Journalism managers are burned out. Is it time for a work redesign?
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
The long history of stress in journalism
Worker stress in the journalism industry has existed for so many decades that journalists sometimes seem resigned to a life of impending burnout. Back in 2004, University of Central Florida professor Fred Fedler researched the history of stress in journalism, saying it was important so that “beginners who understand the [stress] problem at the start of their careers are less likely to be surprised and disillusioned by it.”
He cited a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review article that noted “nearly 40 percent of the nation’s editors reported job-related health problems ranging from insomnia to alcoholism and hypertension.” And in a 1938 book called “Newspaperman,” James Keely wrote that editors typically kept a bottle of whiskey on their desk to deal with daily stress.
Stanley Walker, a New York Herald Tribune editor in the early 20th century, maintained that “some journalists were burned out and useless at [age] twenty-five” and said “nervous breakdowns” were common in the industry. Fedler wrote that a city editor in New York “went mad on the eve of the Spanish-American War” and that a managing editor in Chicago “collapsed” after managing coverage of the deadly Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903.
In her 1994 research paper, Otterbein College journalism researcher Betsy B. Cook found that copy editors’ “burnout scores” were higher than those of reporters “and also well above the norms for other professions.”
In the news business, there’s a historical stigma attached to admitting you need a break, a kind of old news culture that says, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Other than a few mentions of alcohol, those who’ve studied media and stress typically haven’t offered many solutions or suggestions. Meanwhile, recent studies including those from the Tow Center show a steady increase in journalists’ workload and anxiety about job security.
In the news business, there’s a historical stigma attached to admitting you need a break, says the Dart Center’s Bruce Shapiro — “a kind of old news culture that says, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’” And it doesn’t help, says University of Central Oklahoma professor Desiree Hill, that journalists typically have been trained to be distant, including being distant from their own feelings.
“We don’t think about our own stress because the work can’t be about us,” says Hill, who began studying media trauma and stress after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Managers have the added responsibility of putting their staff’s needs before their own, sometimes leading to “secondary traumatic stress” and feelings of guilt and regret “when the journalists they manage suffer from traumatic events.”
Sarah Nagem, a journalist who spent years in traditional newsrooms before becoming editor of the nonprofit Border Belt Independent in North Carolina this year, says she’s concerned that “we are not grooming the next generation of managers.”
“They know what they want, and this is not it,” says Nagem. “They want their lives.”
For managers, rethinking and redesigning newsroom work can help reverse the historic stress-based newsroom structure.
Next chapter: What is work design?
What is work design?
“An organization that goes through massive transitions faces the question of what are the things that we want to hold on to? And what are the things that we want to let go of? Where do we see an opportunity to bring in something different and better? … We ask ourselves, what must be rebuilt, and what must we build anew?” — psychotherapist Esther Perel, “Breaking News Has Broken Us”
The core purpose of work design (also called job design) is pretty simple: Identify what employees need and what the organization needs, and then remove the obstacles that get in their way.
Looking deep into the elemental structure of newsroom jobs and responsibilities — and investigating how it may contribute to untenable stress and the exodus of talent — is a bit more complex. That’s especially true in today’s news organizations, which typically still follow the DNA of decades-old job design.
From an economic perspective, manager overload is a prime target of work design. It’s crucial that managers handle their own burnout risk so they can support and retain their staff.
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says companies “take current job designs and work arrangements for granted, thereby foregoing opportunities to seriously reduce workplace stress.”
Most organizations, he says, “consider their work environments and habits necessary and never question what they are doing or how they are doing it.”
But the way work happens — the way it’s designed — has changed regularly throughout the history of some industries. Jobs were redesigned in the 19th century, for instance, to improve safety for laborers like railroad workers. Those job changes expanded when OSHA was launched in 1971.
Generally, those moves were aimed at employees’ physical wellbeing (and, yes, the companies’ exposure to lawsuits and bad PR). But it’s taken years for industries to commonly recognize the importance of mental wellbeing. Corporations like Microsoft Japan have experimented with four-day work weeks as a way to reduce stress, or initiatives such as limiting all meetings to 30 minutes and no more than five people.
