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April 22, 2015

We Need to Talk About Burnout in Local Newsrooms


In the wake of this week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements we learned that two of the journalists from the winning reporting teams have left journalism. One left because he couldn’t pay the bills while working as a journalist. The other left because she wanted a better work/life balance as she began a family. The Columbia Journalist Review noted that these two stories underscore “the demanding nature of a profession that consistently ends up at the bottom of career rankings.”

This news comes a few weeks after a new study on newsroom burnout, first reported on by Romenesko, found that “Female journalists were more likely to suffer burnout and leave the profession than men.” The study’s author Scott Reinardy pointed specifically to a pervasive lack of support for women in newsrooms as a contributing factor, and noted that this trend threatens to exacerbate the already troubling gender gap in newsroom management. At the New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy expanded on the study’s findingsto point out how some beat structures and writing trends can result in “cordoning off journalists who are Other in some way.”

The same week the study was released was also the inaugural gathering for the ONA/Poynter Women in Leadership program. In a post titled, “How’s your work/life balance?” Poynter offers four questions for finding better balance. Last month, Journo.biz reported on a survey that argues Today’s freelance investigative journalists face unworkable economics.” And last fall a study out of the UK found that journalists who regularly witness images of extreme violence show signs of PTSD. Julia Haslanger wrote a useful post a few weeks ago in response to events in Ferguson, noting that “covering such an emotional issue for a sustained period of time is taking its toll on local journalists, particularly those who use social media heavily for their work.”

The stories of the two Pulitzer winners, and the larger debate about burnout in journalism, resonates with the feedback I hear every day working with community news startups and journalism entrepreneurs. And yet, in my travels through the journalism conference circuit and even in online groups and listservs I rarely see us creating safe spaces to talk openly and honestly about these issues. There is a real need to confront some of these issues and give people tools and support for managing burnout. But we also need to honestly address the systems and biases that contribute to the kind of gender gaps Reinardy’s study highlighted.

This is adapted from the Local Fix, a weekly newsletter on journalism sustainability and community engagement. Subscribe here.