Hacking Our Hiring at the Star Tribune
How we created an intentional process based on lessons learned at the New York Times
It’s no small irony that I’m writing this, given that I personify broken newsroom hiring.
I’ve hired people based on pre-existing relationships. Been biased without admitting I was biased. I’ve ghosted applicants. I’ve posted jobs only after I knew who would fill them, just to go through the motions. And most of the jobs I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten the same way.
That’s why in my previous job, running the Interactive News desk at The New York Times, I’m grateful to have had a front-row seat as Tiff Fehr, along with others, helped lead the transformation of our team’s hiring practices in the ways described in this Source series.
I left that job in late 2017 to take a job at my hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. A recent opening for a news developer role here has provided us with a chance to hack our own hiring, adapting these lessons to the unique challenges of local newsrooms.
We’re still in the thick of our process as I write this, but these are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:
Own the Process
We knew from the jump that parts of our recruiting process would be considered unusual. So before we got started, we made efforts to explain to some newsroom leaders what we were trying to do and why we thought it was important.
For instance, we wanted to write a job description that was radically inclusive, so we wrote it in plain English, dispensed with the formal language and alphabet-soup requirements, and included sentences like “If you worry you’re not qualified, take the leap and apply anyway.”
That made some folks uncomfortable (and drew a few chuckles and eyerolls), but it also paid off: We ended up with more applicants than we expected, a diverse list of finalists, and a shocking amount of unsolicited positive feedback.
Good morning, news nerds. We're hiring a news developer. If you're interested, the first step is to let us know here by June 7: https://t.co/qMTkxTHdCX (a link to the job description is in the form).— Chase Davis (@chasedavis) May 14, 2019
We also wanted applicants to be able to signal their interest to us in five minutes or less, so we offered a simple Google Form for people to use, in addition to our more involved H.R. system. Again, it made some folks nervous, but more than one of our applicants went out of their way to say they appreciated it.
Those little things reminded me of a lesson the team taught me in New York: How you hire is a potential colleague’s introduction to your team’s culture. And if you want to send the right message, you need to take ownership of your hiring process—even if it sometimes means deviating from company norms.
Involve the Whole Team
Our hiring process on Interactive News wasn’t a democracy, but it was highly democratic.
We included multiple members of our team in job screening conversations. We argued over candidates and debated process. We checked each other’s biases. It was a reflection of our team at its best, and so we tried to do something similar here.
Each application we received was screened independently by two people on the Star Tribune’s various news nerd teams. Their feedback determined which candidates would advance to a short phone screen, which was also conducted in pairs. Between each round, our group got together to discuss, debate, sort candidates, and refine our process for future rounds.
Although its most obvious benefit might have been balancing individual biases, taking an open approach to screening also helped us in other ways.
For example, the discussion has helped us better understand our needs and shared values. I know better now where we collectively feel like our gaps are, and I have a much better understanding of the intangibles that excite us about some candidates versus others—all valuable information for future hires.
And crucially, involving more people in our process also makes it easier to build and maintain relationships with promising candidates, which is a big part of our strategy going forward.
Build a Bench
As much as it kills me, local news organizations are in direct competition with places like the Times, ProPublica and the Washington Post for a very limited pool of news nerd talent. And most of the time, we will lose.
One antidote to that problem is building authentic relationships. Some of the best bosses I’ve ever had were masters at this. They taught me that hiring is continuous. Doing it right means building and cultivating relationships with promising candidates over the long haul, not just when you have a job to fill.
In that spirit, our hiring process was designed both to fill a job and to build a bench. We talked to a lot of candidates who could be great fits here someday. Not only do we want to keep up with those people, we sincerely want to help them grow in their careers.
In addition to our finalists, we also built a list of promising candidates and assigned them to members of our screening team. Screeners have been charged with reaching out to those candidates for an informal chat—and to give them a clear point of contact with us for the future.
I have no idea what those relationships will turn into, and that’s the beauty of it. If we can help provide career advice, give them tips on projects, or even help them land jobs elsewhere, we will—because it’s the right thing to do, and because it could pay off for us in the long run.
A Word About Fairness
It’s worth pausing for a second to note that this approach contrasts with some of the higher ideals that some of the practices in this series strive for.
We did not depersonalize recruiting and screening, even though in many ways this would increase fairness. The platonically ideal process anonymizes applications, encourages uniformity in interviews and other evaluation, and in theory yields optimal hires by eliminating as much personal bias as possible. There’s a lot of good in this.
But our long game seems like the opposite. Our process encourages people to build relationships with candidates, to be invested in them, and, frankly, to be opinionated. And without putting too fine a point on it, I want to lean on those relationships to convince candidates to join us, rather than decamping to New York or D.C.
Recruiting news nerds in local is harder than it was at the Times. Hiring for diversity, in particular, requires effort and intention. There will be times when, despite our best efforts, a candidate with whom we’ve built a relationship is clearly the best choice for a position. How can we do our best to create a fair process under those circumstances?
I think the key is this: Don’t short-circuit the process. Recruit sincerely for every opening. Put everyone through the same screening. Create a competitive situation, and try your best to create a hard decision.
It might take longer than hiring someone outright, but at the very least it will give you a chance to stress-test your assumptions and broaden your bench.
Hiring is one of the most important things we do. The consequences of getting it wrong can be disastrous, and the payoff for doing it right can be transformational. At the end of the day, even one hire changes a lot of lives.
Our goal with our team’s most recent open position has been to respect that gravity at every step of the way: doing our best to be fair, empathetic and respectful to our applicants—and trying to stack the deck in our favor for now and the future.
But really, we’re mostly just trying to be intentional. That’s the lesson I took away from my time with Interactive News at the Times: However you conduct your hiring process, do it on purpose. Don’t hire on autopilot. Have goals. Define success. Challenge your assumptions and test your methods. The stakes are too high not to.
Local newsrooms face many constraints—money, time, and unexamined bits of culture and expectations that, frankly, make it hard to do things like this sometimes. But if anything, that makes it even more important that we take the lessons of this series to heart.
Chase Davis is a senior digital editor at the Star Tribune in his hometown of Minneapolis. He previously worked as the editor of the Interactive News desk at The New York Times.