Reinventing the Wheel, Over and Over Again

Without hiring training, most managers develop their own process—and rely on Google spreadsheets

When Sarah Squire, executive editor for data, graphics, and visuals at Dow Jones Media Group, set out to build her team, she was largely on her own. The company’s recruiters would sometimes pass along candidates, but when it came down to filling the five new positions, she had to set up her own system. And since she was building a team from scratch, it wasn’t as easy as finding someone for a particular position: she had to balance skill sets and find the right people to work together as a group.

So Squire developed a Google spreadsheet to track those who applied or people who reached out to her.

Besides recording skills and communication she had with the candidates, she noted when a candidate was recommended by an employee or friend. She included her thoughts on any potential challenges and what information she still needed. She kept track of candidates who didn’t work out with tabs for those interested in freelance and people who declined her offer but she wanted to keep up with.

She continues to use this spreadsheet today. She added a folder system to her process; she has a folder for each candidate where she keeps notes from emails and calls. The way she hires now was born out of what she learned the first time.

Like most managers within the journalism industry, Squire received no training or guidance on how to hire. Hiring managers are left to develop their own systems, and a candidate’s experience at a company can widely vary depending on how the hiring manager does things.

Thinking About Hiring Before Hiring

The small staff at Hearken doesn’t make hires very often, but they knew they wanted to have a meaningful process when an opening came up. Julia Haslanger, an engagement consultant at Hearken, said they read a lot about hiring and asked the latest hire to give honest feedback about their process.

Instead of asking for cover letters, Hearken created a Google Forms questionnaire that candidates filled out before emailing in their resumes. Through an intentional hiring process, the Hearken team had identified the skills the ideal candidate would have, and asked questions that dug directly into those traits. The Google form automatically created a spreadsheet of applicants for the team to work from. They were happy with the results—they got a diverse pool of applicants, including many who fit the skillsets they were looking for.

Haslanger said that their team copied all the hiring information that they collected via the form to a new spreadsheet for application scoring and interviews. They used an evaluation rubric that involved scoring each answer from 0–2, giving all reviewers the same baseline to evaluate applications. Looking at the applications through this lens, they homed in on whether the applicant was a good fit for Hearken’s company mission, a vital trait for them.

Everyone involved in the process worked off of the same sheet to keep things from falling through the cracks. They had a column in the spreadsheet to track whether rejections were sent to make sure every applicant received a response.

When it came to scheduling interviews, they scheduled them in rounds.

“We had to be vigilant about these time frames,” Haslanger said. “We wanted to get a sense of all the round one candidates before moving anyone on to round two.”

They self imposed deadlines by telling the applicants the timelines upfront, both in the posting and in emails. It was important to them that they stuck to their word.

After completing this hire, they wrote a detailed post about their hiring process with instructions on how other organizations could copy their methods.

But hiring doesn’t exist only when you have an opening. Hiring managers are often looking out for talent year round.

Recruitment Is Part of Hiring

Roy LeBlanc, the assistant metro editor at the Tampa Bay Times, treats hiring as a second job. He said not all positions are advertised; more half of the openings that come up go to someone the organization has been keeping an eye on. The Tampa Bay Times is such a highly sought-after place to work that many people submit applications even if there isn’t an opening, and when they do advertise, they get hundreds of applications.

He organizes the candidates using a system of Word docs and folders. He keeps notes on every communication and puts it in the candidate’s folder.

“Every person who applies to be a news reporter here gets a reply,” LeBlanc said.

He looks for how their work has improved over time and how often people follow up. He tells candidates to treat him like a long-term source—he wants enough contact with legitimate updates. This communication tells him things about the candidate that the portfolio can’t.

If someone hasn’t updated him in a year, he checks in on them. If they don’t respond, he moves their folder to the inactive list. He said he has several hundred on his active list, and he’s usually actively tracking 50 at any given time.

“Diversity is a part of the conversation each and every time,” he said. If there’s not a diverse enough pool, they will post the job and look to refresh their list.

This process may seem time intensive, and it is, but LeBlanc says it makes hiring move more quickly because the organization is not starting from scratch every time. One of the frustrations he has is not having the financial flexibility to make offers to standout candidates when there isn’t an open position. He hopes that the care he puts into hiring is a window into the culture at the Tampa Bay Times.

Investing in a System

There are professional systems designed to help hiring managers keep track of candidates. Maia Josebachvili, the VP of strategy and marketing at Greenhouse, believes organizations should be investing in a program for hiring in the same way they pay for powerful tools in sales and marketing.

Greenhouse’s system provides automatic reminders for communication with candidates, a top complaint from candidates.

“It makes it easy for you to do the right next thing,” Josebachvili said.

Greenhouse’s system builds in simple nudges to remove bias by offering blind tests, creating customized structured interview scorecards and by not allowing you to read feedback from colleagues before submitting your own.

Greenhouse states that its customers average 25 days to fill openings, which is half the industry average. Pricing at Greenhouse is based on company size. Small organizations can get started for less than $6,000 per year.

There are many other applicant tracking programs available. Workable, a similar system used by more than 6,000 companies, has a flexible pay-as-you-go plan starting at $50 per job per month. Larger packages are available, too.

This seems like a ripe opportunity for newsrooms to band together to create an open-source option for tracking and managing hiring, from first contact through interviews and final hire.

Collaboration Could Make This Better

Hiring is hard, time-intensive work, and managers in our field are often not trained on how to do it properly. Throughout the industry, editors, and hiring managers are forging their own ways to organize their hiring practices. Hopefully, teams will continue to share practices and improve together.


  • Rachel Schallom

    I’m the managing editor for VICE and a biweekly columnist for Poynter. I write a weeklyish newsletter highlighting interesting things in digital journalism. I’ve been an adjunct professor teaching coding for journalism students and have spoken at national and international conferences. I was a member of the 2016 ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media class and am part of the DigitalWomenLeaders.com initiative to provide free coaching for women in journalism.


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