That Monday night feeling: tackling newsroom stress

At this sort of time on a Monday a few years ago, I’d be getting a bit of a sinking feeling.

My mind would be gearing up for The Worst Day of The Week.

My last boss as editor of The Bath Chronicle, Lynne Fernquest, used to joke that she wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with me on a Tuesday because I found the day so stressful.

For weekly newspapers going to press on a Wednesday afternoon, they could be horrible days, stretching well beyond 12 hours, with little time to look up from a battered keyboard.

The difference between the pace of life on individual weekdays has been evened out since then, with the voracious demands of a 24/7 website meaning every day has an equal level of expectation and potential stress.

Luckily for me, I no longer have that Monday evening feeling, or its Sunday night equivalent.

Pretty much without exception, I look forward to each working day, like an annoying Duracell bunny Pollyanna.

Appropriately enough, tomorrow – a Tuesday which three years ago would have seen me in full news editor headbanging mode – will find me discussing the very subject of workplace relationships and stress.

I’ll be on a panel as an independent observer looking at changes to one of the university’s psychology courses – and, in true Pollyanna style, I’m very much looking forward to it.

This week there have been at least two acknowledgements of the reality of stress in the 21st century newsroom.

One was a very familiar one: the threat of industrial action at Newsquest titles in Scotland, where the NUJ says reduced staffing has led to unacceptable stress levels.

The other was a bit more of a surprise.

An American academic is looking for journalist volunteers for a study looking at how and why people in our profession cope so resiliently well with pressure.

In the 18 months that I worked as an editorial trainer in the newspaper industry, I think I saw most aspects of office dynamics.

And hundreds of one-to-ones with reporters, designers, editors, features writers and sports journalists left me with an A to Z of the pressures modern media professionals face.

From analytics to accountability on social media, from diminishing resources to deadlines, from information overload to IT flakiness, and from ethics to evening work, I heard and saw it all.

And on my regular visits to newsrooms now, I continue to do so, as my colleagues keep up a daily fight to satisfy what can be a fickle and transient audience.

And yet, I still believe what my Twitter bio proclaims: that journalism can be the best job in the world.

But there’s a nut we need to crack: one that I have obsessed over for some time now.

I went for a drink with a young reporter recently.

He wanted to get a few things off his chest about his future, about workload, about story choice and about his work-life balance.

But this was what struck a chord with me.

“I used to be able to start the day with a list of seven or eight stories that I’d do that day, and mostly, I’d get through it.

“Now I’m lucky if I do two.”

That’s not to say that his output has dropped by 75 per cent.

He’s probably writing more stories that ever before. They’re just not the ones he’d choose to write.

The lack of predictability of journalism, the cliched notion that you never really know what the day is going to bring, is one of its greatest attractions as a profession.

It’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

But it can easily become a double-edged sword if your day loses all shape, and you feel at the whim of others, as they fire ‘can you just web this’ or ‘can you just break off and do that’ Exocets into your inbox.

In a fast-moving world where web targets are driving the day, some of this is inescapable, I realise. I’ve sent those emails.

But I’ve written before about the wonderful idea of supported autonomy – the importance of feeling in control of your working day. And it’s not just about getting through that list – it’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

That, I think, is the key to tackling newsroom stress. That and fostering a sense of belonging, of common purpose, and, of course, of camaraderie.

Perhaps in the end, it comes down to a version of this, one of my favourite newsroom quotes and mottos from a lovely piece on Poynter.

 

good time

 

 

 

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