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Sept. 4, 2019, 12:55 p.m.
Business Models

The journalism industry needs to invest in childcare, especially for conferences

Arranging childcare for work-related travel can be an expensive nightmare. There is a better way.

I’ve attended dozens of different publishing and journalism conferences — and had to skip dozens more due to childcare conflicts. SRCCON remains the only journalism-ish conference I’ve ever been to that offered childcare, a feature that I was delighted (and stunned) to see. Here, in a piece originally published on OpenNews’s Source, journalists and mothers Emily Goligoski and Marisa Mazria Katz argue that it’s time for broader change; I hope it’s coming soon to a conference near you (and me). —Laura Hazard Owen

Both of us are working parents whose jobs demand a good deal of travel, much of which includes conferences and workshops to present our work to peers. Most of these invitations, particularly those in far-flung places, elicit a quick thrill. It doesn’t take long, however, until a cascade of questions emerges: Can my partner rearrange their schedule to watch our child? If that isn’t an option, do we enlist the help of aging out-of-town family members to buy plane tickets and spend a week alone with their grandchild(ren)? And, when all those options are exhausted, do we dip into our bank accounts and splurge on exorbitant overnight childcare?

Our parents are in good health, and neither of us is responsible for managing the daily affairs of aging family members. This isn’t the case for many of our colleagues and friends. Still, as parents living in cities without wider families to lean on, caregiving and coordinating care for small children between work trips is a topic we’re confronting monthly, if not more often. The pressure to be part of the conference circuit is immense; we often fear our absence can lead to a kind of professional obsolescence, where, over time, we grow more isolated from critical conversations that are key to our professional development and crucial to our field.

“How are you able to do your job?”

We met through our jobs. The second time we saw each other, we broke off from discussing work to discover we each had toddlers, born one day apart. The revelation prompted each of us to ask the other, essentially, “How are you able to do your job?”

What resulted was a conversation that uncovered a mutual struggle — one where our professional situations mandated either our spouses being tasked with long stretches of single parenting, or, if they weren’t available, sheepishly asking conference organizers if childcare, either on-site or nearby, would be an option. In the three years since we became parents, we could count on one hand the number of times that conference-provided childcare was an option. (It’s actually more like half of one hand). Often the conference organizers we’ve asked have been flabbergasted by the question. The lack of support in most instances has meant we have been forced to pass on a handful of significant opportunities, reluctantly eschewing a chance to expand our circle of colleagues, promote our work, and more.

We’re not alone in this. While reporting for organizations including Bloomberg and Spiegel Online, respectively, Jason Koutsoukis and his wife Ulrike Putz hired full-time help for their two young daughters. Now an editor at Nikkei Asian Review, Koutsoukis said the arrangement meant that both he and Ulrike could be away simultaneously for two to three days for assignments or conferences. They now live in Tokyo without such care, which has made travel significantly more complicated. “Now only one of us can be on the road at the time,” Koutsoukis said. Putz now freelance writes and edits for several publications from home, in part to be more available to their children, and Koutsoukis works in a role that requires less travel.

Yes, this is partially a problem that money can solve. But hired care, particularly for night and weekend hours, isn’t an option for most working journalist-parents today. In our experience, such care in New York City can start at $200 a night for a single child, on top of a typical day rate of around $180. (Full-time care, in addition to being financially out of reach for many, can also be fraught: as Megan K. Stack, a former foreign correspondent for the LA Times, wrote recently in the New Yorker, “Domestic labor tends to be poorly regulated, rife with exploitation, and thorned with uneasy ethical entanglements.”)

The situation shows no sign of improving, with the ongoing trends of stagnating journalists’ salaries and near-constant layoffs. The unspoken expectation that another parent or family member is involved and can pick up the slack is outdated. The economic expectations (“If you really care about this, you’ll bring your kid[s] and a nanny with you”) punish almost everyone except the wealthy.

“This quickly becomes a double compromise,” explained David Kaufman, a father of two and former editor for Quartz now with News Corp. “It’s uncomfortable to ask for help, and you are compromised for not being able to help your company and attend. That in itself is problematic.”

Where peers gather and learn, parents should be there

What’s more, in this moment of industry free fall — when journalists are pummeled by daily threats from hostile political leaders, fake news, and a slate of harmful technologies — journalism conferences, which are in today’s landscape hosting talks including “Staying with the trouble: Doing good work in terrible times” or “Journalists under fire,” have become essential convenings to collectively re-imagine the future of the field.

Without more efforts to include parents, particularly those without the means to cover childcare, “another perspective will be lost,” explained journalist Mary Cuddehe. “Parenthood changes the way you see the world. Shouldn’t that perspective be represented at conferences shaping the future of our profession?”

The feeling that parents (particularly ones with young children) are being sidelined in this all-hands-on-deck moment is inescapable. At a time when we’re seeing more publicly visible accommodations like breastfeeding stations, how can those tasked with generating important conversations around the future of the field, make room for parents who want to show up undistracted and participate? What kinds of solutions can help navigate the kind of inclusivity we feel this moment in journalism demands?

The dearth of ideas around shifting the landscape of support prompted us to talk to working parents and allies in the field to find out who was actively investing in parents’ attendance and what is working. And, most importantly, how we might replicate successful models more often.