The business case for work redesign is clear: “Talented people quit when they become overwhelmed by work or resentful of unrealistic demands, voting with their feet after being expected to do too much for too long,” wrote work design experts Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen in MIT Sloan Management Review. “When they exit, their employers lose expertise, knowledge, and sometimes valuable customer relationships.”
From an economic perspective, manager overload is a prime target of work design. The University of Central Oklahoma’s Desiree Hill says it’s crucial that managers handle their own burnout risk so they can support and retain their staff. Numerous studies show that what’s called “perceived organizational support” — the feeling by employees that their companies are well-managed and well-designed — results in “less turnover, more productivity,” says Hill.
The next section of this report will suggest work redesigns specifically for media organizations looking to reduce stress, burnout and attrition among managers. In general, here are the characteristics of a job designed to decrease burnout in managers, according to the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance:
- Managers have high levels of autonomy and control.
- Duties and responsibilities are varied, with fair distribution of high-value and mundane tasks.
- Difficult tasks that can cause stress or trauma are shared among managers, not concentrated in one job or department.
- Schedules have flexibility and layers of back-up plans.
- The needs of those served by the job — employees, stakeholders, customers — are represented in the design, allowing managers to interact directly with those people they’re serving.
- The design should allow for growth and learning. Among other benefits, this can ensure that managers can support and “backfill” their colleagues.
- Whatever the task list for a particular job, managers strive to make it shorter. They identify outdated, low-value work and eliminate it. Productivity will be maintained; it will simply be applied to more high-value work. (You can find examples of “stop doing” ideas — including a Maine newsroom’s decision to stop writing live stories from nighttime local government meetings — in this August 2021 article from the American Press Institute.)
Next chapter: 7 ways to use work design in your newsroom
7 ways to use work design in your newsroom
Can work design be applied in newsrooms? Don’t bother making the argument that the media industry is “different.” The experts disagree with you.
“If you’ve basically said ‘I can’t do anything differently because we’re different,’” said Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, “you have defined your problem as unsolvable…and that whatever problem has presented itself is going to persist. I don’t accept that.”
Christina Maslach, a researcher who co-created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, says knowing about organizational stress and then doing nothing about it “borders on the unethical,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review with colleague Michael Leiter.
“We should all consider new models of healthy work environments, including rethinking the hours and place of work as well as how our jobs get done,” they write. “We need to take into account not just what causes burnout and what makes work harder for people but also what better place we want to get to and how we want to redesign organizations.
“It’s going to involve remaking workplaces in new, innovative ways.”
From redistributing work to reconsidering work hours, work design has plenty of potential applications for the news business. Here are some design challenges to consider for reducing stress and burnout in your news organization. We’d like to hear how you might use — or have already tried — reprogramming managers’ jobs for a healthier staff.
Design challenge #1: Equalize the workload.
In any organization, there are people who don’t do enough, those who only look like they’re doing a lot, and others who do the bulk of the work. “Overload is a pernicious problem that is usually caused by organizational demands, but employers can address it by making reasonable and feasible changes to how work is done,” say Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen in MIT Sloan Management Review.
You’ve probably seen this in every office you’ve worked in: Some managers — too often women — are targeted as people “with capacity.” Those are the people who are given more work, including “office housework,” because they’re known to get it done on time and correctly.
Kelsey Ryan, founder and publisher of the Kansas City Beacon and the Wichita Beacon, knows what that’s like and tries to avoid it in her newsrooms. “I was always the kid who did all the work on the project and everyone else got the A,” says Ryan.
“One reasonable job per person” should be the goal, says Bryce Covert, a journalist who writes about work and families, not the equivalent of two jobs for one manager and half for another.
While unfair work distribution may happen organically and without evil intentions, it can end with burnout and resentment. And it camouflages the development potential and the training needs of managers who could take on more work.
Studies suggest that around 10% of employees are “low productivity” — obviously a substantial impediment to good work design. Honest conversations and a clear-eyed look at day-to-day duties will likely expose ways to redistribute workload.
Because some tasks are tailored to an individual manager’s abilities, you might hesitate to reassign work away from a particular person in your organization who has significant skills in that work. But Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer suggests taking a closer look at training others in that skill.
