As CNBC launches 'The Job Interview,' I recall singing my way to work at the Philly Inquirer

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CNBC debuts a new reality television show Wednesday designed to capture the triumphs and terrors of one of life's most stressful situations, the job interview. And, that's the name of the show. Back-to-back episodes air at 10 p.m.

What was your job interview like?

Mine was crazy, although it worked and I ended up landing this job, which I’ve kept for 35 years. Everyone’s got a story. Earlier this week, CNBC launched The Job Interview, a new reality-TV series that aims to capture the triumphs and terrors involved in one of life’s most frightening scenarios.

Wish I could say my crazy interview was strategic, but it wasn’t. The man who hired me as a reporter for the Inquirer wore a swami hat and had a vending machine topped with a giant plastic chicken in his office. He and I ended up singing during our interview, moments after I had confessed to another interviewer that I deserved the job because I had actually ironed the back of my shirt, even though it was covered by my suit jacket.

Camera icon I. George Bilyk
When Jane M. Von Bergen had her interview for a reporting job, she ended up singing with the editor who hired her. What’s your job interview story?

In the years just before I was hired, it seemed as though the Inquirer wouldn’t hire any local reporters. If you had a Southern drawl or a twang you were in, but if you lived in Mount Airy, Mayfair, or Montgomeryville, forget it. Meanwhile, the paper had the reputation of treating the suburbs like an exotic locale, with reporters parachuting in, kickin’ it with their coverage,  plastering their work on Sunday Page A1, and retreating back to Broad Street.

Then the Evening Bulletin folded and intense local suburban coverage became the business model du jour. The Inquirer marketed suburban Neighbors sections, staffed by actual locals, reporters who had covered these same regions for the ring of smaller competing newspapers that surrounded the city. I was one of those reporters. Some of my journalist friends at the North Penn Reporter in Lansdale had gotten jobs at the expanded Inquirer, so I decided to try.

Luckily for me, I was naive. I expected to come to the interview and be offered a job or turned down on the spot. It never occurred to me that you had to dance around for months to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

On my interview date, I showed up in a suit, work samples in hand. First I talked to Glenn Guzzo, editor of the Neighbors section. That went great. Then I talked to Terry Bitman, who seemed to handle the nuts and bolts of hiring. He is the one who learned that my attention to detail included ironing the back of my blouse, even though it would be covered by the suit. I still think that’s impressive. I guess he did, too.

My third interview was with Jim Naughton, the number three editor, and the one who would actually make the hiring decision. We had a fun talk, mostly laughed — there were probably serious questions sprinkled in, along with discussions about news and journalism, goals, dreams, ambitions, etc. At the end, I asked him, “Well, do I have a job?”

He hedged. “You deserve some attention,” he replied.

I said, “National attention?” He looked quizzical.

Then I started singing the National Rent-a-Car advertising jingle. “You deserve some National attention. You deserve a National smile.” He joined in. We kept singing. He told me he’d like to hire me when there was an opening, although he didn’t say when that might be.

About a week later, he called me and said he could hire me immediately, if I agreed to work as a “stringer,” same work, less money and less respect. My heart was in my throat, but I gathered all my courage and said, “No, if the Inquirer wants me, it’ll have to pay the full freight.” (Actually, I said it a little more crudely than that, but that’s all part of newspaper culture.)

Two weeks later, Naughton called back and asked me what I would do if the Inquirer hired me. I told Naughton that I would stand on my desk and scream. (He didn’t have to know that I was working in a lonely one-person bureau in Doylestown.)

He did and I did. Later, I learned that Naughton had hired me because I was “a delightful wack job,” whatever that means. I’m pretty sure the Inquirer also liked my writing, not to mention my resume with journalism prizes earned every year. Now I’d have to show my web skills and social-media chops.

But, for all that, in journalism, as in most enterprises, people skills matter most, so my ability to connect with Naughton likely proved to him I’d also be able to connect with the people we cover. Clearly, they didn’t hire me to sing.

I’ve always been proud to work at the Inquirer and I still am. Every year on my hire date, June 21, from 1982 until Naughton died in 2012, I’d reach out to him and thank him for giving me a chance. Wish I could thank him now.

 

How was your job interview?:

Have a good story? Email me at jvonbergen@phillynews.com and use the word interview in the subject line. If we get enough good stories, we'll run them next week, in time for the second episode of The Job Interview.