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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.