The University of South Carolina’s student news organization has returned to work after a week-long hiatus that they took in an effort to prioritize mental health and self-care.
We reached out to Rita Naidu — one of the managing editors — to learn more about why they needed a break, the community’s response and what other journalists can learn about self-care during stressful times. As the break was ending, Naidu responded.
Can you elaborate on why you collectively made the decision to take a week off?
Naidu: Our staff has worked tirelessly since the school year began. In January, we had ambitions for longform print stories with dynamic designs and a complete overhaul of our print style. But when the university took a financial hit because of the pandemic in March, so did our budget. We lost our weekly print. This forced us, amid the chaos of breaking news in the spring, to move everything digital — not just the management of the over 150-person staff at the time, but our workflow and production processes.
I want to reiterate here that our staff is all students, and The Daily Gamecock, at the end of the day, is just a student organization. A club. Our full staff currently sits at 284 members. Just 25 of these members are senior leadership who receive a small stipend for their contributions. Everyone else on our staff works on a completely volunteer basis.
So, from our university extending spring break to graduation being canceled to covering faculty and student perceptions, our paper did not take a break. When many students went home to be with family after campus closed, several members of our staff stayed in Columbia — off-campus, of course — and continued to report out of the city. The summer was no different. We secured a special 60-page print edition to welcome students back to campus in August, but that only increased the workload on our staff, who were also working part-time jobs and paid internships and reporting breaking and timely news about USC over the summer.
When fall came, it became evident our staff was burning out. The 60-page print turned out beautifully, but at the cost of many sleepless nights, emotional breakdowns, and late homework assignments. Our training period that immediately followed spanned three weeks. And then there was the constant barrage of breaking news. I’ve worked on the newspaper for almost four years, and I’ve been managing editor for a year and a half of that time. We’ve never had as much breaking news as we do now. We hit our breaking point when a USC student — one of our peers, a member of our community and a close friend to some on our staff — was found dead.
We had already tried giving specific staff members breaks. They always came back more stressed because of everything they missed. Some were reluctant to step back, even when told it was OK, because of the burden it would place on others. Since we’re all students, we don’t operate on beats. We have class. We have part-time jobs, some of us two, and other student organizations we commit our time to. It was impossible to create a space for someone to leave without the workload ending up on someone else’s plate. So, we arrived at our decision. A dark week. And when we told our staff, the instant relief that washed over the room got rid of any doubts we had.
What will your staff do for self-care during this break? What about when returning to the newsroom?
Naidu: At the most basic level, self-care for our staff will be getting several full nights of sleep, eating regular meals, and catching up on schoolwork. But self-care doesn’t look the same across the board. For some, it will be putting time towards working out and home-cooked meals. For others, it’s dedicating time to relationships they’ve neglected all semester. We all joked the biggest relief would be an escape from Slack notifications, which seem to come in every minute of every day.
Right after our decision to go dark, I also actually had a University of Missouri j-school alum reach out and offer to lead free virtual yoga classes for our staff. We’ve been wanting to plan more active staff bonding activities, so the yoga [was] perfect. We [also had] a field day [over the] weekend for everyone to have some pizza, play outdoor games and give them space to connect outside of the newsroom. [As] we return, we intend to continue these activities, and we also have a few alum who are speaking to our staff about their own mental health struggles in upcoming meetings, which can create an open dialogue about mental health moving forward.
What are some other ways you have promoted wellness among staff members?
Naidu: Our management team has weekly 1-on-1 meetings with each senior staff member, and they are encouraged to do the same with the sections they manage. The purpose of these is not just to discuss work, but ask where they are in terms of stress, let them get anything off their chest, and connect as friends. We also have a non-work GroupMe and Snapchat where, as funny as it sounds, talking about The Daily Gamecock is strictly off-limits, and it’s a pretty fun space where we talk about presidential debates or share photos of our pets.
How did you secure the time off with the administration?
Naidu: The Daily Gamecock is editorially independent, and all content and operations decisions are made by the student leaders, so we did not have to “secure time off with the administration.” The editor-in-chief, other managing editor, creative director and I made the decision in a meeting with our adviser, and we then informed the director of student media of our plan. We were never told it was something we couldn’t do, nor was there pushback.
What will happen to your paid student staff during this time off? Will they still get paid?
Naidu: Our senior staff is paid on a stipend basis, so each of our paid members makes anywhere from $600 to $1,500 a semester which is split into four payments distributed monthly. The 25 staff members who receive stipends will receive them as normal even with this break. The Daily Gamecock is not a self-sustainable part-time job, nor is it intended to be — all work is done on a volunteer basis, and those in leadership positions receive the stipend as a bonus.
What is your advice for other journalists who are struggling to keep up with a heavy workload?
Naidu: I think the biggest thing to do is reflect on your own mental health and acknowledge your limits. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell yourself to step away, so share your anxieties, stressors and frustrations with your peers, however small, and lend them the same listening ear. Reach out to those you admire in your field, find mentors you trust, and ask them for tips in managing specific problems you run into.
Find time each day to spend with and for yourself, whether it’s a morning jog, yoga, a bath or an episode of your favorite show. For your workload, stay organized. I use Google Calendar religiously, and I keep track of articles and assignments with a digital planner.
Lastly, therapy isn’t just for those who have mental illness. I encourage everyone to try out some form of counseling, whether it’s group or 1-on-1. It might end up helping you more than you think.
How has the response been so far to the hiatus?
Naidu: When we were in the process of discussing and writing the editorial as a staff, we anticipated a lot of the criticism we received. But we never expected the editorial to be elevated to a national audience the way it has been. The support is overwhelming, and far outweighs the hate. Various national outlets have contacted us for interviews, and professors, journalists and students from across the U.S. have reached out just to send personal notes of encouragement and support. We truly appreciate all the kind messages and support on social media, and it’s made this hiatus even more beneficial in terms of boosting morale. Even the criticism makes us feel like our work has real purpose, even if we’re just students — after all, if we did bad work, there’d be nothing to miss, right?