knows the value of mastering the tools of 21st century journalism, both in print and online. Doran’s only concern is that the man could change his mind.

"I’m down to my closer," the old sports editor said, "and there’s nobody left in the bullpen."

Just a decent cover letter would have kept you in the game. You could say you wanted a job that took you to Montana with a chance to go everywhere. Jack Dempsey fought there, Norman McLean did his fly-fishing on a river that runs through it, and Annie Proulx found her Brokeback Mountain. You could say you were signing up for the revolution that would change journalism in ways yet unknown – and that’s the damned thrill of it because you want to be part of the "momentous mission" identified by Nicholas Lemann in May 2009. That’s when the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism told students their challenge was to reinvent journalism. They were to change the way the industry thinks of itself and the way it serves the public. "That’s an enormous job," Lemann said. "But, to me, and I hope to you too, it sounds like fun."

So, if I were 25 and wanting in on the fun, what would my cover letter say?

I’m thinking, Yep, I’d write all that. And I’d go with the Twain as my kicker.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.
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