Tryouts on trial

December 19, 2003

A new
thread at Testy Copy Editors
starts out like this:

A well-respected major daily has asked me come in for a weeklong copy
editing tryout. My current experience at a wire service is helpful, but it’s
a lot different from a newspaper copy desk. Most of my newspaper experience
was at dailies so small that they didn’t even have copy desks. Any tips on how
I should prepare? I have a couple of months before I go in.

I’m thankful for the post because it gives me the opportunity to launch into a
fresh rant, which starts out like this: Tryouts are an insult to proven professionals.

Here’s what they’d be telling someone like me: “Well, we’ve noted you have 15 years of experience,
nine of them at metro dailies; we trust your references, most of whom are
top editors of these publications; we love your clips, which have passed muster
with these editors — but we need to absolutely certain, so: Please expend a
week’s vacation and come work on our desk for a week.”

I guess it’s really a test of moral character: Anybody who’d submit to the
indignity of having to be tested after a successful decade and a half in the business
must want to work here beyond all reason. Those are our kind of people, they

That’d make sense if they were running a brain surgery suite. I’d want to be
absolutely certain the doctors I hire know where to cut. But we’re talking about
the copy desk; nobody ever died of a misplaced modifier.

So why the zeal to be so certain? Could be because once people get to one of
those “destination papers,” they never want to leave. Or the papers want to
be really careful so they can hire for keeps. But these papers keep having deskers
quit or retire, so that doesn’t really fly either.

I’d love to learn what these tryouts accomplish, beyond having seasoned pros
around to fill in while the paper’s veteran staffers take their vacations (though
flying them in and putting them up in a hotel strikes me as a pretty expensive
way to fill gaps in the staff). What do they discern that they couldn’t learn
from interviews, clips and references?

The New York Times is the prime offender in insisting on tryouts. The reasoning
could be that it’s an honor to work in Times Square — you know, nights and
weekends so you miss all the really cool stuff happening in the big city, though
they don’t pay you enough to enjoy it anyway; and nothing prepares you for the
moment when a reporter starts making stuff up, so no matter how good you are,
Jayson Blair happens anyway.

Thanks, folks.

I’m not saying we should refuse to submit to tryouts. They provide vital reassurance
in the post-Jayson era that the best papers are important enough to require
sacrifice of the people who aspire to work for them. Sacrifice builds character,
as we all know.

Tryouts also are a status symbol … we all love to imagine our co-workers
whispering “he’s got a tryout at the Times next week” behind our backs.

Tryouts also provide a window into the faraway galaxy of Establishment Media.
Most of us work in smaller papers in the minor leagues, so those who get an
up-close look at The Show can provide vital intelligence to the rest of us while
waiting for their call-up.

Finally, tryouts give some of us the chance at taking our swings at Yankee
Stadium. Many are summoned and few get hired, but it’s good for the soul to
know you had Your Shot. Better that than a life regretting that you never tried.

I suppose a tryout for a newspaper job is no worse than, say, trying out for
a spot on a semipro sports team. But there’s no shot at glory, fame or millions
working on our rim. It’s anonymous, underpaid work enjoyed by a small
(and dwindling) number of people. To switch metaphors to Hollywood: why the auditions for people who’ve proven they know the script?

8 Responses to Tryouts on trial

  1. wayne on December 19, 2003 at 12:56 pm

    Excellent points, Tom.
    Long ago I survived a horrible, frustrating weeklong tryout at a metro.
    Paper put me on two of the worst flights of my life at dawn. Then I rented a car and drove for two hours through a snowstorm to the hotel, which had me booked for only that night.
    Without having slept the night before, i went to the office, where i discovered that the recruiter who’d lured me there had quit on short notice, so i was persona non grata. Whenever anyone asked why i was there, the explanation drew rolled eyes, snorts of disgust and less-polite reactions.
    Copy desk chief didn’t want to look at my clips or resume — said “that won’t be necessary.”
    Copy editor/organizer of traditional Wednesday welcome-the-applicant night at bar was stunned when no one else showed up.
    The only people to treat me well were the assigning editors thankful for catches i made and leads i improved.
    I got out alive. But the situation got worse.
    The recruiter had asked for names of other prospective applicants. Before quitting she had talked one of my friends into taking a week’s vacation from his metro for a tryout soon after mine. Hearing of my ordeal, he called the paper. Was told that no record existed of his scheduled tryout. Furious, he yelled at the copy desk chief until the boss admitted the lie. So, my friend was stuck with a vacation and no compensation for the cancelled tryout.
    A paper in Arizona used to run ads in E&P offering long tryouts — five or six weeks, i think. Does that still go on?

