Why journalists need to talk about workplace burnout right now

Journalists are overwhelmed by the information they process in their working day and want to explore solutions with third-party providers and management to make it more manageable, writes digital editor and consultant John Crowley.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | December 10, 2018

This post has been republished with permission. John Crowley’s full research can be accessed here.

That’s the finding of a nine-month project involving discussions across the industry and a revealing in-depth survey.

The research is part of the European Journalism Center’s News Impact Network, which held its latest summit in Berlin on Dec 3. The project’s aim is to find ways to make journalism more sustainable in an ever-changing media landscape. As part of my research, I’ve been writing this year about how journalists are wilting under the weight of all the emails, alerts, and notifications they get — and what we as an industry can do to change the narrative.

The strength of feeling from journalists has taken me aback. Some have suggested I should speak to mental health experts. Sally Pook, a Fleet Street journalist turned psychotherapist, told me that journalists in modern newsrooms were succumbing to “anxiety and exhaustion” because of the need to monitor the “seemingly endless sources of potential sources” available to them.

My survey includes these findings:

  • Just over half of journalists described themselves as “overwhelmed” by information during their working day and wanting to “explore solutions” to make it more manageable. More than 40 percent said they were overwhelmed but managing to make it work. Only about 7 percent said their daily information flows were “well under control.”
  • Nearly three in four said they’d like news organisations to begin a conversation with third-party companies on the subject of improving journalists’ information flows.

I asked respondents a series of open-ended questions —here’s a selection of their (anonymised) answers:

Are you overwhelmed with information during your journalist working day?

It is impossible to keep on top of everything as it pours into the newsroom — and even harder when you are out and about (where you should be as a journalist) — glued to your phone (like you shouldn’t be) on rapidly dying batteries not engaging with the world properly.

How do you filter out noise at work on desktop/phone?

I’ve deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Snap from my phone. I’ve deactivated notifications from virtually everything, though I do have to keep them on for breaking news for work reasons. I never really got into Twitter, thank goodness, but do spend hours checking my LinkedIn feed. At least, it can pass for work 😉 Most important thing is I’ve told everyone on my team that Slack or email were not means of immediate communication and I wouldn’t always be checking, especially nights and weekends. If they need me, they know they can call…and they never do, proof that we are not nearly as indispensable as we’d like to believe.

How do you use AI/tech to help you?

I have yet to find an AI or tech tool that is actually helpful and low maintenance, as opposed to another thing to set up, keep updated, remember to check and get endless notifications about. I organize myself mostly with pen and paper.

What listening tools — like TweetDeck, for example — do you find absolutely essential?

Yes, I use TweetDeck but it’s a poor way to catch up on important stuff. More so I use notifications on Twitter to alert me to the musings of good people I care about. I’m also using many more slower means of listening like newsletters.

What listening tools can you live without?

When I am trying to write a longer piece, I sometimes close down Outlook completely so I don’t get visual alerts to new mails.

If you could wish for one thing to be invented to help you filter out noise, what would that be?

A genuinely smart, AI assistant, like Her (but not one that disconnects me from reality). Not like Alexa, who doesn’t understand my accent half the time and can’t handle contextual conversation.”

I received 65 responses to my six-minute survey. (The irony was not lost on me that I was asking people to take time from their busy working days to do this!) The responses were of high quality and deeply revealing.

My wider discussions with friends across the industry have taught me something: It’s too easy to point fingers at third parties and technology. Management — either through willful ignorance or a strong desire to react to the changing face of digital journalism — are simply asking journalists to stay connected far too much.

As a result, journalists are coming up with their own hacks to smooth their workflow. George Downs, a former colleague of mine at The Wall Street Journal, has introduced a filter system to his Gmail.

  • Pre-filter. “I have a complex (and growing) set of rules on my inbox that means that 99.9 percent of emails go automatically to their folders. If it’s an email address to a group email, it goes straight to that folder. The clever exception? The rule doesn’t apply if my specific email address is added to the email, or if I’m mentioned by name. That means that anything that applies directly to me, comes directly to me. The rest is noise.”
  • Everything has a home. “This applies to files on my computer too. I feel you should be able to, when asked, tell someone exactly where a certain file/email is, as though you were telling them to way to your front door. So once I get a couple of emails on a subject, they get grouped into a folder, that folder will live under ‘projects’ or ‘contacts’ or something. Doesn’t matter how few or many emails live in that one folder — whether it be 2 or 2,000 — but they’ll all relate to the same project, so they’re easily found.”
  • Search, don’t delete. “We have pretty much infinite space now. So that means I never, ever, have to delete an email. They can just get filed away. It also means that I can just search through. That doesn’t mean that I don’t move emails around. I know some people who just leave everything in their inbox and search through it (I couldn’t live like that) but I still never delete anything.”
  • Inbox Zero. “Once every two weeks, or as often as possible if I’m busy, I take an hour to get my inbox back to zero, or near zero. Everything in there is stuff I’m dealing with. I do it often, as if I don’t, it suddenly becomes a Herculean task that I’ll never do. Helps keep me focused.”

One wonderful by-product of this project would be a resource where hacks for journalists could be distilled in one place.

Why should we care about workplace burnout? It will make our daily jobs easier and we will able to produce better journalism. It’s as simple as that. Then we can move on to other pressing challenges for our industry. I hope this project in a small way kick-starts a wider discussion. We need to talk.

John Crowley is a digital editor and consultant who has worked for The Wall Street Journal, the International Business Times, and Newsweek.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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