New overtime rules that go into effect next month are forcing newsrooms to do some much-needed soul-searching.
(I can speak with authority only about my own field, but I know these conversations are going on in many organizations, particularly nonprofits, which also pay relatively low salaries to passionate people who usually aren’t in it for the money.)
There’s been a lot of consternation about this change, from news managers and employees alike. There’s no doubt implementation will be painful at first, but if the next administration doesn’t reverse the new rules, I think they could begin to correct our society’s longstanding and extremely detrimental work-life IMbalance.
Here are a few positive effects I foresee, at least for the public media world:
- Fair pay
The law requires overtime be paid to employees earning less than $47,476 a year. That’s not exactly a whopping salary, but it’s a lot more than many, many public radio journalists make. Some stations are choosing to simply bring all of their journalists up to that level, and I think that’s great.
- Greater understanding of what journalists do
In the months leading up to the change, many stations have asked their employees to track their hours, in an effort to gauge how much overtime they might be on the hook for when the rules take effect. I bet there were a lot of eyes popping when those logs came back – especially if there was any breaking news during the tracking period. It’s good that GMs, program directors, and even news directors have had to become aware of just how long it takes to do the things journalists are expected to do … and of the implications of adding more and more to a reporter’s plate.
- More realistic expectations … and a prioritization imperative
Some stations are actually telling their journalists to work less! They’re asking employees not to work more than 40 hours a week except in truly extenuating circumstances. It is absolutely crucial for managers to follow that directive with an adjustment in output and productivity expectations. This will transform the principle of “we can’t do it all” from a nice slogan into a hard fact. Newsrooms will be forced to focus on what’s truly important and decide what they will NOT do to make that focus possible.
- Time to observe and to think
After the election, I wrote about how hard it is for journalists to find the time and energy to simply listen and observe, to be in their communities as people, not just as reporters. The election showed us just how important that is. If journalists aren’t spending 50-60 hours a week churning out “content,” perhaps they’ll have more time and energy to absorb the life that’s going on around them.
- Burnout prevention … and better overall health
Journalists are passionate about what they do. Most will go a hundred extra miles to do their job well. As a news manager, I’ve had to rein in enthusiastic reporters much more often than I’ve had to light fires under lackadaisical ones. But journalists are also extremely prone to burnout. I know many talented people who’ve left the field in their 40s because they were tired of the grind. I’ve seen many more who’ve made themselves sick – physically and/or mentally – in an effort to meet unrealistic expectations (whether those expectations were internal or external). In some ways, these new rules may help save some people from themselves and their own good intentions.
Once these rules have been in place for awhile, I believe we’ll look at them like we now look at the five-day work week. And hopefully, we’ll be a more balanced, relaxed, healthy, creative society because of it.