Confronting burnout in journalism by sharing tools for change
I came to Gather last month to talk about burnout and the need for change because I found myself looking forward to the end of another difficult year, and I realized I’m probably not alone. The status quo doesn’t seem to be working for many, and journalism as a whole is in denial about it.
The denial isn’t necessarily intentional. It stems from many factors that I won’t have room to fully explore here. But many of us feel it in journalism every day. And when we confront it, in safe spaces with trusted people who understand the journalism industry, it’s pretty easy to scratch the surface and drill down into some of the shaky assumptions that seem to hold journalism together.
I’ve seen a lot of cases of denial show up as misguided exceptionalism. Think of news organizations that rely on confirmation bias about their success to avoid confronting their shortcomings. We’re reminded over and over, internally and externally, about their exceptional accomplishments that the dark side — the layoffs, retention issues, lack of racial diversity, internal strife, homogeneity of their audiences, and the harms they’ve perpetrated — can catch us by surprise. It’s easy to ignore a harmful pattern when you’re only looking for markers of success or affirmations of preconceived notions.
Leaning on this arrangement is often an unspoken expectation of working in journalism, and it means we usually don’t get to speak honestly about power, culture and what could we do better in our field until it’s too late. The “Exit Interviews” series from Open News is a perfect example of how journalists don’t have the safety and freedom to speak truth to journalistic power until they’re ready to leave the industry. We’re terrible about quantifying what we lose in the process of hemorrhaging good journalists and their perspectives and lived experiences (one notable exception being Carla Murphy’s Leavers survey). To the victors, go the spoils — and those victors, the survivors of the paradigm we’ve created for ourselves, get to reinforce the problematic working environment they’re comfortable with.
All of this didn’t click until I recently attended a journalism conference in Austin. Many of the attendees I spoke to at the conference seemed like they had been cooped up and were ready to release some of that pent-up energy after begrudgingly becoming acclimated to Zoom calls as their main outlet for social interaction. They came ready to talk about what they had seen and experienced in the past few years — feeling unmoored by the pandemic, political strife, protests against police brutality and the racial reckoning that journalism never gets around to completing. I walked from conversation to conversation, even hearing one influential journalist talk about calling out their organization for their BS and it hit me: Many of the journalists in my circles seem to go to conferences to be their true selves and to be critical and honest about the work they do. Our news organizations typically don’t serve as outlets for our righteous indignation about the current state of affairs, so we seek that out elsewhere.
That needs to change. Before it’s too late.
Evidence of a Need for Change
That all may seem pretty cynical. What evidence do we have in hand? Here are some things I’ve seen (there’s always more):
- Journalism is experiencing market failure: It costs more to make journalism than people are willing to pay for it. It’s a concept I first heard of in News for the Rich, White and Blue by Nikki Usher. Too much of the (revenue) strategy undergirding the work we do isn’t really about public service or speaking truth to power on a systemic level. For those organizations, the process of making the news is compromised by their desire to survive. It’s about the bottom line. It’s about supporting the status quo and “existing power structures” because that helps the organization live to see another day (existing power structures being a fancy way of referring to those predominantly white, wealthy and college-educated audiences that newsrooms are constantly chasing). Yes, some aspects of the work, like accountability, are important. But what does accountability look like when many journalists are divorced from communities and people that would check their assumptions about true accountability?
- The fuzziness of success in journalism: Success in journalism sometimes exists in a vacuum that can feel divorced from the real world. That’s especially true in newsrooms that don’t have structures or feedback loops within the communities they serve to question those hollow definitions of success. How many injustices seem to repeat themselves in the news cycle? What do we choose to ignore when we reward a newsroom for its work? How many managers in journalism advance through their careers because they’re great stewards of the work but not of the people that get it done? And why is it that true innovators in journalism — think City Bureau, Resolve Philly, Open News or Scalawag — are exceptions to the rule as opposed to the norm? Even if your organization happens to be one of the few that’s doing some good, we’re still part of a system that’s historically complacent about or complicit in harm. I don’t say that to discourage. Success just shouldn’t be something you get to identify or claim after the fact to justify your choices. Divorcing intent from impact is only convenient when you’re trying to validate your actions. Until we learn to set the stakes beforehand, success is in the eye of the beholder.
