Team collaborating

Changing work culture beyond burnout and bad bosses

How might journalism organizations foster internal cultures that are more transparent, accountable and mindful of staff’s needs? 

As an RJI Fellow, my research has focused on finding out how people in media currently experience the culture at their jobs. Eager to hear more about the work that journalists are doing and the resources they’re looking for to help them get started on improving work culture, I have interviewed more than a dozen people and run workshops with many more. As you would probably imagine, the conversations often focus on the challenges and what needs to change, including two common and seemingly intractable problems: burnout and bad bosses.

It’s critical that we address both burnout and bad bosses in journalism—and that work has already begun. 

One reason burnout and bad bosses dominate conversations is because just about all of us have experienced these first hand. Journalists suffering from burnout have left their jobs and even the industry altogether, as untenable workloads and workplace demands seem increasingly commonplace. 

The American Press Institute has pulled together resources for journalists and managers to address the ubiquitous problem of running journalists into the ground. Almost a decade ago, CJR argued, “Journalism seems to be particularly poor at developing and training managers.” Soo Ooh outlined the impacts of bad managers on journalists with technical skills. “Bad managers don’t know how to give design or behavior feedback. They’re not sensitive to issues surrounding race, gender, or mental health,” she wrote. “They enable toxic co-workers in the workplace by saying ‘that’s just how they are.’”

In recent years, we have not only seen more acknowledgement of these issues, but real changes in policy. Some media organizations began offering mental health days and access to counseling, providing a little relief to employees facing burnout. Christina Tardáguila’s 2021 Nieman Lab prediction argued that journalists need to invest time in developing new skills, and encouraged them to participate in the ”boom in the number of management, entrepreneurship, and sustainability courses, fellowships, and hubs focused on media.”

Yet as I dig deeper into organizational culture and reflect on the conversations with folks across the industry, it’s clear to me that focusing on burnout and bad bosses isn’t enough. 

Here’s the thing: The conversation cannot solely focus on burnout and bad bosses, both of which are symptoms of much bigger systemic problems within organizations. Those larger issues won’t be fully solved with more days off or personnel changes. Yes, we need those kinds of interventions – but we also need an overhaul of systems that have repeatedly harmed people and promoted people into positions where they can harm people. The industry needs to radically change its understanding of work culture and value the journalists the way it values their work. As I wrote back in September, “news breaks, but it doesn’t have to break our journalists.” 

In order to make media organizations places where people want to stay because they feel satisfied, effective and supported, we need to invest more time into intentionally building cultures we want to work in. 

Right now, conversations about culture are often too narrow. Giving someone time off to acknowledge that they are burned out is not fixing the actual problems that are burning them out. 

The industry needs to radically change its understanding of work culture and value the journalists the way it values their work.

With that in mind, I have built a survey about work culture in journalism. I want to compile a data set that includes responses from across the industry, including folks in all types of media organizations—from colleagues working in legacy media to nonprofit newsrooms to Substack creators. I hope the survey responses provide a broader picture of the challenges that people face, take stock of how culture manifests in different organizations and capture what is making a substantive, positive impact in organizations. My hope is that it will provide me with more information and be useful for those who take it, prompting more critical thinking about one’s own workplace. 

Joy Jenkins, a professor and researcher at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, gave me feedback on early drafts of the survey and some perspective on how I was approaching my research. Joy has spent years studying the sociology of newsrooms and researching the challenges facing news organizations in the digital age. Talking with her was a turning point for me. 

My initial questions focused on solutions to the problems I’ve outlined here, such as asking if people had implemented things like more generous leave policies. Joy noted that a lot of the interventions I pointed to were operational, and encouraged me to ask more questions to better understand what the culture itself was like. She noted that since newsroom culture is a relatively new area of study, it is under researched and underreported. A survey tool that provides some sort of baseline of what it feels like in different types of organizations would be useful to the industry. 

Now, the survey seeks to understand what people are currently experiencing and create benchmarks around where the industry is today. Talking with her also clarified how important it is to bring in perspectives from outside of newsrooms to help people map their internal work around culture to existing frameworks.

To start a more expansive conversation on newsroom culture, this survey draws on the Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture toolkit from the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR association. Their toolkit identifies values that show up differently in organizations and how they shape how we work together. 

For example, does your organization prioritize outcomes, individuals or teams? It’s unlikely that you’re able to emphasize all three all the time; when a tradeoff has to be made, what’s the priority? Is your organization more oriented toward stability, innovation or aggression? Having language around different values and dynamics that shape the culture can help you identify what you’re working towards, how you are asking people to get there, and what gets prioritized.

Work culture isn’t just shaped by what other people expect of us, but also by what we personally need from our interactions and environment. 

To think about work culture from the perspective of an individual’s needs, I also reference Google’s research on effective teaming

Five dynamics are identified which are critical for high-performing teams: 

  • Psychological safety ensures people feel comfortable talking about new ideas and admitting when they got things wrong
  • Structure and clarity ensure individuals understand the expectations of their role
  • Dependability ensures team members can rely on colleagues who take work seriously and meet deadlines
  • Finding meaning ensures people connect to their own individual purpose in some way
  • Seeing the impact ensures that people connect how their contributions to the organization make a difference in the world. 

The key takeaway here: how we collaborate matters. 

If we want to shift our industry away from one that has a reputation for bad bosses and burnout, we must invest in making our organizations better places to work. To do that deeper work, we have to have a better understanding of where we are now and how we can be responsive to the needs of our colleagues.

As I move into the next phase of my fellowship work, I want to hear from you, a person who works in and cares about the journalism industry, about the culture where you work. Please take my anonymous survey to share your thoughts. 


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