  2. Joann on December 19, 2003 at 2:38 pm

    I wonder if it isn’t just to make sure you don’t have some weird personality defect that you can manage to keep under control for a few hours, but not an entire week. 😉

  3. Nicole on December 19, 2003 at 2:52 pm

    A lot of people look great on paper.
    Their clips sing, but how can you be sure how much of the work is theirs?
    The references are fine, but, really, who lists a reference that won’t be glowing?
    And even if all these things add up, editing is a lot more than writing clip-friendly headlines and making friends in glass offices. Will people work well with your staff? Do they fall apart under pressure? Are they comfortable with big-picture problems as well as the detail work?
    I think the logistics of tryouts are hell — for the paper to afford and for the copy editor to endure. But there is a lot they can tell you that resumes and references cannot.

  4. 2010: Poverty Elimination on December 19, 2003 at 3:22 pm

    Hallo, excuse me but I’ve got to tell to everybody that now there is the site of 2010: POverty Elimination.

  5. tom on December 19, 2003 at 4:18 pm

    Nicole: In theory all those reasons justify tryouts, but in reality people hire the ones they want for any number of reasons.
    I think if the big major papers want to find more qualified applicants they’d think about all the headaches/obstacles they’re imposing on people.
    We have tough jobs with terrible hours and crappy pay *despite* there being all this so-called demand for copy editors. There are other ways to earn a living w/this skills set … the more obstacles newspapers erect for hiring good copy editors, the more good people are going to look into other lines of work.
    I realize lots of people do the tryouts — particularly at the Times — for the experience and are abivalent about whether they’d actually take a job if offered. So on some level I’m aware of the law of unintended consequences: take away the tryouts and you might do more harm than good.
    They just gripe me — hence, the rant.

  6. Nicole Stockdale on December 19, 2003 at 8:04 pm

    So how many papers actually have the funds to require tryouts?
    I know the New York Times does, as does the Philadelphia Inquirer. Elsewhere?

  7. Jessica Creighton on December 20, 2003 at 11:31 am

    GREAT rant. As a copy editor at my first paper out of college, I am already considering switching professions. I LOVE the work, but sometimes I doubt if I can put up with this level of BS my entire life. Tryouts, bad pay and rampant ingratitude (among other things) make me wonder if it’s worth it. I interviewed at several papers coming out of college that treated me with a level of disdain and condescension rarely seen in the adult world. It’s nice to see that I’m not alone. I may still be young and inexperienced, but I still deserve to be treated like a human being. There are plenty of professions that would love to have someone with my potential. That’s all.

  8. Jeff on December 20, 2003 at 8:39 pm

    My tryout at a middle-sized paper once involved coming in for a day of interviews, followed by a second day in which they’d throw a story idea at me and see how I did with it.
    Story idea: Pot bellied pigs.
    That’s it. No peg, no contacts, no angle.
    By the end of the day, I had found a woman with a 200 pound pig who lived in her house in a town about 60 miles west of this city, arranged art and wrote the story.
    I drove back to my hometown. Having not heard from this paper in a week’s time and got ready for a road trip with my family.
    Flash forward: I’m driving through the town in which I had interviewed a week prior. I pick up a paper just to see what they had in it.
    On the metro front: my story in the centerpiece hole. The photo I assigned is four-columns across the page. And my byline… wasn’t there. The only attribution said, “Staff Report.” I got no follow-up call from an editor with questions. I got no payment for any of my work. Nada. Nothing.
    “Well, I guess I’m hired,” I told my mom.
    Took the paper another week to call me and offer a job. When I asked about the story, the sheepish metro editor says, “Oh… yeah… well, we put the wrong byline.”
    “Yeah,” I said. “No problem. I understand.”
    “It should have run without a byline,” he says.
    That should have been my first indication it was going to be a shitty job.