Journalists need REAL vacations!

From my unplugged vacation in Maui 2011
From my unplugged vacation in Maui 2013

Judith’s website

You’re at the airport waiting for your flight. Everyone is sitting semi-comfortably in the gate area, munching on fast food and staring at smart phones. The agent announces boarding will begin “soon,” and suddenly everyone gets up and forms a line. Your group probably won’t board for half an hour, but you just can’t bring yourself to stay seated, right?

What on earth does this have to do with vacations? Bear with me.

You’re working away in your newsroom. Your editor is on vacation at the beach with her family; she texts you about something she saw on Twitter that she wants you to follow up on. Your fellow reporter is on vacation visiting his grandparents; he forwards you an email press release with his idea for an angle. Two weeks later, you’re on vacation with your significant other. You promised yourself you’d unplug … but you feel like you really should check your work email and maybe Twitter and maybe just a peak at Reddit. After all, your colleagues did when they were on vacation, and just like at the airport, you fear what might happen if you don’t follow their lead.

Handing back part of your paycheck

As I see it, working on vacation is no less crazy than handing back part of your paycheck each month. You earned that vacation time just like you earned your pay – why on earth would you give any of it back?

America’s working vacation epidemic is by no means restricted to journalists, but we do tend to especially susceptible.

Poynter recently published an interesting article by Melody Kramer, formerly of NPR, titled “When journalists take a vacation, do they actually take a break?”

Melody put that question to almost 30 media professionals and published their responses verbatim. For all but a handful, the answer was a resounding “no.” Most reported at least checking email and social media on vacation – one said it’s “a bit of a necessary evil when you’re a journalist.”

The underlying assumption is, news is always happening, the social media conversation about news is relentless, so journalists can never unplug, lest they or their news organizations miss something and fall into the abyss of obscurity and irrelevancy.

The flip side of that assumption, of course, is that anyone who does unplug is leaving his colleagues in the lurch and couldn’t possibly be a serious journalist.

Future of journalism at stake

This always-on culture is taking a toll.

A recent University of Kansas study on journalism and burnout surveyed more than 1600 journalists. More than half of the men and two thirds of the women said they either intended to leave journalism or were uncertain about their futures.

Wonder why it’s hard to find good news directors and newsroom leaders?  Seasoned journalists are burning out and finding something else to do.

Needless to say, working vacations are not solely to blame for all or even most burnout cases, but I would argue that they contribute to many of them. Vacation may be one of the last healthy escape valves for the tension that builds up in people who are paid (usually not very well) to be skeptical, to work long hours, and to spend a lot of their time reading, writing, and talking about the most disturbing elements of society.

This isn’t about lazy people who want to walk on the beach while their poor colleagues toil away back in the newsroom. This is about the future of our profession. And we need to get a handle on it, STAT.

Change the Culture

Culture change isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Case in point – after a string of really horrible events that included Sandy Hook, Aurora, and the Boston Marathon bombing, public media began a genuine conversation about the mental health effects of covering traumatic events. I think the needle really has moved, at least slightly, away from the previously prevailing culture of stoicism and charging ahead without acknowledging or treating the emotional fallout.

How do we now change our profession’s always-on culture in the interest of preventing burnout and keeping seasoned journalists in the field?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Lead by example

Change starts at the top, with newsroom leaders and managers. If a manager can’t unplug on vacation, it’s hard for employees to feel they can.

But managers often fear their newsrooms will fall apart if they disengage when they go away. They genuinely feel that unplugging would be irresponsible, maybe even negligent. They don’t trust anyone to do things as well as they would, and they don’t want to leave their ships un-helmed.

There are successful managers, however, who hire and/or train competent backups and who feel comfortable delegating duties. Over time, a manager like that can develop the self-confidence to realize that if her backups perform well in her absence, it reflects well on her, rather than diminishing her own value to the organization, as some may fear.

2. Invest in backup systems and/or adjust expectations

News organizations have come to rely on the journalistic tendency to stay plugged in as a substitute for robust backup systems and deep benches. This feeds into the guilt journalists feel about disengaging – the sense that they’re leaving their colleagues in the lurch. And it needs to stop.

Healthy newsrooms have two options for how to handle absences:

  • Make sure every essential position has a designated backup, through cross-training, a budget  for freelancers and temporary hires, and full-time deputy positions.
  • Adjust expectations during absences. If you have two reporters, one of them goes on vacation, and you have no backup, maybe you reduce the frequency or length of your newscasts, for instance.

3. Change our individual mindsets and habits

Perhaps the wisest comment in Melody Kramer’s Poynter article came from Tory Starr, Director of Social Media for National Programming at WGBH:

I’ve realized that the 24/7 lifestyle is just as self-imposed as it is an expectation by others.

We’re all responsible for this working vacation epidemic, and we all need to take responsibility for it.

A reporter friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that we wouldn’t be hearing from him for a few weeks because he was going on vacation and disconnecting from work and social media.

One of his friends commented, “Hope nothing of import happens while you’re gone.”

“Doesn’t matter if it does,” he responded.

Imagine if we all adopted that mindset. I don’t think the world would fall apart, nor would our jobs disappear. Stories would happen, our colleagues and our fill-ins would cover the important ones, and we would come back and carry on. We’d probably carry on a lot longer, in fact.

That reporter friend of mine has had a long, happy career in journalism, and he shows no signs of burnout. Some of you might know his name if I mentioned it, but I can’t ask him for permission … because I have no way to reach him.

He’s on vacation.

For REAL.

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Journalists need REAL vacations!

4 thoughts on “Journalists need REAL vacations!

  1. As usual, you hit the nail hard on its head! I’m reading this while supposedly on vacation, but really just working from a remote location! I think we can all inch away from the 24/7 mindset and still be effective workers in highly responsive newsrooms. Good tips for doing so!

  2. Glad someone is saying it. One of the reasons I left TV news is I felt my life was not my own anymore!

    When I left one of my stations I actually had a reporter tell me that my two weeks notice was not enough, that I should have given a month or more. She didn’t consider that if I was asked to leave I wouldn’t have even received 2 weeks notice.

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