Smoke Signals

Cover Letters


Maybe a decade ago, when my tenure at the magazine I had long edited was clearly headed down the shitter, I started, out of quiet desperation, regularly eyeballing a help-wanted website called I am a creature of habit; once I start doing something, I usually continue until there is an overt reason to stop. (See: Amphetamines.) To this day, I still visit at least once a week.

Part of me argues (to myself) that it behooves me to stay abreast of the personnel happenings in my ill-chosen field.

Part of me interfaces with the same way some folks scrutinize obituaries. Or fatal car crashes. It’s interesting — in a horrific sort of way — to watch from afar the “digital-first” death twitches of my chosen profession.

Still, part of me thinks that, if the right gig appeared, I might actually apply, especially if 1) it pays at least one notch above starvation wages and 2) is located in an attractive place, like, as but a few recent random examples, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Kenai, Alaska, and Big Sky, Montana. (There is, not surprisingly, a high degree of mutual exclusivity at play between numbers 1 and 2.)

And part of me derives amusement from the names of some of the newspapers that advertise on the site. The Searchlight. The Headlight. The Spectator. The Exponent. The Diplomat. The Champion. The Appeal. The Defensor. The Manifest.

There is of course more to my habit.

But first: Whether placed by a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station, advertising agency or university — the ads listed on generally include:

• Often-hyperbolic pitches for the publication’s hometown, many of which are located hell and gone and are represented by the smallest municipal icons available to the cartographers at Rand-McNally. Stuff like: “Amenities include miles and miles of converted railroad trails passing by lush cornfields.” And: “Home to the Pittsburg State Gorillas.” And: “Only 95 miles SW of Indianapolis.” And “Winters made more tolerable by our heated bowling alley.” And: “Residents enjoy our annual Gravy Festival.”

• A basic description of the position. Such as: “No story is too small for us!” (Read: There are lots of small stories to choose from here in Nutrash, Texas. Matter of fact, the last time we had a story that wasn’t small was when Lyndon Johnson holed up in a local motel while passing through town with his mistress in 1961, but we didn’t dare touch that one because it was too big.”) And: “Some evening and weekend work hours required.” (Meaning: You will rarely have time to visit the heated bowling alley because you’ll be chained to your desk all the time.) And: “Drug-free workplace.” (Meaning: Pull your shriveled little pecker out and get ready to toss whatever last shred of vocational dignity you might still possess before you sign on to cover church bake sales for the Phelgm City Weekly Drivel.) And: “Potential for assignments with other newspapers in the operation.” (Meaning: In addition to your regular duties, we’ll pile on a bunch of extra work so we can squeeze a few more pennies out of your desiccated carcass to add to management’s bonus pool.)

• A list of necessary qualifications. Like: “Ability to generate stories without supervision.” (Read: Our editor is too lazy to help you out, but wait until you screw up, then the editor will rise from the dead and rip you a new asshole, probably in public.) And: “Looking for an all-around sports hound who can write and take pictures.” (Read: We downsized our photographer position seven years ago. Hope you like taking Little League team photos six times a week.) And: “This is an opportunity for an innovative and forward thinking person to make his or her mark in the newspaper world.” (Read: We know your ass will be innovating and forward thinking its way out of here at the first opportunity, so we plan to work your fingers to the bone in the interim, knowing that, as soon as you leave, we’ll be able to lasso am equally forlorn replacement in short order.) And: “Must have a reliable vehicle and a clean driving record.” (Yeah, right.)

• Sometimes a salary is listed (often $20-25,000), though in almost all the ads, the word “negotiable” appears under the salary line. Right. Basically this means the powers that be at the publication will negotiate you toward the lowest end of the pay scale while promising to arbitrarily review your performance and, by extension, your remuneration after a purely subjective probationary period while you sit there wondering if Asswad, Kansas, has a food bank. As well, the words “this is an exempt position” often appear, meaning that, despite unambiguous federal laws to the contrary, you will be ineligible for overtime pay, no matter how many hours you work.

