In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon interviews freelance journalist, Zoë Beery, about her recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review,a meditation on the history and future of edit tests. Zoë argues that the contradictions of the edit test are a microcosm of bigger challenges in the world of journalism, such as ongoing workforce precarities and diverging attitudes towards journalists’ rights. Muira, a former freelance journalist herself, also considers the power of unionization and ways in which editors can strive to act more ethically, when hiring new writers.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon interviews author, Zoë Beery, about her recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. Zoë interrogates the seemingly innocuous phenomenon of the edit tests, which are used by editors when hiring journalists and copy editors. Zoë argues that the contradictions of the edit test are a microcosm of journalism’s largest challenges, shifting political economies and workforce precarities.
Hope you enjoy.
Zoë: So an edit test can mean a number of different things.
Muira: This is Zoë Beery, explaining edit tests to me.
Zoë: On the the editor side, it’s can you do the day to day job, and then can you do the overall sort of big narrative arc of the job.
Muira: Now back in March 2018, she wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Edit Tests Are Out of Control, Say Journalists in Search of Jobs.” Most of us outside the world of journalism will never take an edit test, but here at the Center for Media At Risk we’re looking at media practices that threaten freelancers, journalists, scholars, and others. And as part of this endeavor, in this episode, we’re digging into the history of edit tests, what they are and how they’re intimately tied to bigger conversations about unionization and labor precarity.
Zoë: So, what it started as was a a way for people who where applying for editorial jobs to show that they actually knew how to do job their job, right? Because journalism all happens before you see it, and so if you’re just gonna go off of clips that somebody has or a list of stories that they’ve edited, there’s no way to tell what work they’ve actually done, and how they’re actually approaching the story, how they’re approaching copy, how they’re approaching everything about the job that they would need to to do if you hired them.
So I talked to a couple of sources about what edit testing used to be like in sort of the heyday of journalism before the internet started encroaching on revenue and the ability to sustain a journalistic economy. And like the New York Times for example, they would do an initial screen and then promising candidates would be flown out to New York. They would, you know, be given a stipend to pay for accommodations. They would be paid for a week or a two weeks worth of salary at the same rate that an entry level copy editor would, and it was a process that was taken very, very seriously.
So as the internet made it easier to screen people out and as journalism started shifting and jobs began to disappear and budgets tightened and things like that, edit testing become something that was given out a little bit more freely and that largely wasn’t compensated.
But it was interesting, you know, as my editor at CJR requested, to solicit edit tests from people who I knew who had taken them, and so I got things from people that were submitted anonymously. And as you point out, you know, there’s there’s a sort of the sort of thing hovering over this whole story and this whole process is that people were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get jobs in the future if they were too frank or if they spoke on the record.
But yeah, that that was thing that was so fascinating to me when I started reporting this story. Was that when I told people that I was writing it, they were like, “Oh my God, thank you! Like we’ve been dealing with this for so long, and nobody’s talking about it. I am so glad that we’re talking about it.” And it was also interesting to go through the process of it and compare the sorts of like rumors that people had swirling around around edit tests, especially about like having stories stolen. What were these tests actually asking them to do? Like what was the match up between the reality and the fear?
Muira: Yeah, and I guess I’m I’m curious, can you can you tell us a little bit more about some of the rumors that were circulating around edit tests when you when you began this journey?
Zoë: I mean, I think the the main one that people were so concerned about was having their ideas poached. It was something that almost everyone mentioned, but as I noted in the piece, nobody who I talked to actually had that happen to them. It it’s sort of another iteration of the freelancer’s … and I’m a freelancer, like the freelancer’s constant fear that you’re going to pitch a story to a publication and and it does happen. Like you’ll pitch something and then a couple of times, it gets turned down, or they never respond to it.
But it was really interesting in the case of this story to realize how precarious job applicants feel in their applications. I only had one person acknowledge that as an editor she thinks about this a lot. And she said that when she gives out edit tests, she’s very explicit with her applicants that the ideas that they share in their edit tests will not be published on Jezebel without paying them, whether it’s because they got hired for a job or they were commissioned on a freelance basis to write an article. What it really is, is a poignant example of how scared everybody feels about their ability to continue doing this as a career. What it really exemplifies is how hard it is to make a living doing journalism these days.
Muira: Yeah, and you know, so at the Center for Media At Risk, we’re sort of thinking about media practices that that threaten the future of journalism. And I I guess I feel obliged to ask, you … knowing what you know now, do you think that edit tests as they stand today are are threatening the future of journalism? Or just that you know they’re … it’s something we have to accept and make peace with as freelancers? I don’t know, I’m just interested in your take on that.
Zoë: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that they’re threatening the future of journalism nearly as much as you know like the government, you know trying to make a list of … what is it DHS or someone is trying to make a list of journalists right now.