“In general, it’s hard to design anything for a single individual. If I said I wanted to design some medical instrument for just your body, it would not be efficient,” Pfeffer said. “One of the advantages of life is that you can learn from experience and you can learn from other people.”
The Beacon news organizations use the work management platform Airtable to organize projects and workload, says Ryan. Besides keeping the newsrooms “hyperorganized,” Ryan says, the system helps her to balance and equalize managers’ workloads — including her own.
At Axios, a uniform writing style makes it easier to distribute work, says Executive Editor Sara Kehaulani Goo. “I can ask any editor to fill in because stories are written in a way that is supposed to be very user-friendly,” she says, with structured story components. While that solution might not be desirable for all content in all newsrooms, a standard style could be used on all newsletters, for example.
Design challenge #2: Eliminate teams.
Traditional newsrooms were dragged kicking and screaming into the team or “pod” design in the mid-90s. It wasn’t universally popular among managers. (One conference workshop held at the time was titled, “If I had wanted to be a team leader I would have majored in sports.”) But many newsrooms are still organized in old-style teams, despite significant changes in media organizations over the past two decades.
In today’s newsroom, anchoring an editor to one team is often inefficient because it can keep the editor from being available precisely when and where they’re needed. It can also create a backlog for a single editor and require a far longer workday.
Consider whether all of your teams really make sense, by today’s standards and staffing levels. Teams were typically meant to be grouped by topic and led by an editor with some subject-matter expertise. This may have sounded sensible when newsrooms had, for example, a half-dozen education reporters. But now, a deep bench for any subject matter, along with a resident expert editor, are increasingly rare in small and midsize news organizations. Today’s teams often have morphed into a hodgepodge of beats with little consideration given to workflow and schedules.
Anchoring an editor to one team is often inefficient because it can keep the editor from being available when and where they’re needed. It can also create a backlog.
During the past year or so, some newsrooms created “pandemic teams” and “protest teams” and assigned managers to them. We now know the impact on journalists who consistently cover intense and deadly topics, and that includes editors who edit those stories and guide those reporters throughout the day. This is where secondary stress syndrome becomes a real possibility. The team structure inhibits the sharing of those intense editing tasks. Eliminating teams could help dilute the trauma load, distributing stressful work among several editors.
Breaking down the team barrier also exposes reporters to a variety of managers. We know that all editors have their own strengths and weaknesses, and reporters can benefit from the skills and knowledge of multiple editors if given the opportunity to work with them.
Assigning a reporter to a team with one primary editor “might stifle the reporters’ experiences and … also underutilize other editors,” said Erin Perry, who worked in a legacy team-based newsroom before becoming managing editor at Outlier this year.
At The Athletic, sports news coverage spans several time zones, which requires consistent sharing of editing duties, notes Tyler Batiste, a manager editor for The Athletic. The company culture is clear that “you should not be in front of your computer for 12 hours a day,” he says. That also means writers need to work with a variety of editors, which “hopefully helps to mold a more well-rounded reporter because they’re learning different skill sets and areas of expertise.”
Kim Bui, director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic, suggests creating a short-term team as needed — for instance, to cover a growing housing shortage problem — and assigning a reporter with editing aspirations as its leader.
Like many nonprofit newsrooms, The Beacon staffers don’t organize into traditional teams. When reporters have stories ready for an editor, they post a link in the newsroom Slack channel, where an available editor picks it up. “I think this could happen in larger newsrooms as well,” says Kelsey Ryan, who worked in legacy newsrooms before launching the Beacon sites.
Some reporters might miss the support they feel by being a member of a team, but consider this alternative: If you have a physical newsroom, arrange seating so that reporters can support each other, not necessarily in subject matter but by skill and experience. Reporters helping reporters behind the scenes is a tradition in many newsrooms, so why not support it openly? Untethering from a loosely organized team can relieve some of the burden on editors by encouraging more staff autonomy, self-direction and effective peer-to-peer learning.
It’s important to note that eliminating teams doesn’t mean eliminating personal contact or collaboration. Collaboration can still happen through discreet projects that necessitate forming a focused, short-term team. And at Axios, an automated weekly Slack survey helps managers keep up with personal staff concerns. Executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo gets an alert if there are problems. “I’m checking in with that person immediately. When I can’t put eyes on people physically that’s actually really valuable,” she says.
