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Jan. 29, 2024, 11:35 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalists are burned out. Some newsrooms are fighting back.

Keeping reporters healthy over the long term often requires both systemic and behavioral changes, and getting buy-in often isn’t easy.

On March 17, 2020 — one day after North Carolina public schools shut down in the early stages of COVID-19 — Rupen Fofaria got a call from his boss. Fofaria, then a reporter at the nonprofit newsroom EducationNC, had spent the past year covering equity and differences within North Carolina’s education system. Now, as schools pivoted to remote learning, inequities jumped to the forefront of education coverage while Fofaria, the only staffer with children at the time, scrambled to figure out how he would juggle his job and two housebound kids. But then Mebane Rash called.

Rash is EducationNC’s CEO and editor-in-chief. Founded in 2015 with a human-centered design model, the organization offers its small team  a broad range of support programs aimed at promoting mental health, including paid company-wide breaks during the summer and winter holiday season, up to 30 days of paid leave employees can use for their own physical or mental wellness or that of their families, and a paid sabbatical, lasting at least one month, that employees receive every seven years. (Other sabbaticals are provided as needed.)

Fofaria hadn’t been at EducationNC for seven years, but Rash offered him a three-month paid sabbatical to help him adjust to the pandemic and care for his family. It was a lifeline. So was the wellness stipend available to all employees, which Fofaria used to buy things like running shoes and restaurant takeout on nights when he couldn’t cook. He credits these and other mental health policies as key reasons why he was still working for EducationNC three years later (before leaving for a position in education policy last October).

“I’ve worked in other newsrooms. I’ve worked as a lawyer, and I’ve never seen an organization successfully prioritize people, their employees, the way that EducationNC does,” he says. “There’s a lot of intention behind [these policies].”

The burnout crisis within media outlets has been extensively documented, with young workers, and those from marginalized groups hit disproportionately hard. Driven by stagnating wages, increasing workloads, job instability, and insufficient support, workplace burnout, recent research shows, affects 70% of local U.S. journalists, and pushes many media workers out of the sector entirely. One survey of over 300 public media employees found that nearly half left their jobs in 2021 and 2022, with 60% citing burnout as their primary reason for quitting.

While some organizations have beefed up mental health benefits in recent years, solving burnout still falls largely on stressed-out employees. But that’s not the case everywhere. A handful of small media outlets are taking a more systemic approach to preventing burnout by adopting work models that reduce workloads and prioritize time outside the office. These models increase employee retention, health, morale, and diversity, newsroom leaders say, but how much anti-burnout protocols can scale to larger organizations remains unclear.

“It’s uncomfortable to go against the grain of the culture of your institution, but it’s absolutely imperative if your goal is to sustain the work,” says Samantha Ragland, vice president of journalism programs for the American Press Institute and a facilitator who leads workshops on newsroom burnout and leadership. Ragland adds that keeping reporters healthy over the long term often requires both systemic and behavioral changes, and getting buy-in often isn’t easy. “You’re not just challenging the [news] industry, but you’re challenging the core values of people who say, ‘I’m most valuable when I work hard.'”

Workload pressures can be especially draining for reporters who cover beats involving trauma. That’s how Tamar Sarai burned out. Sarai is a features reporter who covers the criminal legal system at Prism, a remote nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color that focuses on the impacts of injustice. When COVID-19 swept through prisons in 2020, causing widespread sickness, deaths, and prison uprisings, Sarai’s beat went into overdrive.

“The weight of the stories was really heavy and [working] remote was a very isolating experience,” she says. “For me, burnout manifested as moving slower, not being able to put together my stories as efficiently…increasingly becoming disconnected from the work.”

Sarai wasn’t alone. Less than a year after Prism started publishing stories, the pandemic drove the entire staff to burnout, says Ashton Lattimore, the publication’s editor-in-chief. So the team started rethinking their workflow. In summer of 2020, they began experimenting with reduced and staggered schedules — roughly half of employees worked Monday through Thursday; the other half Tuesday through Friday.

“What we found is that if everyone’s not off on the same day, Slack is still on, things are still going on even if you’re out of the office,” Lattimore says. Work “has a way of kind of creeping up.”

That fall, the team pivoted to half-day Fridays and in 2022, they ran a 12-week pilot program to test how a 32-hour, four-day workweek for full-time staff would impact employees. During the pilot, reporters produced the same volume of stories, but the newsroom effectively shut down on Fridays. Stories still published and editors stayed on call for emergency corrections or production matters, but daily duties, like meetings and all-staff interoffice communications, only happened earlier in the week. In cases where breaking news required Friday work, reporters could take time off later.

Despite reducing hours, Prism met or exceeded editorial production, audience growth, and fundraising goals. The staff unanimously voted to make the four-day week permanent alongside Prism’s other burnout prevention benefits, which include four weeks paid vacation and four paid weeks of wellness leave annually, newsroom shutdowns an additional two weeks yearly, and a month-long, partially paid sabbatical employees can access every three years.