• Then there’s the actual application process, which almost always includes a call for several professional references and either hard-copy clips or links to previously published stories.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, and the real reason we have gathered, the application process requires inclusion of a cover letter. This is where the aspiring reporter or editor lies through his or her teeth, trying to disguise their desperation at the thought of actually having to live in Cornhole, Indiana, by writing things like, “It has long been my professional desire — nay, fantasy — to live only 95 miles SW of Indianapolis in a town that has a heated bowling alley and hosts the annual Gravy Festival. I can’t wait to cover every church bake sale between Cornhole and whatever the next miserable hamlet up the road might be.”

Years ago, I read an essay by someone who amused himself by applying for jobs he never in a million years would accept under any circumstances. Jobs like country club bathroom attendant and dry-cleaning technician. I assume that essay provided the inspiration for what has become something of a puerile hobby: Sending less-than-sincere application cover letters to outfits that advertise on

Here is a smattering. Sometimes, I actually get a personalized reply. Most times, the recipients of my communiqués choose to remain perplexingly silent.

Entity Placing Ad: University of Oregon

Position: Endowed Chair of Journalism

To whom it may concern: Though I am somewhat taken aback, to say nothing of amused, by the overt (and literal) sexism displayed in your ad, I have to admit that, when push comes to shove, I believe I am as endowed as the next person, especially if the next person is some pasty-faced academician whose notion of procreative prowess is likely found in the flaccid middle-third of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” But I digress. My main point of curiosity at this early point of the application process is perfectly justified: I wonder who will actually be conducting the interview process? Are an interviewee’s sexual preferences taken into account? And what specifically will the criteria be to verify that an applicant is sufficiently “endowed”? Are we talking erect or limp? What about length-to-girth ratios? Is pre-interview Viagra ingestion allowed? Do you apply the imperial or metric system? How do you reconcile the respective qualifications of male and female applicants? Is this information kept private? Will photos be taken and distributed to your resident sorority houses? Either way, if hired, you can count on me to maintain the straight-faced decorum such an august position mandates. Furthermore, fret not that I might be inclined to upper-case and bold-face the word “ENDOWED” on the nameplate that will be prominently displayed on my office door in 200-point type.

Entity Placing Ad: Tampa Bay Times

Position: High Energy Newshound

Dudes: Finally, people after my own true heart! Like you, I have wondered for years why print media coverage of the energy industry is so damned lame. I mean, we are after all talking about the most important industry on the face of the planet. And, like you, I’ve long thought that, if the reporters covering the oil, gas, nuclear and solar industries would just loosen up a bit by smoking a bowl or two before sitting down at the keyboard, the resultant coverage of crazy shit like fracking would surely capture a significantly larger and more diverse readership — Occupy movement protestors, graffiti artists, hip-hop performers, Comparative Lit majors et al. I mean, just think of how much more creative and expansive the coverage of the Fukushima meltdown or the Gulf oil spill or the indigenous protests against Chevron down in Peru would be if the reporter was high as a kite.

A high energy newshound would cut through the industry-sourced bullshit and get to the heartless heart of energy-related darkness. The under-reported pipeline spills. The true evil of the Koch Brothers. The environmental impacts of large, centralized solar generation plants. So, I want you to know right now that I will strive to be high every minute I’m on the clock for the Tribune, uh, the Times, yeah, the Times, except on those rare circumstances when I’m too drunk. Bad idea to mix and match intoxicants when you’re my age. Don’t want to mar any potential Pulitzer Prize material with a bad case of disorienting head spins.

Response: Mr. Fayhee: Thank-you for bringing to our attention the fact that we should have placed a hyphen between “high” and “energy” in our ad. We are actually looking for someone to cover the local school system. And we are actually a drug-free workplace. Now more so than ever.