Design challenge #3: Give people more autonomy.
As mentioned earlier, redistributing autonomy and control is a key ingredient of work design — and in reducing burnout. Managers who are given more decision-making authority get a feeling of control that helps eliminate stress. A study of companies that had been downsized showed a decrease in stress for people who were “given authority to make decisions about how and when they did the extra work required of them.”
Distributing the decision-making also can reduce the perceived need for constant meetings: planning meetings, editors’ meetings, team meetings, meetings about meetings, and so on. Obviously, communication is key in newsrooms, particularly when some staffers are working remotely. Allowing managers to decide how and when to communicate can also reduce stress from what’s known as “filtered communication.” That’s the type of communication that happens in large Zoom meetings, for instance, where the information source can be unclear and where it’s difficult to ask for details.
The tricky question is, of course, figuring out which decisions can be handed off for autonomous decision-making. Here are some ideas:
- At the Virginia Mercury, editor Robert Zullo made the decision to hold only one news meeting per week. And he’s opted not to write the traditional “From the Editor” column each week as some of his colleagues do at other States Newsrooms publications. His company has “left a lot of room for people to figure things out and figure out what works for them,” said Zullo, who spent years in traditional legacy newsrooms before joining the Virginia Mercury.
- At the Beacon newsrooms, publisher Kelsey Ryan allowed the staff to decide on the frequency of news meetings. (They’re twice a week, and under an hour.) As in other newsrooms, story budgets are kept up-to-date, eliminating the need for more meetings.
- At Outlier, hiring a newsletter writer with specific expertise in his subject meant other editors could give him “a lot of autonomy,” says managing editor Erin Perry, alleviating some of the editors’ workload. “He just knows more than we do, and we accept that.”
- “I actually took this job because I felt like my boss was the kind of person who would give me autonomy,” says the Arizona Republic’s Kim Bui. She’s been able to make decisions about designing a new role to keep a talented employee, for instance, and to pursue her own “passion project.” “In theory, it’s a stress relief” for managers to create and execute an important project, Bui says, but only if their job is designed to include time for those activities. “There’s a difference between autonomy with support and autonomy without support,” she said.
- Cutting social media responsibilities can reduce stress and save time. Many staffers are pressured to be constantly present on social media; in fact, a Tow Center survey shows that 62 percent of journalists said dependence on social media had grown in importance. But newsroom social media requirements shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all. Managers should be given authority to determine if the time spent — and the stress of being harassed and attacked by social media users — has any real benefit over simply allowing the newsroom’s main account to do the posting.
Design challenge #4: Flex your schedules.
In media companies, it’s a rare manager who works anything that resembles an eight-hour day. Another significant outcome of a work redesign is finding ways to reduce those long hours. And that will likely involve considering solutions that haven’t typically been embraced in traditional media, like flexible work and meeting schedules.
The Georgia woman who famously quit her job after she was called into the office for a six-minute meeting should unsettle the majority of managers who still believe that employees should be in the office from three to five days a week “to maintain company culture.”
Sarah Nagem, editor of the startup Border Belt Independent in North Carolina, says she’s “stopped thinking in terms of the traditional workday” since she joined the nonprofit after leaving a career in legacy newsrooms.
“I want to get people to work when they’re at their best,” says Nagem. With clear communication and expectations about accountability, she said, “it can work.”
Options like a four-day week can help solve some coverage or overlap problems, and keep editors from working unreasonable, often unpaid overtime.
Moving to more flexible schedules can be difficult initially, says Kason Morris, an organizational behavior consultant who works with corporations on job design, because “most people don’t want to build their plane while they’re flying it.”
But the traditional five-day week is rooted in the industrial age, says Morris. “Now we’re in the knowledge economy and empowered by technology where that same structure doesn’t necessarily apply. I think the biggest challenge for most organizations is that they’re entrenched in a certain way of working” — or what an MIT study called a company expectation for “butts in seats.”
Options like a four-day week can help solve some coverage or overlap problems, he says, and keep editors from working unreasonable, often unpaid overtime.
