Monday, November 30, 2009

Making census of the test

McMURRAY, Pa. - There I was this morning, sitting with three elderly men in a bland corner room at the Peters Township Municipal Library, with a pencil in hand and 28 multi-choice questions at my disposal. The four of us arrived early to offer the proper identification and fill out the paperwork before taking the test. It was a bizarre scene that made me feel like I was in high school all over again -- albeit in an alternate universe.

Instead of the SATs or final exams, I was taking a test to gauge whether I had what it takes to knock on doors for the U.S. Census Bureau and count human beings like they were cattle. It might not be a glamorous job, but it offers a part-time schedule with supposedly decent pay. And, it's a good financial opportunity if the job market is still ice cold five months from now.

But back to the test. One man coughed and wheezed for a moment while filling out his paperwork. The elderly gentleman behind me forgot his ID, and needed to scrounge around his car to find a Social Security card and/or birth certificate (which I assume was printed in the 19th Century). A Census worker read instructions before the test, but the man next to me looked puzzled. He told the worker that he couldn't hear well enough, and asked for the instructions to be read again.


I rolled through the 28 questions, stopping on some for a few extra moments. I'm not really sure the point of the 30-minute exam, except maybe to sift through people born without brains.

I guess I have some semblance of a medulla oblongata (thank you Bobby Boucher) because I aced the test. So now I wait to learn if the Census Bureau will need my services next year. Maybe I'll even see my three geriatric test-taking pals on the beat.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Even in tough economic times, there is a lot to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our loyal readers, and please drive safely during the holiday.

And, yes, I know this is a scene from Christmas Vacation. But in the spirit of a classic holiday movie, it's turkey carving nonetheless.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The failed interview

It took nearly five months, but I finally received an interview. Sure, the job opening had nothing to do with my communications/writing background, but it was for a position in a booming industry that I covered while at the Washington newspaper. That gave me a lot of confidence when I walked into the company's Southpointe office building Nov. 11 for a meet and greet with middle managers. My knowledge of the industry surely would be a bonus in the interview, or so I thought

It turns out I knew one of the managers interviewing me. We went to high school together and played in the percussion ensemble. It seemed that personal background could give me an edge when they made the final decision of whom to hire. The 40-minute interview turned into a gabbing session about drumming and my knowledge about their industry. We shook hands and I left the office, fully expecting to receive a job offer in the next few days.

It didn't happen.

So now I enter the holiday weekend with at least a taste of what it is like to go on a job interview in today's market. The interview didn't transpire how I expected it would, but the outcome -- or lack of one -- shocked me even more.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Long odds

I received a rejection e-mail a couple days ago for a communications position at a local non-profit organization in Pittsburgh. Since it's unusual we actually get a live one, I thought this would be the best opportunity to see what my chances are in the jobs market.

The woman responded the following day with a friendly and detailed response. But it also confirmed what I suspected all along: Our resumes are getting buried beneath hundreds of others. She told me the company had received 130 applications, and two workers narrowed the list down to 25. From there, they whittled it to 10 possible applicants, four of whom they interviewed.

The woman said she has been with the company for 20 years, and never had this type of response for this position. That also means I had a 3 percent chance of scoring an interview. Seems like I'd have better odds playing the PowerBALL.

This illustrates the problems many of us newspaper reporters face while trying to find a job that relates to our former profession. It also might be an indication that a new and totally different career is the best -- and maybe the only -- option.

Monday, November 16, 2009

To whom it may concern?

Found this little gem while searching a local jobs Web site. The position was for a Journalist/Feature Writer position in the Pittsburgh area. Here is a description of the job ad...

A community based Healthcare organization is seeking an experienced JOURNALIST/ FEATURE WRITER to join its team on a part-time basis.

This position is responsible for writing and editing several publications including the production of our annual report, occasional press releases, executive speeches, and scripting special events.

The ideal candidate will have a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, or Communications with a writing emphasis. Previous experience in print media including editing is highly desired. Must have an interest in community based Healthcare, excellent written and oral communication skills, superior knowledge of grammar, spelling and sentence structure.

This is a part-time position that offers flexible scheduling opportunities. If you are interested in joining our team that values excellence and creativity, please submit your resume, professional references, and writing samples.

Now, if a job applicant is going to be sending his/her resume to a prospective company, common courtesy would seem to dictate that said company should at least supply its name and/or location. Maybe they're trying to keep this job opening a secret until they announce the hiring, but I feel a little uncomfortable applying to a business that could be UPMC... or ...Satan's Medical Insurance LLC.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Technical difficulties

Sorry for the lack of posts this week, but I'm experiencing some technical difficulties with my laptop computer. Hopefully I'll be back online full-time in the next few days.

In the mean time, thank goodness for Allegheny County's RAD tax funding for local libraries. I have a Mt. Lebanon library card, but I can use it to access the computers and books at USC, South Fayette and Bridgeville libraries. I wonder how the teabaggers would feel about that socialist plot to spread around the literature wealth? That tax is coming in handy as I'm able to drive just a few short miles to scan the Internet for jobs or pickup a book at the nearest library.

Anyway, from busted laptops, to hissing stoves, to broken house windows, to airbag deployment warning lights... the expenses just don't end. At least our public libraries are affordable.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Game over for job seekers?

As the country begins to pulls itself out of this economic abyss, one sign is not so encouraging for our future: Jobs. Housing is moving in the right direction and stocks are booming (is that such a good thing?), yet the job numbers continue to lag. Unemployment continues to rise -- albeit at a slower pace -- and there does not seem to be an end in sight.

