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Inside The Markup

Five Ways Toward a Fairer, More Transparent Hiring Process

We want candidates hearing about us for the first time to feel just as equipped as those with friends on staff

Illustration of an Escher-like structure with various characters peeping out and exploring.
Gabriel Hongsdusit

As I enter my first major round of hiring at The Markup (the jobs are here!) and my first major round of hiring as editor-in-chief, once again I’m thinking about how our industry approaches this process—what I like, and what I’d like to change.

Many people have been working hard to improve our industry’s hiring process, and a lot has been written about job postings in particular. For example, postings should include pay transparency (which is also required by law based on location), proactively remove barriers to entry, and represent only one small part of your hiring process.

As a rule of thumb, every time I am involved with a hiring process (whether I’m the hiring manager, candidate, or being asked to help recruit), I try to take a few steps to make the process more equitable, especially for people of color and anyone in our industry who has less access to industry networks and industry knowledge. 

My primary focus has been transparency and accuracy, because having bad information wastes everyone’s time.

For example, one of my pet peeves is when job postings have specific requirements that I know hiring managers are willing to waive (a recurring theme has been master’s degrees). Whenever I’m recruited for a role with these types of requirements, I always ask whether the requirement can be waived, and if the answer is yes, I ask why it’s listed publicly as a requirement with no caveats. Now that I’m leading a hiring process of my own (with more jobs still to be posted), it’s crucial to me that our process be as equitable and transparent as possible—and that we keep learning and improving our process along the way.

My primary focus has been transparency and accuracy, because having bad information wastes everyone’s time. Given how many layoffs keep happening, and how much work I know candidates are putting into their applications, often to dozens of journalism organizations, I want to make sure that The Markup is treating their time with respect. 

During our hiring process, we want to be clear enough so that people hearing about us for the first time feel just as equipped as those with friends on staff. 

Here are five things we’re making sure we do this hiring season:

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1. Instead of Cover Letters, Ask Direct Questions

In my career, I’ve never posted a job that requires a cover letter, because there’s too much mind reading involved on the candidates’ side, even if you give some guidance.

City Bureau, which also doesn’t use cover letters, put it really well

“It’s far too common for a job posting to ask for a cover letter and resume, with few (if any) instructions. This makes your application process more of a test of who can read your mind, rather than who has the skills, experience and demeanor for the job.

“If you want your applicants to answer specific questions in your cover letter, then why not just post the questions?”

When I’ve replaced cover letters with direct questions, candidates have proactively shared that they appreciated the direct prompts—because it made it so clear what we wanted to know.

As a hiring manager who reads every single application, I’ve also found that asking direct questions gives me a much clearer way to have an apples to apples comparison of our candidates, and I can use interviews to go deeper into their answers instead of having to ask candidates if they have experience in a specific area because they didn’t happen to mention it in a cover letter.

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2. Job Postings Are Candid About What We Look For

One common practice I’d like to eliminate is the need for applicants to contact past colleagues, friends, friends of friends, or hiring managers to be able to get the truthful and practical version of what a hiring manager wants. If our goal is to make the entire hiring process as equitable as possible, we cannot start with inequitable access to information about our jobs.

The “What we’re looking for” section of our job posts often takes the longest to write because we want to communicate as much helpful information as possible without the list becoming overwhelming. When writing the original list of ideas, I usually create my own list and add on what I like from other news organizations’ job postings. Then, together with the feedback of editors or staff, we’re ruthless about cutting, summarizing, and rewording. If we don’t actually need you to have set years of experience in an area, we cut it. If what we’re really looking for is enthusiasm for something, we say that. 

To quote Angilee Shah, the editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow, when it comes to what you’re looking for, “Say it plainly.” There shouldn’t be hidden criteria. 

If I find out that something in our job posting is confusing, I’ll update it with whatever clarifying language I share with the person who pointed it out to me.

When candidates reach out, asking for more information on what we’re looking for (because it’s common advice to job seekers to reach out, no matter what the job posting says), I can genuinely tell them that it’s all laid out in the post—but that I will happily take questions on anything that’s confusing or a special circumstance we haven’t considered. And if I find out that something in our job posting is confusing, I’ll update it with whatever clarifying language I share with the person who pointed it out to me.

One important note to acknowledge: Many journalists of color have been harmed by news organizations, bad company culture, or bad actors, and one key tool that people have to assess whether they want to work somewhere is to talk to colleagues, friends, and friends of friends. I don’t know of any workarounds to this whisper network for that deeper culture check, no matter what a news organization shares or posts publicly.  

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3. Tell People What We’ll Ask During Interviews

Whether it’s initial interviews, staff panels, or final interviews, we share the topics we’ll be asking everyone about in the interview so that the candidates can prepare.