- Signs of burnout are all over the place: A quick Google search is all you need to see how often burnout comes up in journalism. It’s present in survey results, in research, in anecdotal experiences and in the brain drain of journalists who have to leave or have to make all sorts of compromises to make the math work. It’s also present in other bits of honesty about how we feel about our field. It seems more common to keep settling until you can’t settle anymore. It’s a feature of journalism, not a bug, arguably built on some characteristics of white supremacy that define many organizational cultures. Journalism encourages survivorship bias where the symptoms of burnout are perceived as weaknesses instead of characteristics of a broken culture — making it easier to leave than to fight the good fight for the people we hope to serve.
- Many of the common indicators of job satisfaction aren’t present in our workplaces: Being happy with your job usually means being highly engaged, meeting current or future goals, feeling alignment between your job and your values and not having work affect your quality of life. Success in those measures is often a luxury in journalism: being highly engaged means compromising your work-life balance, the future feels uncertain (even at organizations that are supposed to be beacons of journalistic success) and our roles are increasingly misaligned with our foundational reasons for wanting to work in media. We have to live with the cognitive dissonance of this reality, which means moving the goalposts for what we consider success. But that can only work for so long. One person in our Gather Slack conversation said it would take a dramatic, comprehensive cultural shift to see an alignment between what they wanted out of journalism and the job they currently have. I don’t think they’re alone.
Well, what can we do? Let’s think about change and share tools, connections and actual signs of progress with one another.
Change at the individual level
- Stop climbing and start exploring: In our Lightning Chat, we talked with Bridget Thoreson, director of collaborations at INN, who shared a non-linear way of looking at our careers that fits our search for fulfillment and rejects the career ladder we’re all used to climbing. She calls it the career river, where we look at advancement “not as a linear progression straight up or ahead, but as a river delta — a fertile area to explore that flows toward an ultimate objective.” This gives us room to see learning as part of the progress toward our destination. The exploration that comes with this metaphor is a concession to the uncertainty we face in journalism every day but allows us room to breathe and gives us multiple paths to reach the promised land we’re looking for. Exploring this fertile ground also offers “more options when our progress becomes blocked, but it also acknowledges the effort and time it takes to break down barriers — and how beautiful the results can be.”
- Find your community and share networks and connections with others: During the darkest times of my journalism career, it was the friends and the connections I made when I began to explore my career river that saved me. But, too often, that connection-building isn’t done with intentionality and is predicated on privilege, time and resources that allow for exploration. There’s a reason why journalism can feel small when you get to see how people who’ve been around for a while know each other. For me, a few mentions of solutions journalism in college were enough to motivate me to attend a conference (on a scholarship) where I finally found friends and peers who would inspire me to keep fighting and working for the greater good. That was an accident, and it should not be. We need to keep building collectives and organizing because we learn and grow when we connect. Those networks (like Gather, DEI Coalition, News Nerdery or JOC Slack) can be sources of support and resilience during difficult times. Students or early-career journalists shouldn’t have to find them on their own. Some of the existential issues that plague our industry will never be solved alone — the proliferation of collaboratives and the rise of community engagement are testaments to the need to find perspective, share resources and build community — and we have to foster the growth of that collective mindset to break through the confirmation bias that haunts us. It’s also a way that we can contend with the “plausible deniability” that offers a way out — my term for the whole “it’s not me, it’s you” attitude of many journalists and newsrooms that seem to forget that someone else’s misdeeds still reflect poorly on all “media.” We tend not to fall for those traps when we’re not operating on journalistic islands.