Official “on-call” rotations can be useful as well, ensuring that one manager will be available for breaking news or emergencies, but not tying them completely to their office chair.
A word of caution: Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, the authors of an MIT study, warn companies against setting up flexible schedules as “accommodations” strictly for women with children or for individuals who made a good case for themselves. This can create “gender inequality” or “an undesirable ‘Mother, May I?’ negotiating dynamic, which positions the worker’s personal needs as unimportant,” they wrote.
Outlier Media avoids that “Mother, May I” dynamic, says managing editor Erin Perry. Staffers, who are given generous vacations and unlimited mental health days, let their managers know they’ll be gone but they don’t need to ask, “Hey, can I do this?” said Perry. “We just know people will get their work done.”
Perry said she appreciates the flexibility in her schedule as she balances her job, family and graduate school work. “I don’t think the daily go-go-go [of a traditional newsroom schedule] would mesh well with that.”
At the Virginia Mercury, editor Robert Zullo has set a 6 p.m. final deadline, but otherwise skips the time-consuming task of creating schedules for his staff. “I mostly leave it to everyone to set their own schedule” — which works, Zullo said, because reporters are clear on goals and expectations.
At the Arizona Republic, Kim Bui recently restructured the weekly schedule so that some staffers can have one day when they’re not on call or scheduled for a particular shift. “They don’t need to be responsive” to emails or calls and can work on any project or activity, no questions asked.
On a smaller scale, the Associated Press has designated a daily meeting break for its employees. “We have an hour a day that’s supposed to be free of meetings for U.S. news employees,” says Janelle Cogan, a deputy director in AP’s Atlanta office, “a ‘no Zoom zone’ from 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern.”
This year in Spain, government employees are trying out a pilot program that offers a four-day week with no pay cut. Officials in Japan announced a similar effort in July, after an Iceland experiment showed that productivity remained the same or improved when employees were placed on a four-day work week.
While U.S. media companies haven’t typically supported a four-day week, a shorter workweek also could provide this bonus you might have not considered, says journalist Bryce Covert. “If white-collar professionals were no longer expected or required to log 60 hours a week but 30 instead, that would be a whole extra job for someone else.” And that would allow more hiring opportunities, she notes, particularly for newsrooms trying to diversify their workforce.
Design challenge #5: Remove useless walls.
As the example at the top of this report demonstrates, artificial boundaries among managers who work for the same company, with the same mission, are evidence of a poor work design. University of Central Oklahoma professor Desiree Hill says “interdepartmental support” in newsrooms should be part of the workflow, improving efficiency and reducing stress-inducing meddling. Managers’ job descriptions should allow them to step in when and where they’re needed.
As in other smaller newsrooms, the entire staff at Outlier Media, including the business department, sits shoulder to shoulder in the same room. Hill says that simple physical proximity builds trust and communication — and it can help in a news emergency. “Who says someone from the sales team can’t help answer phones?”
At times during her career, Kim Bui has found the walls between newsroom departments so impenetrable that she’s had to resort to what she calls “Sherlocking” — tracking down the right person in the company to talk with about a question or project. So she recently created an organizational chart that described in detail the roles in other departments. “This will save me so much time,” she said. “It’s not a visible wall…it’s a wall of lack of clarity.”
Other managers credit tools like Slack for helping to break down barriers between departments. At some media companies, the newsroom Slack account is open to other departments including advertising and circulation. At the Kansas City Beacon, “everyone can weigh in” on any question, says the non-profit’s founder Kelsey Ryan. “It’s really cool to see.”
What about the walls between editors and reporters, or between journalists and the community?
Managers can identify reporters who have editing skills or future management aspirations to help fill out schedules and fill in during emergencies. And, of course, pay them accordingly.
Breaking down barriers between the news leaders and the community is a goal of many startups, and in Outlier Media’s case, this also lightens the staff workload. Outlier editors work directly with dozens of community “notetakers” who attend public meetings around Detroit, resulting in broader news coverage and fewer hours for staffers to sit through meetings.
The walls with competitors have been crumbling over the past few years, with many newsrooms working together in partnerships. In theory, news partnerships are an excellent way to decrease workload by sharing resources and tasks. But as this guide by the American Press Institute and other studies have noted, partnerships need to be created carefully.
