Exhausted, overwhelmed man

How investing in work culture will protect journalism’s most valuable resource: people

When one of the journalists I coach told me she slept under her desk on especially busy days, I tried to conceal how shocked I really was. She mentioned this as if it were common — just one part of a much bigger conversation about how difficult and time-consuming her job was, how understaffed the organization was, and how no one in leadership was doing much about it.

Mind you, she wasn’t finding a few hours of sleep because she was covering the latest climate crisis-assisted “natural disaster,” or a mass protest against police violence, or another event that demanded an all-hands-on-deck rapid response to breaking news. On regular working days she had so much to do that, sometimes, napping in the office, instead of going home for the night, ensured she could get back to insurmountable amounts of work as soon as possible.

I have shared this (anonymized) anecdote a few times, in private conversations with others working in the industry and each time, people saw some part of their own work situation in the anecdote, even if they weren’t sleeping at work. One person told me they often did sleep on a couch in their office. One person laughed it off at first and then told me how much their health had been suffering since they took on a new role in the newsroom. Most folks deeply understood why the journalist would sleep under her desk. They easily imagined how the workload got to the point and how easy it is to ignore just how much they were giving to work. 

Before I got to know her, I imagined this journalist landed her dream job at a great organization. She worked at a place I’d been following from afar, whose work I was excited about. The organization won awards and filled an important news gap. The commitment to the news even at significant personal costs is not only par for the course at high-level journalism outlets, it is seen as a badge of honor in our field. It shouldn’t be. These kinds of sacrifices — demanded even more of those in a newsroom where others don’t look like them — should not be the norm. 

This kind of newsroom culture does not result in stunning work; the stunning work is done in spite of the terrible culture they’re navigating at work. 

News breaks, but it doesn’t have to break our journalists. Our industry is not sustainable if we don’t take care of one of our most valuable resources: our people 

For my RJI Fellowship project, I will create a new online training program that will equip leaders to invest in their newsroom culture. I am inspired by newsrooms that are intentionally supporting staff and proactively doing work to make their organizations more equitable, transparent and responsive to people’s needs, both within their newsrooms and communities. 

My self-paced program will share tools to create new policies and programs, provide examples from other organizations and insights that shift how leaders think about work culture — and will help those at all levels in news organizations better express just how crucial it is that work culture is fixed. The resource will feature advice from a diverse group of leaders who have invested in their organizational culture and respond directly to the needs I’ve heard from those in journalism, both in my work over the past decade and in new research that I’m doing for the fellowship.

How we got here 

News organizations can be stressful places to work. Historically, newsrooms have valued their editorial mission at the expense of staff and organizational wellbeing. These organizations often lack policies and programs to support staff, provide transparency into workflows and manage workloads, especially when they are growing. Newsrooms that are venerated for their coverage, impact and the number of awards they receive can be the very same ones with overworked and unhappy staff that struggle to retain both journalists and leaders from diverse backgrounds. 

It is a pivotal time to invest in culture. More than three years of global pandemic conditions have shifted expectations around work culture and how the news industry can accommodate new ways of working. The calls to action in recent years around racial justice, sexual harassment, and discrimination demand better organizational accountability. Big investments in local news in recent years make now a pivotal moment to invest in training for leaders around work culture. These nascent organizations have the rare opportunity to do things differently without the institutional baggage of decades-old news organizations. Just as they are locating new, different, and better to report and engage audiences, they should innovate how employees are treated.

I have been thinking about and working to change organizational culture in journalism for years. I am a consultant and coach working with organizations and individuals to help them better understand audiences, launch products that respond to community needs, and build sustainable organizations that foster collaboration. Previously, I designed and led the Women’s Leadership Accelerator at ONA, which focused on helping managers and executives lead change within their organizations. 

Repeatedly, I have seen leaders who invest in moving the culture in a positive direction find more meaningful success leading change within their organizations. When they value their teams, center communities they’re serving, and work to take care of the folks who work there, they make deep impacts with their journalism. And when those hoping to lead change find themselves face-to-face with work cultures who don’t value those things, they either burn out while pushing to make change, or they leave for somewhere better. Both the journalist who slept under her desk and the news leader who sometimes slept on their couch left those organizations, and one has left journalism completely. 

I’m not the only one who sees this. AX Mina, a creative consultant and leadership coach, has written about the need for newsrooms to embrace care and a trauma-informed approach to understanding the needs of staff and communities they report on. Sam Ragland, Vice President of Journalism Programs at the American Press Institute, just wrapped up a five week series on mental health and how leaders can invest in their own mental health, and that of their team and organization. 

Next steps

The commitment to the news or meeting a deadline has a hold on us, even when we are paying significant personal costs. We are familiar with the pressure that our jobs put on us, and that we put on ourselves, to be the ones who can rise to the occasion, especially if we are in a newsroom where others don’t look like us or bring the perspective we do. The sacrifices we make and the impacts on our time, energy, personal lives, and health do not need to be par for the course, or worse yet, seen as a badge of honor, in our field. 

The resources that I build during the RJI Fellowship will help foster new conversations where people seriously consider how they can contribute and improve the culture where they work, especially as we: have new leaders moving into positions of power; welcome new journalists into an industry in serious upheaval; and see a boom in news startups creating new cultures as they establish their editorial mission. 

We need more productive ways to talk with each other out in the open about what needs to change and more tools for people who want to transform work culture. This project, which draws on the experiences of people in newsrooms and centers the voices of those doing the work, helps bring those conversations out into the open. If you’d like to talk to me about work you’ve done in your newsroom, please email me at mizgata at gmail dot com. 

I don’t want to work somewhere where it’s acceptable to sleep under my desk. And I don’t want to be working with people who find that acceptable — let alone admirable — in our industry. We can find new ways forward that take care of the people that we’re working with, while we continue to do important and timely work.


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