France, Work Emails, and Who’s On Call in Your Newsroom?

The French are forcing us to think about that pesky work-life balance thing again.  And bless them for it.

You may have seen this article from the Guardian making the rounds on social media recently.  The initial headline suggested France had made it illegal to check work email after 6pm.  Turns out, that’s not true – some companies and labor unions had just inked an agreement requiring about 200,000 contract workers not to work more than 13 hours a day, with work-related emails included in the definition of “work.”  

I’m not reporting a story about this agreement, so I’m not delving into the details, but the very idea of legally restricted work email time captured many of our multi-tasking, smartphone-addicted, workaholic imaginations … or what’s left of them.  

“My wife would love this, but it would decimate my newsroom.”

One of my public radio colleagues posted that comment on Facebook, along with a link to the original Guardian article.  That’s so true of many newsrooms.  

Journalism has always been a profession of long and unpredictable hours, but now that technology allows most of us to be “on” all the time, the intrusion of work into our so-called free time seems even more difficult to avoid.

The Unspoken On-Call

When I started working in journalism, I didn’t even have a cell phone.  (I also never cut tape on a reel-to-reel, for anyone who’s trying to guess my age.)  My employer, Feature Story News, had a few company cell phones that got passed around depending on who was covering what, and when a truly huge story broke outside normal hours, people would call around to see if they were needed, or just show up at the office.  But we also had a 24-hour shift schedule.  I did my time on the 5am-1pm shift – it wasn’t the happiest time in my life, but I also knew that after 1pm, barring one of those truly huge breaking stories, nobody expected me to be anywhere near work.  Of course reporters worked outside their regular hours, but we generally planned ahead for coverage of evening or weekend events.

The technological revolutions of the past decade or so — smartphones in particular — have enabled some news organizations to abandon the shift idea and slide into a kind of unspoken on-call expectation. It’s now possible to know what’s going on at any time and from any location, so it’s much easier for managers to just assume reporters will be keeping an ear to the ground (or an eye to their phones) in off hours, even if it’s not a stated requirement of their job.  I admit I’ve been guilty of this as a news manager, despite my strong personal belief in the importance of setting boundaries beyond which work cannot intrude.  

Of course, reporters’ tendencies towards information-addiction often enables, though by no means excuses, their managers’ assumptions.  Many journalists have an almost compulsive desire to know what’s happening, everywhere and all the time.  I’m not one of them, which has caused no small amount of guilt and angst over the years — I really don’t care what’s going on in the news when I’m at the beach on a Saturday, so does that mean I’m not a “real” journalist?  But I digress.  I’ve worked with many journalists who have that addiction, and smartphones feed it.  That’s part of why I find it so intriguing that those French companies seem to be trying to require employees to limit their plugged-in time.  

The Up-front On Call

It should go without saying that news outlets that want to cover the news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week need to hire people to work nights and weekends.  Most of them do.  The problem comes for news organization that don’t feel the need to cover every story every day but do want to cover the “big stories,” even if they happen during off hours.  

At my last shop, Colorado Public Radio, we finally instituted a weekend on-call system.  I say finally because it came in response to a string of weekend breaking stories that bit us on the butt (pardon my French).  Reporters were getting justifiably annoyed with us manager types constantly calling them in, and all of us were getting dangerously close to burnout.  

We set up a rotation with one reporter and one editor on call each weekend, with written requirements for each: reporters had to stay within an hour’s drive of the station, keep their gear and their phones with them, and be ready to go if called; editors had to be “plugged in” and check the news throughout the day to be on the lookout for big stories.  

There was still one major question: What exactly is a “big story”?

Big Enough?

When you open the door to covering events during off-hours, you can find yourself on a slippery slope.  The bar for activating the on-call folks could start out very high (cataclysmic natural disaster, mass shooting, high-level political assassination — and sadly, all of these happened during my time in Colorado) … but it could easily slip to the next tier (major political rally, protest with multiple arrests, serious but non-fatal highway accident).  

In my view, there’s a case for both of those tiers being “on-call worthy.”  If the bar starts to slip any further, however, I think you’re starting to move into the realm of regular off-hours coverage, and you need to start thinking about hiring people to work those hours on a regular basis.

En Garde

Ok, that was a cheesy attempt to get some French into this post and pay homage to the story that prompted my thinking about this.  But I do think it’s important that we be on our guard not to let our newsrooms become so reliant on a combination of technology and journalistic news-junkie tendencies that we fail to adequately staff our operations.  Burnout is always a looming demon in our field, and the more we can stave it off, the better our work will be.

In closing, I’ll be on vacation next week, and I’m going to try like hell not to look at any work-related emails, check my blog stats, or use my phone as anything besides a camera.  Fact is, I have developed some smartphone addictions of my own, so it won’t be easy.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.


France, Work Emails, and Who’s On Call in Your Newsroom?

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