Muira: Yeah, Department of Homeland Security is trying to make a list of journalists.
Zoë: Yeah, like I would say that that’s a a more immediate, concerning threat to the future of journalism than edit tests.
I think what it really indicates is like I said, this sense of precarity and a real fear for the future, and the fact that it’s … it’s also a symptom of how broken a lot of things in journalism are because it’s not like the the editors on these hiring committees are maliciously going out and trying to either solicit ideas or extract you know explicitly for the purposes of extracting free labor from either miserable staff writers or staff editors that want to leave their jobs, or freelancers who are tired of the hustle and just want a secure paycheck.
You know for the most part, they’re also under a lot of pressure, right? Like they probably are working with smaller staffs than they would like to. They need ways to screen people out. They … it, it, it’s, it’s at every level of the system, that people are being overworked. They’re not being compensated properly for their time, and they don’t have workplace protections, you know in the way that they need to.
One thing that a couple of people brought up when I was talking to them about this, was you know whether edit testing could eventually become part of like union contract negotiations. Or at least acknowledge the fact that the lack of workplace protections makes people really nervous to shake up the system of edit testing. Because if you’re an editor who’s looking for job applicants and you go to somebody at your publication and say, “Hey, I think this is really unfair” or “Hey, can we change this?” …and they don’t like that, you know like who’s to say what the outcome of that could be for you, as somebody trying to stick up for your job applicants.
And similarly, when you’re, if you’re a job applicant, like you don’t have any rights when when you’re approaching a publication during the hiring process, so, yeah, I think what it what it really says rather than fear around the the safety or the security of journalists in the work itself, it’s more about the working conditions and the fact that you know we’re so passionately committed to doing this work that we will subject ourselves to these incredibly taxing, unreasonable experiences, and you know editors are hopefully at least, reading through all of these, and probably spending time outside of their paid hours doing so. Like we wanna be doing this work, but we have to pass through this you know this eye of this horrible needle to do it. And it’s just … you know it feels it’s like a breaking point.
Muira: Yeah, it just it just seems so emotionally exhausting and you know I’m thinking about like what advice you’d give to editors who are trying to maybe you know design a more ethical edit test, if that’s even possible these days.
Zoë: I think it can be very tempting for editors to use edit tests as a second step after like a phone screen, because you know it’s a good filter. If somebody completely fails your edit tests, you know that they’re not gonna be able to do a job, and you move one. But it’s giving yourself a lot more work. It’s also giving out a lot more work to other people. What came up over and over again, in interviews that I did for this, was that if people got an edit test immediately after something like a phone screen, they had no idea where they were in their standing for the job. And, so they gave less effort to it. They felt less compelled to provide their best ideas and do their best work. Why are you gonna spend a lot of time doing something, when you don’t even think that you have that good of a shot of progressing through the interview process?
So if you feel like you really need to get some sort of screening in place before you start bringing people in for in-person interviews. Try breaking the test up. You know do a test that is … have somebody edit one story to see if they can do copy editing, to see if they understand how to structure a story. See if they understand how your publication approaches things. If they do that, bring them in and they do well, then maybe do a memo where they’re doing more idea generation afterwards, where they have a sense of trust in your excitement about what they might bring to a role. Where you feel … where your applicant is going to feel like you’re taking them seriously, and so then they can take you seriously.
Another thing. Respond to people if you give them an edit test, if you’re asking them to do unpaid work for you, at least have the decency to tell them in a prompt way, “Thank you for doing this, but you’re no longer in the running” or you know, “We’re putting this position on hold”, which is something that so many people heard.
Muira: I’ve heard that as well! Yeah, it’s just…it’s horrifying!
Zoë: It’s like if you’re getting people to do this, you better be really damn sure that you’re actually hiring for this job. I mean, I know things can change. I have been in the position of being an editor trying to hire for a position that we kept getting really conflicting messages about whether it was going to materialize or not. And it’s scary, but like maybe you can be a little bit more transparent with your applicants about that? Just so that you’re not left hanging in the lurch. I mean, it’s insulting. It’s really, really frustrating and insulting to go through this and then just be ghosted, basically.
And then the last thing is that you know if you’re following those things and you’re kind of saving idea generation for a later part of the job application process and you’re giving the most substantial tests only to kind of the final round applicants. People who you’re really, seriously considering. See if you can’t give them an honorarium. I mean, a couple hundred dollars. You’re investing this much time in the hiring process. You’re taking your staff away from their daily work to go through this. If an honorarium is gonna make you take the edit testing process more seriously? Then do that. And it’s also just kind of the right thing to do.
Muira: Yeah, no those all seem like great points. I wanted to circle back. You know you had talked about how you and also your editors were surprised by by the responses to the piece, and I guess I was just interested in knowing more about you know what what those responses were and and and if you were surprised by any of them?
