The lone editor at a small newsroom owned by a large corporation was overwhelmed, once again. A few big stories had consumed his entire staff of nine reporters — most of whom were newly hired and inexperienced. As he tried furiously to edit, coach and organize, he also was fielding phone calls, emails and Slack messages from company higher-ups. From afar, they were giving advice, asking questions, requesting changes.
What they weren’t doing, however, is what this manager needed: helping to edit those stories and guide those green reporters. Ensuring that he didn’t work 16 hours every day that week. Finding ways to reduce his anxiety and stress.
Why wasn’t that help available? Because too often in journalism, that’s not how jobs are designed and it’s not how the workflow is constructed.
It’s time to take a look at newsroom jobs that are causing stress to the point of departure, burnout and collapse.
Poor “work design” is a problem that can plague any business, and it comes with a real cost: employees fleeing their jobs due to burnout and unsustainable working conditions.
The health risks of stress on the job are significant. A recent global study showed that long work hours contribute to heart attack, stroke and higher rates of injury and illness. In July, only about half of the managers in a national survey described their mental state as “healthy.”
The business risks also are troubling. The cost of replacing one employee can exceed twice that employee’s annual salary. If you have a 100-person newsroom with an average salary of $50,000, replacement costs could rise as high as $2.6 million per year, based on today’s national turnover rate of about 57 percent, according to Gallup estimates.
But the concept of redesigning jobs to reduce burnout and turnover is not one that journalism has embraced in the past. As the media industry deals with the residual hellishness of 2020 and many newsrooms continue to shrink, could this be the year to reconsider the reflexive design of media jobs born in the 19th century?
The real-life example above (small details were changed to protect the editor) is a warning sign for a disturbing legacy of the past year: the departure of burned-out editors and managers in media. Some have been high-profile, especially among journalists of color; others were under the radar at small but essential local newsrooms across the country. Also problematic are the managers who aren’t in a financial position to quit their jobs and are battling extreme burnout in silence.
Reporters on the front lines of protests and pandemic coverage, working day and night while also worrying about their job stability and pay cuts, are under almost constant stress. They absolutely deserve the attention and assistance of their bosses. Appropriately, much has been written and said about how managers must lead their staff through turmoil.
But stress flows downhill, and stressed-out managers can’t adequately guide a staff or preach a balanced life if they can’t attain it themselves. That’s a difficult task, when, as one newsroom leader told me, the top priority of some managers over the past year has been “making sure no one dies.”
Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says the loss of leadership in newsrooms is “a real press freedom issue.” He’s also concerned about the loss of women and journalists of color — “mentors and leaders, people who are the bridge builders.”
Because of today’s work design, media managers in the middle or upper levels of the organizational chart find themselves deeper in the stress trenches.
In November 2020, I left my job as managing editor at a local media organization after many years in high-stress newsrooms, though I tried to follow all the stress-management advice. My smart watch told me to breathe. I hit the boxing bag in my garage regularly. I took long walks through the woods. I Skyped with my sister’s personal trainer. I listened to my “Momz Chillz” playlist, created by one of my kids.
All good things, but mostly they just consumed time and money I didn’t have or they didn’t make a real difference. And my walks through the woods resulted in Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which I didn’t reveal because I didn’t want to add yet another worry for colleagues struggling through a pandemic of worries.
“It’s no one’s fault,” I tell people who are surprised by my departure. “It’s just the job.”
But it’s time to take a look at “the job” that’s causing stress to the point of departure, burnout and collapse. This should be alarming to the industry — especially an industry trying to recruit a more diverse corps of journalists to lead notoriously homogenous local newsrooms. Particularly in the past year of racial reckoning and a pandemic that devastated communities of color, some of the industry’s few non-white managers have experienced burnout that drove them to quit their overwhelming jobs.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a Black woman who until recently was editorial director of The Texas Tribune, quit her job after “spending too much time on the floor.” That’s where she’d retreat after particularly bad days. As reporter Jaden Edison wrote for Poynter:
“People like Ishmael don’t get days off. The expectations from self, audiences, colleagues and superiors are high. The empathy is low. They’re always in situations of performance. They aren’t provided the same room for error as white people in their shoes.
“There were a lot of workdays Ishmael finished with nothing left in the tank. She would lie down on the floor to recover from hundreds of microdecisions.”
Because of today’s work design, media managers in the middle or upper levels of the organizational chart find themselves deeper in the stress trenches. “Middle managers are expected to execute care strategies for staff, but often no one is looking out for those sandwiched between the staff and upper management,” says Dr. Desiree Hill, a University of Central Oklahoma professor and former local television executive who studies trauma and media.
That unhealthy stress sandwich results when managers are pressured by demands from above as well as demands from people they supervise. In background interviews for this report, I talked with several managers who became emotional while describing their efforts to care for their employees and meet the demands of the business — while burying their own stress and trauma.
As other managers mentioned, Kim Bui, a director at The Arizona Republic, says she’s “constantly questioning whether I’m doing enough for my staff.”
“I don’t want a pity party,” says Bui, but editors “could use a little empathy.”
And it’s hard to make the argument that news managers are always paid to deal with this suffocating stress. The median annual wage for newspaper editors in 2020 was about $50,000 (about $2,000 less than in 2012, by the way.) And while salary studies are limited for journalists of color, they indicate that women, particularly Black women, make far less than their male counterparts.
Even among higher-paid managers, there’s no guarantee money will make them stick around to endure the stress — and research supports that, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s graduate business school. “When they’re exhausted, stressed and depressed, giving people more money is not going to solve the problem whatsoever,” he says.
Support systems for those managers have disintegrated as newsroom positions have been slashed. These days, there often are no assistant or deputy editors, or even administrative assistants.
Journalism has never been quick to adopt practices from the business world, and when it does happen, it can be half-baked and clumsy. (An editor in one of my former newsrooms had people doing “trust falls” from the top of their desks, about two years after everyone else stopped talking about trust falls.) But some of the concepts of corporate work design are worth examining for their potential in today’s newsroom, from redistributing work to reconsidering work hours.
In this report, we’ll look briefly at the origins of work design, the tradition of stress in journalism jobs, and — most importantly — how the principles of work design could be used in media organizations as a way to reduce burnout.
We hope you’ll take time to read and consider the potential of work design in your newsroom, and let us know about your challenges, successes, questions and comments.
Next chapter: The long history of stress in journalism