Pundits across the tube are "pundificating" why people are still out of work. On one side, some say it's because President Obama's stimulus bill is a failure. On the other, they claim the economy was in such a dire condition that it will take longer than anticipated to get this train back on track.

The answer, I think, is much simpler. Employers are learning they don't need the same workforce to make their companies profitable. They are asking their current employees to perform more work than before to replace their laid off colleagues. The problem, though, is that the quality of the product ultimately falls. Take one look at most newspapers today, and you can easily see that the pages are thinner and filled with more wire stories. The reason? They don't have enough people to perform the job adequately.

Now, this is fine during economic hardship. But is that still acceptable when the economy improves? It will be interesting to see whether companies keep their current workforce or expand when their coffers bleed black once again. Sadly, I'm skeptical if most companies will ever go back to the dark days when offices were buzzing with plenty of workers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Last Lawyer

What lawyer would ever consider representing a man condemned to die? That's the question author John Temple asks in his new book, "The Last Lawyer." Temple has been a professor at West Virginia University for nearly a decade after spending the early part of his career in the newspaper industry, including a tour at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In his new book released this week, Temple shadows a team of investigators and lawyers working to overturn a man's death sentence. Temple spent the past six years conducting interviews and following the story of Bo Jones, who was convicted of a 1987 murder in North Carolina. Temple writes about the problems Jones' lead attorney, Ken Rose, faces as he battles to prevent his client from entering the death chamber.

"I just wanted to know why someone would spend their career doing this," Temple said in an interview with The BLB. "It's not a job with a lot of obvious rewards. There's lots of conflict, the pay isn't particularly high, the cases go on for years, lots of people disagree with your work and your client sometimes dies in the end. This intrigued me and I figured there would be some fascinating characters doing this work, and I was right."

This is reporting at its finest. Unlike modern-day blogs that spew instant opinions and offer shady information, Temple immerses readers into a situation that is usually reserved to people behind concrete walls and barbed wire.

"Some are drawn to do this work because of their Christian faith and their belief in redemption. Others are drawn to it because they are ideologically and politically opposed to the death penalty," Temple said. "Still, others come to it because of their life experiences -- they were exposed to how the death penalty works and the system's flaws, and they become committed anti-death penalty activists."

This is the second book written by Temple. In 2005, he released "Deadhouse," which told the story of medical examiners in Allegheny County. While the concept might seem morbid, it offered a rare glimpse into the investigations and science behind suspicious deaths. Temple used amazing details to explain the story, and the book left me longing for more information about a profession that goes mostly unnoticed by the public.

Temple was one of my journalism professors at WVU, and he taught me how to capture moving narratives for feature newspaper reports, which I used numerous times to grab readers. I'll never forget the lesson he shared one day about how subtle details can make a narrative. During that lesson, he told our class about how he had an audio recorder hanging around his neck while taking notes at a scene for Deadhouse. When he reviewed the tape, he could hear the lapping of water against a river bank as the medical examiner assistants pulled a body from the river. It was the splashing wake from a coal barge on the Monongahela River that added another element to that portion of the story.

Details set great stories apart from the rest.

Temple's newest book went on sale this week and can be purchased online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The Last Lawyer offers a gripping look at capital punishment in America, with a narrative that should fascinate any reader, regardless of their personal opinion on the death penalty.

John Temple is a professor and associate dean at West Virginia University's P.I. Reed School of Journalism. The 39-year-old professor and author resides in Morgantown, W.Va., and can be reached by e-mail at, or visit his Web site at

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The electric resume

It doesn't seem too long ago when a job seeker had to search for openings in a newspaper, print out a resume, handcraft a cover letter and assemble a portfolio for potential employers. My how things have changed in just a few years.

Now, all we have to do is type a couple words into an Internet search engine, answer a few questions using a Web form and attach a resume to the e-mail. Although it seems to be easier than ever to apply for a new job, the process makes it impersonal and sometimes even discouraging. After graduating from college in 2005, I took great pride in every application and portfolio I sent out in the mail. But when I apply for a job today, it feels like just another cog on the conveyor belt to nowhere.

So while it's amazingly easy to pursue that new job, it doesn't have the same vibe. People often ask me how the job search is going, and I'll rattle off the number of applications I've shot out through the Series of Tubes. But it doesn't make me any more hopeful of working -- or even receiving a job interview -- in the near future.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

PG+ becomes a negative

This blog had a lively discussion several months ago about what it meant for the Post-Gazette to implement a paid members feature on its Web site. At first, I applauded the decision not to give away information for free. People should have to pay to read the content that the newspaper provides. But the more I look at the diminishing size and quality of the print edition, I'm beginning to think that PG+ is actually hindering the product.

I began noticing something was amiss in September by the pathetic Steelers coverage. Beat reporter Ed Bouchette does a great job, but his notebooks and other information that usually appeared in print suddenly disappeared. The P-G is hyping a Steelers blog and other coverage as the biggset reason to pay for the Web membership. However, I don't understand why the P-G is now punishing the people who pay for the newspaper to be delivered each day.

The Post-Gazette should put ALL of its Steelers information in the print edition, and limit the amount of available on the Internet. I plan on calling sports editor Jerry Micco and executive editor David Shribman to complain about why print subscribers are getting the shaft. It would make sense to offer the PG+ feature for free to regular subscribers. If their response is underwhelming, then I will cancel my $85 print subscription (circulation numbers are the bread and butter for advertising revenue) and sign up for the $36 PG+ plan. It makes economic sense for me, but I doubt the same can be said for the Post-Gazette.