Entity Placing Ad: Demand Media

Position: Freelance Style, Fashion & Beauty Writer

Hey: Seems like you are in the market for someone who is willing and able to speak truth to the stupid-looking shit that dominates the pages of magazines like Elle and Style and sites like TMZ and the entertainment section of Yahoo News! Just yesterday, as but one of a million random examples of suspect taste, there was a big piece titled “This Year’s Best Shoes.” Being interested in the latest footwear trends, I opened the link, expecting to view an array of ergonomic hiking books and minimalist running shoes. Maybe some captivating FMPs. Boy, was I surprised to see a stunningly large selection of multi-colored high heels with toes so pointy — to steal a line from the late fashion maven Edward Abbey — they could kick a lizard clean up its ass. On that same site, there were photos of a type of footwear called a “printed espadrille,” which looked for all the world like the mutated spawn of a sandal and a pair of Keds. Priced at $365! I doubt these abominations would last more than 30 seconds out on the trail. I, like you, think that footwear ought to be more functional than stupid, ugly, uncomfortable and overpriced. (Well, OK, ugly is fine.) I also believe that there are few things sexier than a woman wearing tight jeans and soiled Sorels while sipping a Fat Tire after making mincemeat out of a half-cord of piñon with a six-pound splitting maul.

Then there were several photos of a very strange woman named, apparently by an infant just starting to test drive its on-board vocalization systems, “Lady Gaga.” In an article headlined, “Lady Gaga Wore Nipple Pasties to Meet Prince Harry,” this woman was photographed adorned in an ensemble described by the writer as “classy-meets-kooky in a chainmail-like gown that showed ample cleavage. Her hair was pulled back into a chic chignon, with delicate earrings on her lobes. Her attempt to look semi-normal failed as soon as she added crystal eyebrows.” I don’t know about you, but, first, after viewing the photos accompanying the article, I was taken aback by the fact that Ms. Gaga looked as though she ought to have been cast as one of the more over-the-top extras in the Capital City social scenes in “The Hunger Games” movies. Or maybe the bar scene in “Blade Runner.” And, second, I was disappointed that there were no references — visual or transcriptive — whatsoever to the headlined “Nipple Pasties.”

You can rest assured that, among many other things associated with the editorial position you have advertised on, if we mention “nipple pasties” in a headline on my watch (and I think we ought to at every opportunity), then by god, there will be a photo of nipple pasties, even if we have to head down the closest titty bar with a smart phone to take a few shots of a stripper named Candee thusly attired.

Lest you think at this point that my fashion sense is too far on the walkway fringe, I note with no false modesty that I am a veritable poster child for current haute couture consciousness, in that I have forever been a prescient member in good stead of the lumbersexual revolution. I proudly sport scruffy, comfortable and contextual facial hair, wear a tattered flannel shirt and frequently don a sweat-stained baseball cap.

By now, I think you understand how valuable I would be as your go-to freelance Style, Fashion & Beauty Writer. You could count on me to lend an objective journalistic viewpoint to what clearly has become a genre defined by misleading nipple pasty teases and vapid homages to overpriced printed espadrilles that would disintegrate the very first time some drunk yakked on them in an unsavory imbibery. Together, we can raise the bar.

Entity Placing Ad: CapitalStructure

Position: Distressed Debt Reporter

Dear Sir(s) and/or Madam(s): Rare has been the time in my professional career that I have been more impressed with the sensitivity of people in publications management. Yes, debt is indeed distressing, even if that debt accrued as a result of what can best be described as “indiscretions” that can best be described as “fun.” I know, I know. No one forced me to go to The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club on all-you-can-drink Kamikaze Night when the closest thing to actual pecuniary resources then in my possession was a piece of magical plastic stored in my wallet behind two smooshed medical marijuana joints purchased from a street person clearly suffering from a bad case of the DTs. Yes, yes, yes, that piece of plastic was supposed to be pulled out only in case of the most-dire emergency circumstances. But, if crippling thirst combined with all-you-can-drink Kamikaze Night at The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club does not constitute an emergency, then I’d like to know what does! Which of course, is neither here nor there, except that the aforementioned piece of plastic has now reached the dubious distinction of being maxxed out. Bright red lights flashed and sirens blares the last time I tried to use it. Suffice it to say, I have considerable experience as a reporter. I have considerable experience with debt. And I have considerable experience being distressed by both of those things. If you help by giving me this job, I know we run the risk of my debt being reduced by responsible application of my salary to my accounts-in-arrears (hardy har-har), which would in turn lower my level of distress. So, we’d have to look at this as a temporary arrangement. Unless, of course, I decide to use my wages to buy a really fast car well beyond my means. Or maybe buy an ownership stake in The Laissez-Faire Gentlemen’s Club. Upon which case, I could stay both distressed and in debt forever. A win-win situation. What say you?

