News organizations: Here’s what your teams are trying to tell you about burnout

How leaders can #RethinkBurnout in journalism and create systems and organizational change

In a year dubbed the Great Resignation, many journalists and employees worldwide cite burnout as one reason for leaving their jobs. In some instances, they are leaving the field entirely. Burnout is a problem that costs organizations more than we can measure in lost energy due to exhaustion and lost talent. But, too often, we, as leaders, label stress as the individual’s problem and self-care as the solution.

At the 2021 Online News Association Conference (ONA21), we took a different approach to the problem and potential solutions by setting the premise that stress is individual, but burnout is systemic. So, self-care is necessary but not sufficient. Burnout is a systemic problem that requires systemic change.

The six of us, representing six prominent journalists organizations, facilitated a half-dozen conversations on the experience of burnout in media and how organizations can begin to address it systematically.

Our conversations acknowledged that many overlapping factors contribute to burnout. We focused on a handful, drawn from “Beyond Burned Out,” a Harvard Business Review article that sparked discussion inspired by ONA CEO Irving Washington.

Defining burnout

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed by the organization. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

The Problems

Here’s what we heard from people in the journalism community on the problems they frequently face:

  • Toxic behavior is still being tolerated and seen as normal in many newsrooms. At a time when women and journalists of color are constantly evaluating whether they  feel like they belong in their own newsrooms, the clearest signal that they do not is when journalists see colleagues who act in a toxic way get promoted and face little to no consequences for their actions.
  • ​​Newsroom managers still don’t give enough or any feedback, so staff (including middle managers) are left wondering why they aren’t getting the same opportunities as others.
    • This can show up individually as imposter syndrome: Do I have a hard time getting pitches approved, raises or promotions because I’m not good at my job, or is it because I’m a journalist of color?
    • Many newsrooms talk about promotions and opportunities in the framework of meritocracy — that  hard work equals success. But what happens when you work hard but don’t get opportunities, or your projects fall apart before they finish, because it seems like there are other forces at play?
  • Lack of support, especially for people who are the “only” and/or “first” (gender, race, ethnicity, identity, etc.) in their position. Almost all our group discussions talked about wanting more support or any support beyond the directive to “take vacations,” which felt performative, from their newsrooms. But also, as organizations diversify, being the “only” and/or “first”  in a position puts incredible pressure on the individual to deliver for and represent their entire community. Being a young journalist requires balancing the need to prove yourself or pay your dues while also wanting to be treated fairly; older workers also told us they feel the same.
  • Who gets promotions and opportunities is opaque, and therefore scary. There’s a lack of clarity about why advancement opportunities—including stories, projects, raises, and promotions—are given to some people (usually the same ones over and over) and not others. No one can seem to answer these questions consistently: What does it take to succeed here? What are the career paths and how can I get on one? Who is being rewarded and who decides? People also mentioned that learning and applying new skills doesn’t seem connected to attaining better pay, and that certain coverage areas are honored or rewarded while other beats are not, inherently demonstrating that someone else’s work is “more important” in the eyes of management.

These contributing factors leave many journalists feeling the need to overload and overextend their workloads in hopes of getting the recognition or work assignments that they deserve. But this only grows the individual stress and the systemic inequities that fuel it.

What journalism organizations can do to help mediate or prevent additional burnout

In our conversations, here’s what people in the journalism community said would help:

Be transparent about opportunities.

  • Share your reasoning and create opportunities to access information
    • List jobs internally so there’s equity in opportunity rather than surprise promotions for jobs others might have wanted and been qualified to fill
    • Explain raises and promotions (and the lack thereof)
    • Budgetary transparency is rare and can be particularly empowering
  • Create a sense of empathy; explain why hard choices have to be made, invite questions and comments and treat everyone respectfully

Be accountable as a leader.

  • Create a shared framework of accountability for priorities—what we do, and what we stop doing.
  • Provide a space at a specific time for leaders to listen to their staff—either one on one or in a small group—not a “staff meeting” meant for planning or updates.
  • Get input from employees during a planning process, not just share a plan or ask too late for inputs to be incorporated—e.g. for staff working remotely during the pandemic, conduct periodic surveys for when to go back to the office. Staff surveys are empowering when leaders use suggestions or explain why they can’t be incorporated. Make sure staff can share feedback without fearing backlash.
  • Mentorship and networking can create opportunities for a path forward and also create a supportive community that can lead to better retention. Helping staff find effective and thoughtful mentors and support networks make a huge difference.
  • Introduce a regular kudos system (or even office-wide awards) with multiple categories to recognize people doing all kinds of work, not just people who get bylines or national awards.
    • Create a value metric that honors marginalized folks in the newsroom who give specific cultural expertise on a subject rather than just expecting that labor with no compensation. This also applies to people with different career backgrounds before they entered the newsroom.
  • Establish accountability for managers to know the workloads of their staff and proactively help them prioritize.

Offer benefits that actually benefit us.

  • Create better compensation, time off, and benefit packages. Have regular pay increases and stop the pay disparities between men/women and BIPOC.
  • Improve personal leave policies. People shouldn’t have to have a child to get extended time off. Create cultures where being offline, resting or taking space and time off is OK.
  • Pay for self-care services like therapy, massages, chiropractors, yoga, acupuncture, etc.

Your turn

We are energized to continue this conversation on systemic changes and want to hear your stories to inform our collective work to battle burnout in journalism. Tell us what’s working in your organization using the hashtag #RethinkBurnout.

Written by:

  • Irving Washington, Executive Director, Online News Association
  • Julie Moos, Executive Director, National Press Club Journalism Institute
  • Sisi Wei, Co-Executive Director, OpenNews
  • Erika Owens, Co-Executive Director, OpenNews
  • Amy Kovac-Ashley, Vice President and Senior Director, American Press Institute 
  • Ja’Nel Johnson, Western Region Manager, Solutions Journalism Network
  • Fergus Bell, Founder & CEO, Fathm

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