Media: Don't call us: you're far too experienced

Dan Ehrlich travelled 10,000 miles in a bid to find a job. He has worked for 30 years in newspapers. So why won't anyone employ him?
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The Independent Culture
DEATH IN journalism is when you hit 55 and still haven't had your fill of news work, but news work seems to have had enough of you. This is exhibited by rejection after rejection and coping with endless ageist "Help Wanted" adverts. You know you've had it when Saga, a magazine geared for pensioners, advertises for journalists to join its "fast-moving young team" or when your offer of regular freelance work is rejected by Later, a new IPC magazine geared to the soon-to-be infirm.

To the establishment, you're simply an old fart who would be too costly, worse, an individualist, worse still, an American who's not Lloyd Grossman or Ruby Wax. During the past three years, I've knocked on the doors of all the major British newspapers and TV stations and I've spent pounds 12,000 and travelled 10,000 miles across America by Greyhound Bus learning this new reality.

I was pushed over the edge by Metro. This free London daily newspaper opened with a couple of experienced pros from its parent, the Daily Mail, and a bunch of young regional hacks. Was this the chance for which I had long been waiting? I used to write for the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. This should be a good fit.

Well, Metro's highly professional editor, Ian MacGregor, never even answered my fax, e-mails or phone calls - so much for courtesy and professionalism. Between that and Later, whose editor Phil Hilton welcomed my application on the phone but eventually sent me the standard rejection letter, I had had enough. I had no way of knowing that things wouldn't be much better in America, but I decided to try. While you may become too old for career prospects in Britain, in the United States, by law, you're never too old, just over-qualified - or apparently under-qualified in my case.

For example, my 30 years of local, national and international experience apparently didn't impress Rex Wilson, the editor of the 14,000 circulation daily in Port Angeles, Washington. He gave the news editor position I had been trying to get to a person with "more local managerial experience".

In other words, after two months of phone conversations and asking me over for an interview, he probably got some person to take the job for less than the $35,000 salary he said was on offer, a figure I personally thought was a bit high for a sheet of that size. On the plus side, he was the only person during my entire quest who at least offered to pay my motel bill. But, in this high-tech age, why do employers need to have job applicants travel great distances for what amounts to preliminary interviews and then not pay expenses? They should be able to tell from phone conversations and a resume if they want to hire someone.

When I was a daily newspaper sports editor in Fremont, California, and needed a couple of people pronto, I breezed through the old resume file, found two good prospects with nice cuttings, then talked to them on the phone, asked them to come down to the office, and then hired them. All in the space of 12 hours.

Nowadays, editors seem more concerned with getting the right fit than finding reporters who can actually write. They're scared of dealing with people who may have more experience than they do.

And there are also nationality problems, as I discovered back in Britain. When I applied for a desk position at Sky News, the managing editor misunderstood me and said: "I would never put an American on the air."

Aside from the absurdity of that statement, since I had already done about 200 spots for Sky, it was an improper thing to say, even though it's a matter of fact in the UK industry.

For more than seven years I was the accredited London correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner. Years later, I dropped by its office with my hefty string book of Examiner cuttings to see the managing editor, Sharon Rosenhausen, about getting a job there. I was greeted with polite ambivalence. There was an opening on the metro desk and I wanted it. "I'm sorry, but you don't have any metro desk experience," she said. "Besides there are a lot of people who have been waiting a long time to get on metro."

In the end I was told I could possibly do some freelance copy-editing work as a way to get "my foot in the door". And worse, the copy chief told me I would have to take a test.

So, as I write this from my home in London, I'm waiting for answers from all the people I have seen. It will probably be a long wait. Employers these days seem reluctant to give applicants the bad news. They prefer to give them "equal opportunity forms" to complete.

The coupe de grace came at my journey's end. I was in Madison, Wisconsin, and was due to fly back to London from Chicago the following evening. But, I also had a job interview early next morning in Chicago. There was no bus service late at night from Madison and no affordable place to stay in Chicago.

In the end, I arrived at the Chicago bus station at 1.30am and napped with the backpackers on wooden chairs until 6.30am when I changed into my Simpson suit, stowed my bags, and headed for my 8am appointment.

I had the distinct feeling that I was the only person ever to be seen wearing a suit in that station.

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