“There can be a conception that if you have these days off, if you have all these programs, that you would be less productive or you’d be not as focused,” Sarai says. “I really do think it’s the opposite. I feel more personally rejuvenated and more personally recharged to do great work myself when I am working and knowing that I have time built in to do that resetting.”

Getting reset time is tough for many media workers. Paid time off varies wildly between jobs — freelancers, for example, often don’t have any PTO — and when reporters do get vacation time, many say they feel pressure to stay plugged into the news cycle. Even if burnout becomes severe, employees still might not get an extended break. The World Health Organization lists burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases, but it isn’t considered a medical condition and, on its own, doesn’t qualify employees for medical leave.

Burnout “can be just devastating, not only to an individual but to a newsroom,” especially if the causes are institutional, says Scott Reinardy, a University of Kansas researcher who has studied newsroom burnout for over 20 years. “Turnover is expensive. Hiring good people and losing good people, that’s harmful to everything you do in a newsroom.”

Reinardy adds that one major reason burnout is such a difficult problem for media outlets is that combatting it requires a two-pronged approach: organizations not only need to create institution-wide policies or production models that center reasonable workloads and working hours, fair distribution of work, and support and recognition systems for employees, but there also needs to be acknowledgment that individuals have a responsibility to take steps to manage stressors and that personalized solutions can go a long way to help.

“You can’t just put in a universal policy and say that’s going to apply to everybody,” he says.

Molly Greene, strategy and legal director for The Appeal, a nonprofit outlet that covers the harms of the criminal legal system, credits strong inter-organization communication as one key to crafting her team’s burnout prevention policies.

The Appeal operates on a four-day, 32-hour workweek; shuts down for one week in August and two weeks at the end of the year; offers flexible scheduling; has designated meeting-free days; and a flexible time off policy that requires leadership and employees to take off at least three paid weeks yearly.

To maintain steady production, reporters use Slack “pretty religiously,” Greene says, to indicate when they’re working, when deliverables will be ready, and how to plan for times when they’re off. Weekly all-team meetings are held virtually, and editorial calendars and large projects are accessible through Airtable, a collaborative platform. These policies sprang from myriad surveys and conversations with The Appeal’s staff, who also granted them final approval, and are reviewed annually and sometimes adjusted. As the publication grows and evolves, employee support systems likely will too, she says.

“We all feel empowered because we’re all part of making these decisions,” Greene says, later adding that even with these policies in place, burnout can still happen for a wide variety of personal or industry-related reasons.

Leaders at The Appeal, Prism, and EducationNC acknowledge that there are salient production and revenue differences between their organizations and large legacy media publications. All three are nonprofit newsrooms that rely on grant and donation funding. They also have smaller staffs and production volumes by comparison — Prism, for example, publishes eight articles per week on average; The New York Times publishes about 200 every day. Despite these differences, leaders contend that many anti-burnout protocols likely could work within a wide variety of media organizations.

“I’m not sure that scale or revenue models are the limiting factor here,” Prism’s Lattimore says. “The four-day workweek would probably be difficult to implement in a newsroom that operates on a 24/7 news cycle or otherwise focuses on producing up-to-the-minute breaking news. Apart from newsrooms like that, it would probably be feasible in many places.”

Experts say legacy newsrooms are beginning to take burnout seriously. Benefits like remote work and flexible hours have gained significant traction within bigger newsrooms. Several publications, large and small, have increased financial support for mental health services — for example, Hearst Newspapers, which owns 24 daily papers and 52 weeklies nationwide, hired a therapist who provides on-site support at The San Francisco Chronicle, sees other Hearst employees in Texas and California remotely, and helps make referrals for employees in other states. But large-scale shifts to company-wide shutdowns or shorter workweeks likely won’t be on the horizon any time soon.

Even without sweeping anti-burnout initiatives, publications can still take steps to create better work environments, says Erica Beshears Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina.

“Newsrooms, really no matter what size [they] are, need to be thinking about ways [they] can redesign [their] workflow,” she says. That includes identifying workflow bottlenecks, cross-training employees in order to minimize tasks that only a few people can perform, and setting clear expectations on Slack and interoffice communication off-hours and how to handle breaking news and projects that require after hours or weekend work. It also means separating essential projects and processes from everything else, and carefully evaluating what projects or tasks can be dropped when new ones arise. “Maybe we can’t do absolutely everything, so let’s do the most important things,” she says.

Michelle Faust Raghavan agrees. A former healthcare policy reporter, Raghavan is now an independent editor and founder of Claridad Media, where she works with newsrooms to create strategies and trainings that prevent burnout and other newsroom problems and help build relationships between newsrooms and communities. She says that cultivating open communication and a respectful environment can help, but those factors can’t effectively relieve burnout on their own or undo burnout that already exists.

“You can have an amazing boss, but if you’re working incredibly long hours, not getting enough sleep, not taking bathroom breaks — and I give those examples because I’ve done that and I know plenty of other journalists who have — you cannot be a healthy, happy human,” she says.

Christina Couch is a freelance science and tech journalist and the assistant director of professional development for the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. She previously wrote for Nieman Lab about journalism and suicide rates.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2024, 11:35 a.m.
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