Downsizing, deadlines, multitasking — journalists are looking for ways to cope
by Coco Caron-Delas & Joshua De Costa
Ten years ago, a reporter would go out to cover a story with a cameraperson in tow. Afterwards, the team would return to the newsroom to craft and edit the final piece.
Today, that same journalist can simply head out alone with his or her cellphone, and, before the story is even written, will have tweeted fragments of it, filed an early draft online, and perhaps even provided audio and video for his or her publication’s website. Even once a story is written, the online version demands constant updating.
As waves of technological innovation reshape newsrooms, journalists face mounting pressure to multitask under shorter deadlines. Combined with downsizing newsrooms and the continuing pall of a shrinking industry, experts say they are dealing with a huge psychological toll.
In most of the western world, the hectic climate of the newsroom has become even more turbulent as news organizations attempt to figure out how to handle the demands of digital media and the loss of traditional revenues. Yet such pressures are often ignored as writers and broadcasters try to get the job done. Many journalists today report having difficulty finding support for their own personal and professional struggles.
In his 2014 keynote speech at the INK + BEYOND Conference, Alan Torrie, chief executive officer of Moreau Shepell, a human resources consulting company, told an audience of journalists: “Your industry is under tsunamic change … When it comes to stress, you guys … really do have something to be concerned about.”
A year later, CareerCast, a jobs and careers online database, ranked newspaper reporter, photo journalist, and broadcaster as the tenth, ninth, and seventh most stressful jobs of that year, respectively.
The stresses are even more acute because they’re not acknowledged. In January, Karen Ho, a Columbia University J-school graduate and former Bell Media employee, wrote an article for Canadaland, “Let’s Talk About How My Job at Bell Gave Me Mental Health Issues and No Benefits,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign aimed at destigmatizing mental health.
In her piece, Ho explained the difficulties facing a journalist in today’s modern newsroom: low pay, no sick days and hard deadlines. “You can’t really win,” she said in a recent phone interview. “And on top of that, working in TV is extremely stressful. There’s a deadline every 90 seconds. And you’re working like that every day.”
With the expansion of the internet over the past decade, digital media has made content available on demand. Journalists working in TV must now scramble to be the first to break a story, while continuing to meet strict program deadlines.
While meeting deadlines is just one source of newsroom tension, it can increase an employee’s stress levels if other factors are at play, said clinical psychologist Jean-Philippe Gouin, who hold a Canada Research Chair in Chronic Stress and Health at Concordia University. “If you’re in a job with high responsibility and high demands combined with low control – these tend to be the most stressful environments.”
Another significant source of workplace anxiety for journalists is the shrinking newsroom, which forces journalists to take on more responsibilities. “It’s expected that you have to take up the role that was assigned to multiple people in the past,” said Colin Harris, a full-time digital editor at the Gazette. “If you can’t do the jobs of two to three people, then you really won’t get work.”
Not only have full-time jobs been slashed in the last decade, but conditions for freelance journalists have also become increasingly precarious. “The competition is getting bigger every year, and then you’re also competing against [other journalists who have been laid off]. Or, you’re watching your colleagues get laid off,” Ho said.
Wilson Lowrey and Peter J. Gade describe how journalism has eroded as a profession in their 2011 book, “Changing The News.” A decade ago, journalism was considered relatively safe and predictable, they write. Now, journalists are “anxious about job security, and they are increasingly uncertain about the future of their profession.”
In 2016, the level of uncertainty is still there, Harris said. “It definitely causes stress — when you’re not sure if your job is going to exist in a year or two years, It’s something that’s always on your mind.”
On top of increasing insecurity and pressure to do more with less, journalists must also cope with tighter purse strings. “There was always this feeling that there was this financial stress because I wasn’t making a lot of money,” said Ho. Even though she was suffering, she couldn’t take paid sick-leave because she was technically a freelancer, she added.
“The pressure on young people coming into these news jobs is only going to get worse,” Ho said, reflecting on her experience at Bell Television as a so-called “permalancer”—a long-term freelancer who often has no employee benefits.
“You’re just a different class of employee,” she said, comparing full-time staff, with pension benefits and union support, to permalancers, who already deal with precarious work in an unstable industry,as well as limited access to Employee Assistance Programs.
“The EAP often limits counselling sessions to six,” said Ho, referring to Bell Media’s program. “And whatever amount they set for counselling is usually enough to only cover a couple of sessions.”
But while more counselling might help, it isn’t the panacea, said Gouin, who teaches in the department of psychology at Concordia.. “There are some people already more vulnerable to [chronic stress], even before they become journalists,” he said. “Those people will benefit from counselling, but it doesn’t mean that all journalists will.”
If counselling is hard to get and isn’t necessarily the cure-all, then what can be done?
To start, changing the way journalists discuss their own mental-health struggles, including the re-evaluating the words used, can transform a difficult, even shameful experience. The transformative power of using such words as “burnout,” instead of a more clinical label, like “depression,” is a case in point. Although both terms mean practically the same thing, their connotations differ significantly, explained Gouin. “It’s sort of as if the burnout was seen as something more external.”
And while on the job, try to reclaim the moments when breaking news and deadline reporting aren’t happening, says Katie Hawkins-Garr, digital innovation faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, commenting on the CareerCast rankings. “Make a concerted effort to work normal hours and, on the rare slow news day, give yourself permission to leave the office early and enjoy life.”