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Dec. 4, 2018, 10:46 a.m.

Alert! Alert! The information demands on the modern digital journalist are overwhelming and leading to burnout

“We have a problem with the ways traditional managers view technology in this new environment.”

Journalists are overwhelmed by the information they process in their working day and want to explore solutions with third-party providers and management to make it more manageable. That’s the finding of a nine-month project involving discussions across the industry and a revealing in-depth survey.

The research is part of the European Journalism Center’s News Impact Network, which held its latest summit yesterday in Berlin. The project’s aim is to find ways to make journalism more sustainable in an ever-changing media landscape. As part of my research, I’ve been writing this year about how journalists are wilting under the weight of all the emails, alerts, and notifications they get — and what we as an industry can do to change the narrative.

The strength of feeling from journalists has taken me aback. Some have suggested I should speak to mental health experts. Sally Pook, a Fleet Street journalist turned psychotherapist, told me that journalists in modern newsrooms were succumbing to “anxiety and exhaustion” because of the need to monitor the “seemingly endless sources of potential sources” available to them.

My survey’s primary findings:

  • Just over half of journalists described themselves as “overwhelmed” by information during their working day and wanting to “explore solutions” to make it more manageable. More than 40 percent said they were overwhelmed but managing to make it work. Only about 7 percent said their daily information flows were “well under control.”
  • Nearly three in four said they’d like news organizations to begin a conversation with third-party companies on the subject of improving journalists’ information flows.

I asked respondents a series of open-ended questions —here’s a selection of their (anonymized) answers:

Are you overwhelmed with information during your journalist working day?

It is impossible to keep on top of everything as it pours into the newsroom — and even harder when you are out and about (where you should be as a journalist) — glued to your phone (like you shouldn’t be) on rapidly dying batteries not engaging with the world properly.

How do you filter out noise at work on desktop/phone?

I’ve deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Snap from my phone. I’ve deactivated notifications from virtually everything, though I do have to keep them on for breaking news for work reasons. I never really got into Twitter, thank goodness, but do spend hours checking my LinkedIn feed. At least, it can pass for work ;) Most important thing is I’ve told everyone on my team that Slack or email were not means of immediate communication and I wouldn’t always be checking, especially nights and weekends. If they need me, they know they can call…and they never do, proof that we are not nearly as indispensable as we’d like to believe.

How do you use AI/tech to help you?

I have yet to find an AI or tech tool that is actually helpful and low maintenance, as opposed to another thing to set up, keep updated, remember to check and get endless notifications about. I organize myself mostly with pen and paper.

What listening tools — like TweetDeck, for example — do you find absolutely essential?

Yes, I use TweetDeck but it’s a poor way to catch up on important stuff. More so I use notifications on Twitter to alert me to the musings of good people I care about. I’m also using many more slower means of listening like newsletters.

What listening tools can you live without?

When I am trying to write a longer piece, I sometimes close down Outlook completely so I don’t get visual alerts to new mails.

If you could wish for one thing to be invented to help you filter out noise, what would that be?

A genuinely smart, AI assistant, like Her (but not one that disconnects me from reality). Not like Alexa, who doesn’t understand my accent half the time and can’t handle contextual conversation.”

I received 65 responses to my six-minute survey. (The irony was not lost on me that I was asking people to take time from their busy working days to do this!) The responses were of high quality and deeply revealing.

My wider discussions with friends across the industry have taught me something: It’s too easy to point fingers at third parties and technology. Management — either through willful ignorance or a strong desire to react to the changing face of digital journalism — are simply asking journalists to stay connected far too much.

As a result, journalists are coming up with their own hacks to smooth their workflow. George Downs, a former colleague of mine at The Wall Street Journal, has introduced a filter system to his Gmail.

  • Pre-filter. “I have a complex (and growing) set of rules on my inbox that means that 99.9 percent of emails go automatically to their folders. If it’s an email address to a group email, it goes straight to that folder. The clever exception? The rule doesn’t apply if my specific email address is added to the email, or if I’m mentioned by name. That means that anything that applies directly to me, comes directly to me. The rest is noise.”
  • Everything has a home. “This applies to files on my computer too. I feel you should be able to, when asked, tell someone exactly where a certain file/email is, as though you were telling them to way to your front door. So once I get a couple of emails on a subject, they get grouped into a folder, that folder will live under ‘projects’ or ‘contacts’ or something. Doesn’t matter how few or many emails live in that one folder — whether it be 2 or 2,000 — but they’ll all relate to the same project, so they’re easily found.”
  • Search, don’t delete. “We have pretty much infinite space now. So that means I never, ever, have to delete an email. They can just get filed away. It also means that I can just search through. That doesn’t mean that I don’t move emails around. I know some people who just leave everything in their inbox and search through it (I couldn’t live like that) but I still never delete anything.”
  • Inbox Zero. “Once every two weeks, or as often as possible if I’m busy, I take an hour to get my inbox back to zero, or near zero. Everything in there is stuff I’m dealing with. I do it often, as if I don’t, it suddenly becomes a Herculean task that I’ll never do. Helps keep me focused.”