Ryan says she’s careful to ask “How are we going to make sure this isn’t cumbersome? How can we do this and not add to our overall workload?” before her newsrooms enter into a partnership.
Design challenge #6: Trash the old-style performance reviews.
Performance reviews are typically criticized and even ridiculed as a pointless and time-consuming chore. A Washington Post business writer once called it a “rite of corporate kabuki.” Yet managers and editors can literally spend days filling out evaluation paperwork for their staffers and still question the value of doing so.
Corporate-designed performance reviews can be even worse: When one review form needs to apply to every employee in a large and diverse company, managers waste time trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Considering the potential time savings, it’s worth thinking deeply about the performance review. What’s its purpose? How can it definitively help you, your employee, and your newsroom? Is your performance review process a relic from an era when your newsroom, and the state of journalism, looked very different?
Less formal touchpoint discussions every few months are more actionable than an annual review.
Some companies have eliminated the annual performance review altogether, says design consultant Kason Morris, for logical reasons. “One of the big challenges with performance reviews is that they’re not really indicators, they’re a point in time,” he says. “If I’m going to tell you what my goals are in January and you’re going to measure me on those goals in June, there’s so much that can happen and it really isn’t a fair indicator of those factors.”
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is more critical, calling annual reviews “too subjective.” It is not, he said, “a review of your performance. It’s a review of whether you’ve been able to ingratiate yourself with your boss.”
In their argument for getting rid of performance evaluations, two management professors note that the future needs of business will always change. “It doesn’t make sense to hang on to a system that’s built mainly to assess and hold people accountable for past or current practices,” wrote Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis in Harvard Business Review.
More critically, research has demonstrated that performance evaluations have a racial bias problem, including a finding that women managers who promote women and Black managers who promote Black employees are penalized for it — while performance reviews upscore white men who do the same.
A study of performance reviews at The New York Times showed “a strong pattern of racial disparity in reviews. Employees of color were disproportionately likely to receive low ratings, while white employees were more likely to be rated highly,” according to the study’s authors at The News Guild.
Morris says that less formal “touchpoint” discussions every few months are “more actionable.” And they’re more helpful when peers and managers who’ve worked with the employee on specific projects provide input.
At Axios, a media startup largely staffed by leaders with traditional media backgrounds, employee evaluations are conducted twice a year. But employees can choose to be reviewed by peers, says executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, which can lighten managers’ workloads.
Kelsey Ryan, publisher of the new Beacon startups in Kansas City and Wichita, is currently examining how to create performance reviews that make sense. The yearly process she’s experienced in other newsrooms, she says, are not only time-consuming but “are scary and bass-ackwards.” There’s always the suspicion that companies are working harder to justify not giving raises to employees rather than awarding performance increases. She suggests conducting “post-mortems” on projects as they occur, rather than holding traditional evaluations which rely on a year’s worth of memories.
Design challenge #7: Improve the office space — wherever it is
“Work design” in some cases also includes the actual design of a workspace. Not surprisingly, an unworkable workspace adds to stress — something to keep in mind as media employees file back into their offices after the pandemic.
Remember that managers are usually tied to their desks for hours, so look closely at physical workspaces and decide whether the design really supports the job, not vice versa. I’ve seen or worked in news companies that, for example, mandated televisions on each editor’s desk, no matter what their role; did not provide office space for top editors, or, provided an office space and a newsroom desk with the expectation that the editor appear in both; and purposely provided very little desktop space in an effort to reduce clutter, which worked fine for some journalists but caused stress for others.
A recent study that combined psychology and architecture found that these five design elements helped make employees feel less stress:
- the “legibility” of the office, meaning the ability to see and find things;
- having the right technology;
- access to daylight;
- adequate storage;
- employees’ control over their space.
Outlier encourages that control by giving each employee a $100 stipend to decorate their office space — with removable wallpaper, artwork, plants and other decor, says managing editor Erin Perry.
Mobility and choice also are essential, says Dana Coester in this American Press Institute study — and that’s even more important in the pandemic age. Media managers and everyone else became accustomed to the comforts of working at home, and the right equipment allows people to stay there.