It’s time to invest in caregiving

Our industry has more than a few long-held tropes — perhaps none more powerful than the one that assumes hard-hitting work is carried out by ambitious, stop-at-nothing solo practitioners ping-ponging the globe and living out of suitcases. These cliched notions ignore the teams of people who enable the day-to-day production of journalism: the parents, siblings, caregivers, and allies to families who do the critical work of beat, local, national, and even international reporting. And it does a disservice to ambitious journalists on their way up, many of whom increasingly find the answers to “can I keep working in this industry if I become a parent?” to be a series of “no’s.”

Investments in caregiving will enable a more diverse set of practitioners to engage in critical issues—encouraging a set of often marginalized voices to take their rightful place at the table. If only people of means can attend, it limits the substantive change that might come from the conversations that happen.

Why? “The idea of infrastructural support needs to be shifted,” said Charlotte Burns, journalist and executive editor of In Other Words, the podcasts and newsletters produced by Art Agency, Partners. “There is not enough thought given, on any level, to how change could happen structurally. We are not talking seriously about what it would require.”

One solution: On-site childcare

One solution with promise is employers and conference organizers offering or subsidizing on-site care for children to join a parent’s work-related travel. We’re seeing an uptick in conferences and event hosts offering quality on-site caregiving, including the Women’s Convention and journalism conferences in the US and abroad. “See you and your kids in Hamburg!” say the organizers of the upcoming Global Investigative Journalism Network conference, which is offering free childcare for speakers and attendees for the first time this September. The cost to GIJN is around €600 per 8-hour day, for two experienced care workers and toys.

Other industries, from medical services to business publishing, prioritize childcare by regularly enlisting professional caregiving organizations. When factoring in the costs of two days of certified caregivers, travel for caregivers, space rental, logistics planning, food, and insurance, conference organizers we spoke to have, on average, found costs hover around the $5,000 mark. (These are fixed costs that don’t decrease even if families that have indicated interest don’t show up.) Hosts may cover them by seeking specific care-related sponsorships, opting out of elaborate coffee service or other perks, or asking families to help pay for some of the care. In doing so, they are demonstrating that this can be done with some creativity and the help of external services.

At the Python Software Foundation, conference childcare is subsidized for the PyCon gathering. Executive director Ewa Jodlowska said that thorough screening for a childcare provider is critical and results have been positive. “We typically get between 15 to 20 children in daycare,” said Jodlowska, who anticipates more interest (and more regular interest) as their gatherings grow. “Our attendees have even gotten to know the childcare providers, and the childcare providers look forward to seeing the regular children that attend every year.”

This option has led to business for a new set of firms that specialize in providing age-appropriate activities and on-site care at meetings. There are agencies like Sitters Studio that market their services in offering multiple sitters for events in major American cities. Big Time Kidcare promotes offering “fun for children while their parents are enjoying a ‘kid-free’ occasion” (like a corporate event or meeting). KiddieCorp, which OpenNews has hired for SRCCON events, has a dizzying list of conference hashtags on its Twitter account.

At the Allied Media Conference, programming for children is carefully planned, contextually appropriate, and surprising: everything we would expect in well-planned conference sessions. Rather than a perk or nice-to-have, hosting this type of Kids Practice Space represents domain expertise/strengths that people who gather people already excel at.

Employers can commit to childcare, too

Employers have a role to play, especially if conference organizers can’t provide care, by subsidizing or paying for care during employees’ conference participation. Importantly, such an option can help teammates in the office and at home too: people who are burdened when their professional and personal partners are away for work. According to a recent California Sunday Magazine story, U.S. parents spend an average of nearly $10,000 per child on daycare annually: the highest that figure has ever been. It’s shortsighted to expect parents to pay more out of pocket for overnight and weekend care during conferences, particularly when companies will reap benefits from the knowledge-sharing these gatherings provide. Their accommodations for families are an investment in their own growth.

Childcare is hard enough on a day-to-day basis, let alone when a parent is traveling. The parents we talked to described the daily discipline that working in this industry with a family requires. Heather Haddon, a restaurant and food reporter at the Wall Street Journal with a three-year-old son, described weekday mornings that regularly include “trying to race to daycare, waiting for story edits and being dialed into earnings calls.”

One employee benefit her family has enjoyed: daycare allowances for child sickness as well as assignment- and meeting-related travel. She has used News Corp-subsidized Bright Horizons care for a babysitter to come to her home when she needed to be away or in the office. It offers $600+ a year for back-up childcare. “We’ve used it for center-based care when our normal daycare is closed or when I’ve traveled for work or personally, while bringing my family, as there are offices across the country,” Haddon said.

At many journalism organizations, childcare and parental leave benefits are brand new or still a work in progress. We see that such benefits, along with extended parental leave, will help with recruitment and retention of skilled staff.

Changing childcare so that we can change journalism

Some things about working in journalism, like breaking news and weekend assignments, cannot change. But childcare is an area that can and should. As our industry faces unprecedented precarity, all of us should be at the table — advancing the conversation about systemic issues, alongside our colleagues. By investing in childcare, conference organizers and employers have the power to help us get there.

This piece originally appeared on OpenNews’ Source. Emily Goligoski is the incoming senior director of audience research at The Atlantic. She previously served as research director for NYU’s Membership Puzzle Project. Marisa Mazria Katz is a journalist and editorial director for Eyebeam, where she oversees the Center for the Future of Journalism.

Photo courtesy of OpenNews.

POSTED     Sept. 4, 2019, 12:55 p.m.
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