Cover Letters 101: How to tell your story and connect with an employer in journalism

I spent about half of the week working to get students into classes through our advising process and the other half working with students in a panic over trying to get an internship or a job.

Their biggest freakout? Cover-letter writing.

I’m hoping this post can help you (or your students) build a pretty standard cover letter that will touch on the basics, avoid any major problems and possibly even stand out among your peers as a quality candidate. (I grabbed most of this from the reporting book’s appendix, with a few alterations to make things clearer or better…)

Cover letters 101

In the days of texts and tweets, the idea of a cover letter can seem as quaint and unnecessary as communicating via the Pony Express. Some publications require a cover letter as a matter of course and to meet specific requirements set forth by a human resources department. Other places will ask for an email or a video or some other form of introductory element that goes beyond the resume to explain who you are and why you matter. Regardless of the format, you want to put your best foot forward when you formally introduce yourself in the hiring process. Here are a few bits of advice to help you alone:            


Start with a connection if you have it: If it’s an opening paragraph or an opening line in a video, you want to introduce yourself to your audience in a way that gives you an edge over any potential competition. One of the best ways to make this happen is if they already know you, which is why networking is so crucial throughout your college (and professional) career.

If you went to a journalism conference and met a recruiter for the Johnson Journal, she might say, “Hey, we have an internship this summer that you might want to consider.” That connection can be helpful in pulling you to the top of the stack, if she remembers you. That’s why you want to start with something like, “It was great to meet you this fall at the ABC Media conference, where we talked about potential internship opportunities. Given what you told me there, I was excited to see you had this internship available and I couldn’t wait to apply.”

In some cases, you won’t have that connection, but you will have that “friend of a friend” connection that you can exploit for your own benefit. Professors get emails or messages from former students all the time, asking if they know of any good students that might be interested in an internship or a job. If the professor handed this off to you, this is another great way to connect with a potential employer: “Professor Smith said you were looking for a hard worker to fill your internship position this summer and he recommended that I send you my resume.”

If you lack any specific “in” with a potential employer, consider telling the employer where you found their advertisement and why you felt you compelled to apply for the opening. For example, you could explain that you read the publication frequently or that you have professors who speak highly of the writing it puts out. You could also look for a way to tie your interests to their needs. In doing this you could mention how you covered specific things such as crime or sports and that is what drew you to the company’s open position for a crime reporter or a sports reporter. Look for a way to reach out and explain to the person reviewing resumes, “Hey, I’m interested in you for a good reason!”


Explain, don’t repeat, your resume: When students take essay tests, I often advise them to go through the essay question and highlight key phrases and active verbs so that they don’t miss any section. Things like “Compare and contrast the four ethical codes” and “Describe the structure of an inverted pyramid story” call for specific actions on the part of the student. Going through and noting those requirements can be helpful when the students want to provide the most complete answer possible. If you use that same formula when you write your cover letter, you can set yourself apart from the people who use form letters to regurgitate their experience.

Go through the job posting and highlight specific things the job requires or the employer wants. This could include things like “must be proficient at social media” or “needs the ability to work well under deadline pressure.” Once you highlight those elements, pick out the ones you want to discuss in your cover letter.

At this point, you don’t want to repeat your resume, but rather link your experiences to their needs and do a solid job of explaining how they connect through narrative examples. Let’s say the need is “must work well under deadline pressure.” You can link that to your work in student media with an example of how you did this:

“You noted in your position description that you need someone who works well under deadline pressure. As a news reporter at the Campus Crier, I often found myself working on tight deadlines including one case where I got a tip about the university’s president resigning. In less than two hours, I managed to get the story confirmed and written. Even better, I scooped the local paper.”

Not every need will attach itself to one of your great adventures in media, but you should look for those opportunities to show people what you did and how it can be of benefit to them.


The Money Paragraph: Why should they hire you? After you outline your skills and traits but before you thank the person for considering your application sits the most important couple of sentences in your letter: The Money Paragraph. At this point, you should have made a good impression and have the person on the other end of the letter thinking that you might be a good fit. It is right here that you want to seal the deal and give the employer something to remember.

Each of us has that “one thing” that we think we’re better at that most of the rest of the people in our field. We pride ourselves on our ability to work through problems, to constantly look for positives in every situation or to smooth over personnel concerns. Whatever that “one thing” is for you, hit it here with some emphasis. The goal is to say to an employer that if she is looking through your application and Candidate X’s application and everything completely equal to this point, here’s the big reason why you should get the job over that other person:

“Above all else, I constantly look for new ways to reach the audience. I was one of the first reporters on our staff to integrate digital tools like Periscope and Storify into my work. I knew this was how most people in our audience got the news and now everyone else at our publication uses these tools as well. I will always look for the next best way to connect with the readers and viewers and I think this approach could really boost readership for your organization.”


The last paragraph should simply wrap things up with something like,” With all of this being said, I think I’d be a great candidate for (WHATEVER), so please feel free to contact me at (PHONE NUMBER) or via email at (ADDRESS).” Make sure you type your name and sign the letter. If it’s digital, you can sign a printed copy and then scan it back in there.

(Instead of doing that, a long time ago, I grabbed a piece of paper and practiced my signature until I was happy with it. I then did a large version of it with a big Sharpie and scanned that into my computer. I saved it as a jpeg and just insert it now as a signature. Works well.)

Before you send this off, have at least one other person read it for any spelling, grammar or other goofy errors. Make sure you have the name of your contact spelled right and the name of the organization done properly (is it Advanced Titan or Advance-Titan  and is it hyphenated or not?). Then, fix any minor glitches and submit your application.

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