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Home > Reading Room > Getting the work you want can be a job in its own right

SPJ Reading Room


Getting the work you want can be a job in its own right

By Zak Stambor
SPJ Member
Associate Editor, Cards & Payments Magazine

After I finished graduate school at the University of Illinois in 2004, my job search lasted almost two months. In that time, I sent roughly 50 letters and 200 e-mails.

The net result: one interview. Luckily, I got that job as an editorial assistant at the magazines Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH. Within seven months, I was promoted to staff writer. A few months after that, I developed a column for The Washington City Paper and soon had a regular side gig writing the "Huh? Bub" column that appeared in the paper's city desk staff blog.

Zak Stambor is an associate editor of Cards&Payments Magazine, a trade magazine that examines the credit and debit card industry. He was previously a staff writer for the magazines Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH, as well as a weekly blogger/columnist for the Washington City Paper. He has been a member of SPJ since enrolling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Communications. He appreciates the ability SPJ gives him to connect with a diverse array of journalists.

I didn’t know how good I had it until January 2006, when my girlfriend and I considered moving from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. I retraced the steps of my first job search , initially hitting all of the usual Web sites (,, and the American Association of Alternative Newsweeklies). I sent résumés everywhere. For months, form letters were the only replies I received.

I knew I had to change something about my approach, so I ripped apart my cover letter dozens of times, tailoring it to meet specific job descriptions. I received still more form letters ... but sensed I was on a better track.

Hundreds of résumés sailed out of my outbox, but I continued to have little luck, so I started to work my fledgling network of professional contacts. I started with grad school professors to see if they had any leads. One of my instructors, SPJ member Walt Harrington, provided a half dozen names of people with Chicago ties. They were a mix of former colleagues and students and journalists he’d met through SPJ. I corresponded with each of them and was pleasantly surprised when some sent me job postings I hadn’t unearthed anywhere else.

Others, including SPJ National President Christine Tatum, offered advice about Chicago’s journalism scene. That insight helped me understand the market I hoped to enter and my job prospects there. I learned how crucial it is to understand not just individual job openings, but how entire news organizations fit into the fabric of the larger local market. For example, some organizations are known for actively hiring entry-level journalists. Others won’t speak to candidates with less than a decade of professional experience. Some news organizations readily hire journalists who have worked at smaller shops in the same market. Other news organizations prefer to hire those who have worked in comparably sized markets around the country.

Five months into my second job search, I finally scored an interview. I prepared for a week by developing a number of specific questions about the publication and its management and by practicing responses to standard interview questions. I thought the interview went well and that I had logged a solid performance on a writing test ... but I didn’t receive an offer.

Though the end result wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I am confident that extra effort (which really isn’t “extra” so much as it’s “absolutely necessary”) helped make me a strong contender for the job.

Still, the search continued ... as did my networking to find more job leads. Meanwhile, my girlfriend decided to make changes to her cover letter and résumé. In no time, she started to receive phone calls from potential employers. I compared our letters and immediately noticed some important differences.

My letter didn’t explain why I wanted to move to Chicago, only why I wanted the job. My letter didn’t explain that most of my family and friends live in Chicago. It didn’t include dates that I planned to visit Chicago and could make myself available for interviews.

After rewriting my letter to reflect a little more about my personality and personal interests, I slowly started receiving interview offers. Finally, at the end of August 2006, I landed a job and moved to Chicago a few weeks later.

Do I know for certain that my revised letter led to the responses I received? No. But, like my efforts to build a professional network and prepare for interviews, I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Like it or not, searching for a job is a job itself. Nearly every day for seven months, I went home immediately after work, sat down at my computer and sent resumes. It was hard ... and annoying, discouraging and demoralizing.

I hated it. But if I hadn’t considered it a job that had to be done, and if I hadn’t been willing to make profound changes, I’d still be looking for work.

That I’m sure of.
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