Zoë: I think that the thing I was most surprised by was the responses that I got from people who work outside of journalism. I have a number of friends who are software developers, and if I mentioned to them that I was doing this, they would often respond that they’re they they usually have to do similar exercises. Where as part of a job application, they have to like build a little widget.
I don’t think anybody should ever be asked to do unpaid labor. However, considering the pay discrepancy between journalists and software developers, you know it’s…I was sympathetic to their situation, but maybe a little bit less sympathetic than I am to my fellow journalists. You know it resonated with people who do that.
There were people who work in marketing who told me that they had been asked to do like full, full PowerPoint presentations, and have to come up with like decks for things and they never heard back.
Apparently this is a really big problem for animators, being asked to come up with like storyboards that are the equivalent of you know as many hours as it would take for we journalists to do an edit test that we’re asked to do. And and to their experience, or the experience of the person that I talked to was very similar to this feeling that it was just being thrown out haphazardly and not with much thought.
Muira: So, I guess I guess a good closing question is do you do you have advice to those people who are who are out there getting ready to test their first, second, third, or thirtieth edit test? Like is there a is there a way given that it’s not going away, and given that there is this continued environment of labor precarity, I guess? To approach this and keep ones one’s wits and ones sanity?
Zoë: I mean, honestly the the best advice I can give to anybody in media right now is join a union, and if you’re a freelancer, tell your friends whose workplaces are unionizing, that they need to think about freelancers, and even think about things like edit tests as they’re negotiating their contract. I think that’s really the only thing that could give anybody any help in the long run.
Muira: I think that’s a great point. You know and it it’s, it’s so easy to zoom in and just focus on edit tests and you know the unions … unionization issue is just I think where the bigger conversation needs to go, so.
Zoë: Yeah, yeah. I think and that’s that’s something that came up um a number of times in interviews that I did, and I think what is good about talking about these micro-things is that it’s surfacing things that should be in that mix while people are navigating, organizing their workplaces, you know, because in different time, as demonstrated by the Times’s old practices of paying for edit tests. It wasn’t really an issue, but we’re living in a completely different economy, and a completely different a different environment for journalism, and so we need to change our practices to change with those times. So, if there’s you know something that we need to do that isn’t working in its current form, then we need to think about how we can protect each other as we’re negotiating contracts and finding ways to to keep our publication stronger.
Muira: Risk in the world of media takes a lot of shapes and can appear in many different forms. And it might be easy to say that edit tests sound mundane, even monotonous. That they’re insignificant fragments of an industry that’s going awry and amuck in more ways than one. But in her interviews with two dozen writers, Zoë Beery found that as journalism jobs have evaporated, edit tests have become a particularly burdensome practice for candidates. Take a few edit tests a year and that can ultimately equate to twenty or more unpaid hours of work per test. Pretty brutal stuff, right? To learn more about Zoë, or to see some samples of past edit tests, check out our supplementary material at the Media At Risk website.
Aaron: Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank Waldo Aguirre, Zoë Beery, and Emily Plowman. Barbie Zelizer directs the Center for Media At-Risk, and this episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro.
- Read Zoë Beery’s original piece, “Edit tests are out of control, say journalists in search of jobs,” in the Columbia Journalism Review.
- Take a Business Insider edit test.
- Check out what some reporters have to say about edit tests on Twitter.
- Get a better sense of the trials and tribulations facing journalists working at digital outlets.
- See firsthand how much hate there is towards edit tests.
- Read some words in The Atlantic about unionizing media outlets.
- Thinking more broadly about the history of media at risk? With some help from Atlas Obscura, journey with us back to the days of JFK’s inauguration, when freezing cold journalists were given a warm haven in the home of Miss Helen Montgomery and her father, Charles Montgomery.
- Peruse this poignant meditation in Lit Hub about what editorial “power” means.
- Reflect on some of the other challenges editors face in their work. Here is Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, talking about her more than fifteen years of editing David Foster Wallace and reflecting on how his absence affected her work.
Son Lux: “All the Right Things” (theme)
Tortoise: “Eden 2”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “Ministry of Alienation”
Floating Points: “Silhouettes (I, II & III)”
Khruanbin: “A Fang Kheng Kan – Acoustic”
Khruangbin: “Two Fish and an Elephant” (Outro)
We’d love to hear from you, especially if this podcast episode made you think about ways in which the future of journalism is at risk. Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to email@example.com; you can also find us on Twitter at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.
- Zoë Beery is a freelance writer and editor with a background in audio production. A lot of her writing interrogates ways in which women make their own spaces and people who rewrite the past to fit the present. Her words have appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Atlas Obscura, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere.
- This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by Aaron Shapiro.
- Thanks also to Muira’s unnamed (freelance) friends, who spoke to her about the horrors of edit tests.