For example, here’s part of an email I sent a candidate when we were hiring editors earlier this year (shared with their consent) to help set the stage for both an interview with me and one with our staff panel:

Hiring managers and interviewers can share a copy of their interview questions, or like my example above, share a list of clear topics and experiences they want to ask about. I’ve done both, and I find that it lowers the stakes for everyone if I share clear topics (“talking through your editing on projects”) instead of formal questions (“Can you walk me through how you approach editing projects?”), while still communicating the same information.

The point is to give all candidates an equal chance at doing well—regardless of whether they’re introverts or extroverts, or if they have the right experience or connections to guess what interviewers might ask.

I usually start with a set of questions I ask everyone, and then I prepare tailored questions based on each person’s application. I also ask a fair number of follow-up questions, based on what people say.

When I first tried this, it was 2018, and I was interviewing finalists for the Data Institute, an intensive two-week workshop that teaches journalists how to use data, design, and code for journalism. Lena Groeger co-founded the Data Institute with me at ProPublica, and the two of us sent finalists a full list of our questions; during the interview, we asked each question, took notes on people’s answers, and then asked the next question. Looking back, that approach was effective—everyone was prepared and had great answers—but it was also too intense. Because it was our first time trying it out, we didn’t know if we should ask follow-up questions or react in any way to people’s answers.

After trying out different versions of how interviews can work, I’ve learned that yes, you absolutely can ask follow-up questions and the process doesn’t have to be as formal or strict as I originally thought. We aren’t trying to be the human version of an application form. Instead, we’re trying to create a structure for interviews that’s consistent for everyone we interview.

Since that first experience, I’ve shared interview questions or topics ahead of time for all the jobs I’ve hired for at ProPublica and here at The Markup. I’ve never had anyone try to game the system in any way, nor has anyone’s answers ever felt canned. Instead, candidates seemed more prepared and less nervous. Personally, whenever I get interview questions ahead of time, I’m able to collect my thoughts and spend my time where it matters, instead of feeling as if I’m on a wild goose chase, trying to prepare for any and all possible questions.

When I interview for anything, I ask my interviewer what we’re going to talk about beforehand, because it’s something I’m comfortable doing at this point in my career, but a lot of candidates may not be comfortable doing this. That’s why it’s even more important that hiring managers share questions so that candidates don’t have to ask. 

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4. Post Our Benefits

Before our job postings went live, we launched our benefits page, which lists as clearly and succinctly as possible the benefits we offer at The Markup. Just as “a competitive salary” isn’t a good enough description for how much a job pays, “comprehensive benefits” isn’t a good enough description for what benefits a job offers. 

As members of our newsroom have told me, our benefits are a big reason why The Markup stands out, and we’re really proud to be able to offer them, especially because the benefits an organization offers can make a huge difference in people’s lives. 

Just as “a competitive salary” isn’t a good enough description for how much a job pays, “comprehensive benefits” isn’t a good enough description for what benefits a job offers.

Our benefits are also standardized with a clear policy. It’s not up to individuals to try and negotiate the best benefits package. Instead, managers and staff alike share the same policies.

We aren’t the first news organization to publish our benefits in detail, and I’ve seen two main approaches by news organizations who are already sharing: Create a standalone benefits page, like what ProPublica has here, and that’s also the approach we took; or include your benefits information, in detail, inside each of your job postings, like The Marshall Project or The 19th. We considered both, and the main reason I preferred a standalone page is that it gives us a single place to edit and update our benefits and further drives home the point that our benefits don’t vary from job to job.

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5. Say Upfront if There’s Going to Be a Test (or Not)

The jobs we’re currently hiring for (reporter and managing editor) don’t involve a test, so we say in the job postings, “We do not expect to give candidates a hiring test as a part of the application or interview process.”

Tests can be extremely helpful, and The Markup’s future editorial jobs may include them, but in the last year I’ve learned a lot about how exploitative newsroom edit tests can be and what you can do to make edit tests a positive, equitable experience for candidates.

Earlier this year, I attended a session about edit tests run by Kathy Lu and Daric Cottingham at SRCCON, a conference for journalists who want to transform their work, their organizations, and their communities. (Full disclosure: I was part of the team that organized SRCCON during my years at OpenNews.) One big takeaway I had is that all newsrooms could all make a pretty basic, fundamental change: telling candidates explicitly whether an edit test will be a part of any job’s hiring process. If the job does require a test, clearly communicate at what part of the process candidates will be asked to take it, whether you’ll be paying candidates for the time spent taking it, if you’ll be giving candidates feedback on their tests, and more.

If you’re reading this as a fellow hiring manager and you end up implementing any of these changes, I’d love to hear how it goes: And if you’re reading this as a candidate or potential candidate for our jobs here at The Markup, I hope this gives you a little more insight into how we hire and what we think about during the process. Also, if you’re interested in working at The Markup but don’t see a job you’re interested in, stay tuned. More jobs will be posted in the coming weeks, and you can sign up for our jobs newsletter to get the postings sent to your inbox.

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