One wonderful by-product of this project would be a resource where hacks for journalists could be distilled in one place.

Mattia Peretti, who is running the News Impact Network program, says he has created “safe spaces” to maintain some semblance of sanity. His phone is only wifi-enabled — meaning he can’t be reached by message or notification if he’s on 4G. “I try to push that idea on to myself: If it is really important, someone will reach me by phone. I can find wifi such as walking into a restaurant if I really need to.”

He has also deleted all “unnecessary” apps on his phone. This includes Gmail — though he’s kept WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for personal use. “I can’t check emails when I am not on my laptop,” he adds.

Alex Entwistle, a fellow cohort member on NIN, has turned off social media messages during certain office hours, introduced meetings at the end of the working day, and encouraged his team to express their feelings through a musical mood board. “This mood board could look like management rubbish,” he says with a chuckle. “But it is important: You can’t expect people to be switched on 24/7 because all the evidence is there. People are less effective. You’re not getting the most out of your staff if you’re asking them to work out-of-hours all the time.”

Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia for editorial at Thomson Reuters, has turned off notifications on email, tries to keep her phone on silent, and culled her Twitter list down to a “reading list rather than a constant stream.”

No. 1 on her wish list would be “something to filter out the duplication…When something happens and every single news source bombards us with the same alerts…[I would] club all those together and put a velocity measure on and I’d be happy!”

Being overwhelmed is not a problem particular to journalism, of course. But the ability to both stay on top of breaking news and produce content of high quality is being sorely tested.

I am a journalist who has gone on a hunch. But there are now many academics out there who are researching this problem, including Avery Holton and Diana Bossio. They argue that journalists, suffering from social media fatigue, are struggling to balance their professional and personal identities.

Lucy Kueng, a Google Digital News Senior Fellow at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism,, is investigating workplace burnout, from its triggers and symptoms to implications and responses. (She gave a fantastic talk at BBC Broadcasting House on this subject for the Digital Editors Network.)

Francois Nel, director of journalism leadership at the University of Central Lancashire, says this is a “massive issue” the industry has failed to address.

“Employers haven’t provided us in the main with the tools,” he says. “Our content management systems are set up with an old paradigm. We have bolt-on solutions which take in this mass information. We bolt a TweetDeck dashboard or a LinkedIn dashboard on. This is not uniform, coherent or systematic. This depends on a mate [in the office] teaching you or learning on the hoof.”

But he also firmly believes management at news orgs needs to creatively engage: “We have a problem with the ways traditional managers view technology in this new environment. This is why we have this huge stress on the people who generate content. You are expected to do more of it. The numbers of what people are expected to produce are staggering. How many pieces of content are expected to be professionally communicated? No wonder people are burning out.”

These words from Molly de Aguiar, managing director of the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, perhaps best sum up where our industry is at.

“Clearly, there are many things converging to overwhelm journalists right now — the 24/7 news cycle, the amplification/urgency that social media adds to that, the intense pressures to churn out stories that will generate traffic and generate ad revenue, the attempt to discredit journalism by calling it ‘fake news.’ Most journalists don’t have the authority to actually do much about how their newsroom operates.”

It is not too dramatic to say that many outlets we regard as big won’t be around in 10 years’ time. She feels the newsrooms that do succeed “are the ones who understand that the one-way broadcast model is not sustainable” and who invest in building loyal relationships with their audiences. “It’s not easy, though — it’s time and labor-intensive and they won’t be able to build trust overnight,” she says. “There has to be a really fundamental shift in the way newsrooms think about the communities they serve, which means really re-ordering their priorities about what stories they do and don’t write [and] how they allocate their resources.”

Why should we care about workplace burnout? It will make our daily jobs easier and we will able to produce better journalism. It’s as simple as that. Then we can move on to other pressing challenges for our industry. I hope this project in a small way kick-starts a wider discussion. We need to talk.

John Crowley is a digital editor and consultant who has worked in management positions at The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the International Business Times.

Illustration based on a painting by Pavel Nekoranec used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2018, 10:46 a.m.
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