Entity Placing Ad: Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune

Position: Food Editor

Dear Editor: Under the “Responsibilities” section of your ad, I see you are looking for someone able to “find, write and edit stories related to food, food culture and culinary arts.” I also see that your paper is located in the cholesterol-laden heart of Middle America. Not only could I live up to your lofty culinary-arts expectations, but I would surely win food-writing awards by the bucketful for the Daily Tribune. I mean, how complicated would it be to write about food in a place where almost everyone is either morbidly obese or dead because they used to be morbidly obese? This already puffball gig would be made even easier by the fact that, apparently, the residents of the Show Me State don’t give a shit about the fact that their girths are often whale like. It’s not as though they’re even thinking about doing anything about their Pillsbury Doughboy-esque physiques, so I could just jump headlong into the journalism of deep-fried lard. Hell, I could pen an entire series on Jell-O salad alone, and probably increase readership by so doing. I am giddy with the creative promise of raising meatloaf and corndogs to the level of “culinary art.” And the abject poverty in the hillbilly backwoods of Missouri opens up even more food-culture possibilities that I’d love to explore. Maybe we could even organize a contest wherein readers could contribute via social media their favorite ways to stretch Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits throughout an entire month. Taken even further, we could run a weekly road-kill-based recipe. And cornpone! We can’t forget about cornpone. I’m not even sure what cornpone is, but I’ll bet it’s a culinary favorite in your parts and, thus, I would cover the hell out of cornpone. Maybe I would even name my weekly food column “Cornpone Cravings.” Or maybe “Cornpone Droolings.” Or maybe “More Cornpone, Please!” I think from this little note you can grasp how I would turn what in lesser hands would be a cupcake department into something meaningful, something with hyper-caloric substance, something that would capture the attention of bacon-laden readers while they devour plate after greasy plate of barbecued ribs while watching “Roseanne” and “Duck Dynasty” re-runs. I await what I know will be a positive response. In the meantime, bon appétit!

Response: Mr. Fayhee: I hope you will one day visit Columbia, where you will quickly come to understand we are a haven for foodies and that, if we had a road-kill restaurant, it would be world class. We even have numerous sushi restaurants.

Entity Placing Ad: New York City Department of Correction [sic]

Position: Press Officer

Hello: Ha! You can’t fool me. I see what you did and I caught it. By including a blatant typo, by singularizing what clearly should have been the pluralized “corrections” in the headline of your help-wanted ad, you were testing the focus of potential applicants, many of whom likely breezed right by the top and delved immediately into the meat of the story. These are not the kinds of people you want to hire. I want you to know right off the bat that there is no mistake so small that my eye does not catch it. Doesn’t matter if I am reading or writing, my edit tool is perpetually engaged. Just ask my wife. Whenever we go out to eat, the first thing I do is scrutinize the menu. Not for food items. For typos! I consider it my raison d’être. Rare is the time when I do not feel compelled to bring some sort of needed correction to the attention of the waitperson. Just the other day, my favorite brewing company was listed as “New Belguim.” The young lady told me I was the first person to notice that particular boo-boo, or at least the first person to care enough to mention it. Does that make me a perfect fit for your organization or what? Of course it does! (Even though I think I heard the waitress call me an OCD asshole under her breath as she was walking away.)

By the way: What exactly does the New York Department of Correction (ha ha!) do? I assume you take responsibility for making certain that informational signage and communications throughout the Big Apple are accurate and, when they are not, you correct the situation and issue stern notices in the form of press releases and/or reprimands to the appropriate malefactors regarding proper spelling and proper grammatical construction. I imagine there’s plenty of need to talk about punctuation as well. If you let one wayward semicolon slip through the cracks, you never know what might follow; people will end up misusing that most perplexing form of punctuation time and time again. (Damned semicolon misuse recidivism!) There’s no stopping some miscreants, so it’s important to step in as early as possible. After all, incorrect placement of semi-colons is considered by many to be a gateway grammatical mistake, which can lead to more felonious syntactic transgressions. A stitch in time saves nine. Anyhow, I appreciate your time and, whenever you’re ready for someone of my skill level and dedication to step in and make a correction (or even more!), let me know. The world will assuredly be a safer place.