- Learn how to strategize and prioritize for yourself: Understanding how to pick your battles, prioritizing work based on the required amount of effort of an initiative versus its impact (in an Eisenhower matrix), and being deliberate about asking questions instead of stating opinions have been some of the few things I’ve had to learn about getting buy-in. It’s important to take a beat to understand situations, seek additional perspective, and identify what levers you can pull to make something happen and what levers aren’t worth your time. These are the soft skills that can make or break a project. They’re underappreciated in our field since the metabolism of news is fast-paced, and we tend to favor silver bullets or familiar tactics instead of more conscientious or novel solutions.
Change at the organizational level
- Find your allies at work and look beyond journalism for solutions: During our Lightning Chat, Bridget and I talked about research from Dr. Anthony Muhammad, an educational consultant, who wrote a book on organizational change in schools, “Transforming School Culture.” Dr. Muhammad provides a framework for identifying the cast of characters you might encounter on the path to organizational change that also works nicely for journalism. The different archetypes are people we know and work with every day: from “the believers,” the folks who “embrace change, self-reflection, and possess a determination to personally contribute to improvement,” to the “fundamentalists,” the “‘me first’ versus ‘we first’ team members who care more about their personal outcomes than team goals or aspirations.” Muhammad suggests focusing on the “believers,” which fits other theories on organizational change from outside the journalism world, like diffusion of innovations theory, which suggests focusing on “innovators” and “first adopters” to build the critical mass that makes change happen. Not only are these theories identifying important levers for progress, but they also acknowledge that we don’t operate independently from the outside world. We have much to learn from other professions and people — something we all understand intrinsically as journalists bound together by a shared interest in engagement. For example, we’ve seen user-centered design increasingly put to use in journalism, especially in the product world. Our world is interdisciplinary, so our work and solutions should be, too.
- Use a theory of change to connect strategy with values and mission: Theories of change occasionally pop up in the journalism world (e.g. Scalawag, City Bureau or one from solutions journalists in the UK), and they’re especially helpful for outlining desired outcomes and tying them to strategy and values. When it comes to honoring some of the best practices for job satisfaction, especially aligning personal values with organizational ones, theories of change can serve as the basis for identifying how all the pieces, from the high-level strategic plan to our individual goals, fit together to fulfill the mission. The framework I’ve used in the past starts by mapping high-level outcomes we hope to achieve and builds it out by identifying the corresponding intermediate outcomes that get us there. The goal here is to align incentives for completing the work and to offer certainty and a sense of progression that is often missing from our day-to-day roles. It also helps us identify what’s worth our time and what isn’t. And it helps us get away from prescribing success in a self-serving manner after the fact because we’ve identified a path before execution and can identify how and when we deviated from the plan.
This is barely scratching the surface of change management within journalism. One practice that was mentioned during our Lightning Chat, “stay interviews,” basically the preemptive opposite of exit interviews, is something I’m going to research in hopes of implementing it at work. I’m no expert on change, but that’s why sharing these types of tools and resources is so crucial to our success and understanding — a rising tide lifts all boats — and makes us more fluent and comfortable with speaking the language of progress. I’m lucky to be where I am and privileged to focus most of my time and energy on trying to serve the underserved through the news, but I know not every journalist gets to do that. Hopefully, these methods and ideas get you or someone you know closer to making it better for the journalists that come after you, the way they have for me. Don’t hesitate to share more with me and the Gather community as you come across things that worked. They’re crucial to making engagement thrive, especially in the places where engagement is needed most.
John Hernandez is the assistant director of audience at the Texas Tribune and has worked in journalism support at the American Press Institute and Resolve Philly. John is a proud graduate of Texas State University’s journalism school. He was born in Bogota, Colombia but grew up in Queens, New York, which is why you’ll probably catch him wearing a Mets hat almost daily. John was Gather’s Guest Curator for the month of November.