Next chapter: How to start your work redesign
How to start your work redesign
If you’re now persuaded to jump into a work redesign, get ready to start with what Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer calls “an almost anthropological” study of what people do, hour by hour, day by day. A redesign may usher in some unfamiliar ways of doing journalism, but failing to adapt can mean “you’re going to have to face the health consequences,” says Pfeffer. “The question is, do you make that trade off?”
If you have any experience with design thinking — or even an interest in the type of design that attracts millions of HGTV fans — that’ll help jumpstart your ideas about how to redesign work. After all, people changed their workspaces and their work style during the pandemic lockdown “because we had no choice,” says organizational consultant Kason Morris. “But it got people thinking like designers in relation to their work.”
Here’s a potential step-by-step redesign process and some points to consider:
A detailed task analysis should be the first step in a job redesign. Use a spreadsheet, or try an app like Desktime (there’s a two-week free trial). Each manager involved in the redesign should track how much time they’re spending on specific tasks as well as which hours of the day.
Calculate and compare how many managers are performing the same tasks and when they’re doing them. Are there too many cooks in the kitchen at any given time? For example, are editors/managers available to read/review stories before noon, but unavailable for the afternoon crush of copy? Are managers in meetings at the same time, causing a post-meeting backlog? How many managers are spending weekends trying to complete employee evaluations to meet a corporate-mandated deadline? What else are managers doing that eats up considerable time but has little measurable payoff?
Find solutions to these workload problems by brainstorming with top leaders and decision-makers, along with people who are direct beneficiaries of the work (for example, reporters). Consult experts, in particular those who have experience with elements of the proposed redesign, and ask for any applicable data and feedback. Tackling long-held work flows will require communication and creativity.
Use “red-teaming” to understand the downside of each decision made in the job design. For example, red-team a proposal that editors work a four-day week. What can go wrong, and is there a way to fix that? Some managers at startups and non-traditional newsrooms rave about their companies’ benefits like unlimited mental health days and generous vacations. But it didn’t take long to realize this meant that someone (usually a manager) had to handle the absent employee’s workload. One solution was to suspend some of the employee’s work — for example, a newsletter — in their absence.
Get it in writing: Revamp current job descriptions with the intention of reducing stress. When you’ve agreed on a new work design, share the full roadmap with managers and their direct reports.
Finally, and importantly, rethink and rewrite job postings. I reviewed several recent management job postings specifically to gauge the potential stress level of the position, and was appalled to find that most of them painted a picture of holy hell. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve helped create job postings that ask the applicant to do what appears to be the jobs of four people, never mentioning how company leaders would support the newly hired manager or offering any hint that a healthy work balance was important to the company.
Here’s a recent, and very typical, job announcement for a managing editor position in a midwestern news company. This manager would be in charge of six newsrooms and would be expected to pitch in as a reporter “while always looking to the future of digital and print media.”
“This is a broad action packed role responsible for long-term strategic planning, growing audience numbers, providing editorial content, completing administrative functions, is responsible for all news content published and the style and spacing of the publication, has overall responsibility for the production of these digital and traditional papers, and will serve as the primary point of contact for readers who have questions, concerns, or comments about the paper’s coverage.This position also positively represents the papers within the community… This position is responsible for the success of direct reports and will train, teach and mentor others and be a good role model. The Managing Editor will supervise and direct the news team to cover local and regional news stories, sports, and features. This position works with reporters to determine beats and assignments, ensures ethical journalism principles are followed, and that coverage is handled in a manner appropriate for the story and locality. As a team player, this position may also be called upon to assist their team working “hands on” by pitching in as needed to write news stories.”
A skilled, creative and diverse workforce can’t be attained with job descriptions like this. Local journalism can’t be saved on the backs of overworked leaders whose careers are breaking them. Burned-out managers have been leaving the profession for many months, and it’s time to create a change in the bad bones in journalism’s historic work structure.
As burnout expert and journalist Jennifer Moss says: “We have a shot at truly preventing burnout, and we can’t say that it’s too hard or too much work or that it requires too much change.
“The best moment to make a move is when everything is up for grabs.”
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