Entity Placing Ad: Progressive Publishing

Position: Writer to Cover U.S. Beef Cattle and Forage Production Industries

To Whom It May Concern: I read with interest your ad on the website. The timing was impeccable. Just the other day, while hiking through the national forest that dominates this part of the country, I found myself having to literally slalom my way through endless piles of cow pies. It was like walking through a minefield of fly-covered stink. Sad to report, this is not a rare occurrence where I live. For many years, I have wondered what I could do to help eradicate, or at least mitigate, the effects of the out-of-control beef cattle and forage production industries, which wield disproportionate political power in these parts. As I was yet again wiping cow caca off my boots, I entertained the notion of starting a bovine-based blog. Maybe I should start writing letters to the editor, I thought. Or stand on street corners, decrying the despoiling of my beloved West by those who, through their pro-cattle platforms, oppose perfectly reasonable laws like the Endangered Species Act. Then I saw your ad and I thought: This is a sign from On High! This is the means by which I can shout from the figurative mountaintop about how impactful the U.S. beef cattle and forage production industries are to our native ecosystems. My attached resume shows my experience. Let me show you and your readers my passion. Together, we can eradicate this four-legged plague from the face of the Earth. First, you need to hire me.

Reply: Mr. Fayhee: We are proud proponents of the U.S. beef cattle and forage production industries. Maybe you should learn to read.

Entity Placing Ad: Washington Publishers

Position: Defense Reporter

Hello: Consider this my application for your open position of defense reporter. Admittedly, my high school football experience was on the offensive end. I was an undersized and not particularly successful quarterback on a mediocre team whose only real claim to fame was that we almost assuredly smoked more pot than any of our opponents, as evidenced by the fact that, through the course of an entire season, every time we snapped the ball, it had to be on one, because, whenever we tried to go on two or — god forbid — three, some stoner tackle jumped offsides, or some tailback committed yet another illegal procedure penalty, unable apparently to count past, well, one.

I think my experience of getting repeatedly pummeled into the turf by crazed blitzing linebackers gives me a creative perspective not shared by more defensive-minded reporters. Because of the obvious deficiencies associated with my size and my inability to throw the ball more than 15 feet, combined with the buzz-based numeric illiteracy of my teammates, I had to be real creative on the play-calling front. That meant I had to be something of a student of defense. This, of course, was not exactly rocket science, since most of the teams we played had all of two different defensive configurations. Still, trying to determine how to get one of our stoned players through an 11-person fluid maze required a working knowledge of strategy, execution and real-time decision-making that will serve me well in the position you have advertised. You could play it safe by hiring a reporter who used to play safety or nose tackle. Or you can be bold and go for the interception by hiring someone with a very offensive attitude. That would be me.

Entity Placing Ad: American Bar Association

Position: Assistant Managing Editor

Skol, brothers and sisters! Look no further! You have found your man! Let me start by saying how impressed I am that the bars of America have finally overcome their geographic, cultural and operational differences to form themselves into a bonafide association. Only by organizing on a national level can retail purveyors of spirits confront the insanity now dominating the industry. How else can we fight the madness of MADD? How can we reverse legal trends that result in asinine laws that dictate how many beverages a customer is allowed to carry from the bar to the table? How can we address liability issues that rain down upon servers who rationally decide it’s a good business decision to share a shot or two with cash-bearing patrons?

I defy you to find an editor who has spent more time in bars than I have. I defy you find an editor who has given more thought to bar-related issues. I am a master of barroom storytelling. I have helped break up beaucoup bar fights, suffering several painful contusions and head lumps in the process. I have celebrated in bars and I have lamented in bars. I’ve seen a man in a wheelchair throw a cue ball at a guy who had just beaten him in a game of 8-ball. I’ve seen the hat get passed to raise money for a regular patron’s medical bills. If it has happened in a bar, I have likely rubbed intimate elbows with it.

