Don't think of cover letters as a way to gently put a foot in the door. Instead, think of them as a way to scream your name from the back of the crowd at the Super Bowl. It should be forceful enough to convey your best selling points before you run out of air and the editor runs out of patience.
I've posted a sample cover letter on the PJ Glossary site. It earned several job offers at nice newspapers, so it's generally successful.
Since I'm the only person who fits the description, it's pointless to copy and paste this cover letter. Instead, below is a point-by-point breakdown of the letter to customize it to each PJ's level of experience.
The header section of a cover letter primarily makes sure the package gets to the right person. It also allows for a reply and sets an informal deadline.
The return address is a standard introductory block of information. It says who the PJ is, where s/he is located and how to contact her/him. Because I include my online information in my resume, I don't duplicate the information here.
If the job is already filled, this is all the information the editor really needs.
The address is accurate and addressed to a specific person. Be careful with the spellings of names and the publication. Some publication names deliberately deviate from common spellings.
If using a template, double check the pub name against the contact name. It would be entirely too embarrassing to mail a resume package to one publication while the contact name belongs to their direct competition. Ouch.
It's good to double check the mailing address posted in a job opening against the address the PJ already gathered. Typos can happen anywhere - even in a job posting. Look at the PO Box and Zip code for inverted numbers.
If the posting stated the attention line should be for a particularly-titled person, use traditional (and sometimes non-traditional) methods to get the correctly spelled name of the person who currently is in the particular position. It immediately shows the recipient a PJ's investigative skills and resourcefulness.
For dated job postings, the date lets the editor know the deadline was met for the application. It allows the package to clear the first hurdle.
Although the date isn't particularly needed on unsolicited applications, it subtly reminds editors how long they've sat on a resume.
Although I think the word "Dear" in front of a name is archaic at best and disingenuous at worst, this is an old business with many old, formal traditions. Unfortunately, the word "Dear" is one of those traditions. It's probably best to include it at least for the next few years.
Again, the resume package should not be sent to "Whomever it concerns." Use the $60k education and know exactly whom it concerns and use the name.
As Eminem eloquently raptures in "Lose Yourself,"
"You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow,
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo."
Each paragraph, sentence and word in the cover letter must be bulletproof to a trained editor of words. This is the only chance for PJs to ask for a job and explain why they're better than the rest of the applicants.
Since most PJs are humble folks, a cover letter is difficult to write because most PJs don't want to appear brash or arrogant. Unfortunately, aggressive PJs get the job while gentle PJs allow it to happen.
Resume packages represent a substantial outlay of cash. Don't waste the money or let others trample dreams by being anything other than the top candidate and letting the deciding editor know this fact.
This is a blunt explanation of the resume package. It lets the addressee know why this expensive package now sits on a desk.
The first sentence states the PJ wants a specific job. The second sentence explains the PJs strongest selling point(s).
Some PJs also include a third sentence to explain where they saw the job posted, but it tends to weaken the opening message.
This paragraph should strongly answer job requirements. It reads like "me, me, me," but it's a necessary evil to lead to the final conclusion: "I can do all this for your readers."
The first sentence is clerical skills. The second sentence addresses stress. The third sentence clarifies adaptability. The fourth sentence states cooperation as well as healthy competition. The last sentence brings the paragraph home.
This paragraph explains special skills of immediate use to the newspaper. Fluency in foreign languages and extended overseas work would be prominently displayed here.
It also closes the cover letter and motivates the editor to look at the portfolio by foreshadowing specialized visual techniques or abilities.
In my example, the first sentence explains technical competencies. The second sentence explains a high level of professionalism over time and experience level.
In retrospect, I could include a few more skills, but (hopefully) the editor looks at my images and gives me a shout.
This section is again a traditional nicety. It merely contains appreciation for consideration a signature and decryption of the scrawl.
Enough for now,