Plus, look, I know what this position really is — it’s functionally the managing editor, because, if I can read between the lines, the current managing editor is likely often too falling-down drunk or too hung over to sit upright, much less perform his or her assigned duties. I completely understand, as I have been there. And, if you hire me, I’ll probably be there again, once your current managing editor is shipped off to rehab or is found guilty of some alcohol-related offense or passes away after a three-week bender.

Entity Placing Ad: Buffalo News

Position: Digital Engagement Editor

Hello there: I have long thought that the policy many newspapers have of printing engagement notices is, at the very least, strange. For one thing, engagement notices are almost always submitted by one of the vested parties, such as the mother of the soon-to-be bride, a source that can hardly be considered objective. Where is the other side of the story? Additionally, few if any papers edit these notices. Thus, they often come across as though they were penned by people — albeit of the often-effusive variety (I mean, who wouldn’t be effusive about the face that Billy Bob finally found someone desperate enough to marry him!) —  who ought not be allowed access to a keyboard without first going through a remedial grammar course.

Moreover, where is the editorial scrutiny? Where is the dispassionate eye that sits back and says, “Look, it’s obvious as hell that the only reason this Darlene lady has agreed to marry Dwayne is she got drunk one night and went and got herself knocked up yet again?”

Where’s the investigatory aspect of this vapid excuse for journalism? Where is the fact checking? Where is the mention of Merle’s meth-related arrest record? Where’s the follow-up? Where’s the story about the engagement getting called off because Clem got caught on camera face-planting a ten-dollar bill to a seamier reaches of a transvestite stripper’s G-string?

Where is the reporter picking up a phone to ask Madison what attracted her to a known schlub like Grayson in the first place?

Where’s the story about the annulment or the divorce, which an astute engagement editor could have seen coming a mile away?

Given the many, many oversights that would not pass journalistic muster at a high school paper in Hogsnout, Arkansas, I am heartened to see a publication in a major metropolitan area saying “enough is enough.” I would like to be a part of your groundbreaking digital engagement coverage. I am willing and able to investigate the seamier aspects of the engagement business. The unsavory sales practices of the jewelers peddling overpriced rings with poorly cut diamonds to young people who can barely afford pizza. The social pressure heaped upon young ladies during the bridesmaid selection process. The pre-nuptial counseling required by many churches before they will allow a wedding ceremony to take place upon their hypocritically hallowed grounds. Questions regarding the suitability of showing hard-core porn at bachelorette parties. And, for that matter, which should come first: The bachelorette party or the baby shower?

This is an untapped reportorial goldmine that requires a steady hand and cynical perspective. As someone who himself was once engaged, I can say without compunction that I am your man.

Entity Placing Ad: Juneau County Star Times

Position: Community Reporter

Dear Editor: I can only guess how many applications come across your desk from people claiming they have the intestinal fortitude to endure life in the Last Frontier. The darkness. The cold. The snow. Well, let me tell you, I have called home many a frosty locale. And, not only can I survive challenging climatic circumstances, but I can do so while retaining my journalistic wits. I can take accurate notes in a blizzard. I can formulate a catchy lead even as my nose hairs turn to icicles. I can interview Eskimos at 30 below. Add my experience — as outlined in the attached resume — to my desire to dwell in the land of the northern lights, and I believe you will come to the conclusion that I am the right man for the job.

P.S.: I am comfortable on a dogsled. And I have read much of Robert Service’s work. I mean, what literate person doesn’t consider “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to be a classic?

Response: Mr. Fayhee: Juneau County is actually in Wisconsin. While we have plenty of blizzards and plenty of opportunity for frozen nose hairs, we have no Eskimos. Cheeseheads, yes; Eskimos, no. And Robert Service wrote primarily about Canada, not Alaska. I believe you’re thinking of Jack London. Good luck in your quest to find a position in the Last Frontier.