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

 

 

 

No shame in crying: why journalists should show some emotion

I had a moment in my car this morning.

I had just parked up when a very familiar voice stopped me in my tracks.

It was that of one of the most dignified, resilient, patient and public-spirited people I have ever come across.

One whose family’s life was turned completely upside-down 20 years ago, when I was news editor of The Bath Chronicle.

I – like all journalists who ever meet them – am in awe of Steve Hall and his wife Pat.

Today police have revealed a new ray of hope in their battle to find the killer of the Halls’ daughter Melanie, who was last seen in a Bath nightclub in June 1996.

Over 18 years, my colleagues and I at the Chronicle covered every twist and turn of the Hall family’s agony, including arrests, the discovery of her remains by the M5 in Gloucestershire, and her desperately moving funeral in Bath Abbey.

Melanie pic canva

Picture montage: The Bath Chronicle

Reporters such as Imogen Sellers, Wendy Best, Samantha Walker and Siobhan Stayt were regular visitors to the couple’s home near Bradford on Avon.

And Steve threw himself into supporting the community that was supporting him, chairing Bath City Football Club, and teaching art classes.

I had known today’s news was coming after talking to the Chron reporter covering the story a few days ago.

But the sound of Steve’s voice – quietly dignified as always, but wearier – and the pictures of Pat left me fighting back the tears this morning.

I sat in my car for some time before I could get out.

The Chronicle’s Tim MacFarlan says it was a privilege to interview Pat and Steve for today’s coverage.

And he’s right.

The best parts of journalism are a privilege.

Being allowed into people’s lives at their most emotionally vulnerable times is an immense honour.

I hope that over the last two decades, the Chronicle, the BBC, the Western Daily Press, ITV, the Wiltshire Times, and other news outlets have repaid that honour by treating the Hall family with care and sensitivity.

I am certain that I am by no means the first journalist to be tangibly moved by their courage and determination, and by the articulacy they have shown in the face of such pain.

I’m currently reading The Ethical Journalist by the great Tony Harcup, who tells the story of BBC reporter Barbara Plett, who informed listeners she had cried at the frailty of the PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Then BBC governors ruled that seasoned journalist Plett had broken impartiality rules by letting her emotions get the better of her.

Luckily, wiser heads seemed to have prevailed last year when another BBC reporter, Graham Satchell, was visibly moved as he ended a live report from Paris in the wake of the terror attacks on that city.

There have been odd occasions when I have seen reporters get too close to stories, and lose the sense of proportion that is needed for objective coverage.

But actually some of the best journalism comes from emotional involvement.

I’m sure I won’t be the only journalist with a lump in my throat as interviews with Pat and Steve Hall are played out today.

And there’s no shame in that.

 

 

 

 

 

Journalism is a team sport

I’m developing a man crush.

Correction.

I’m developing two man crushes.

(Or should that be men crushes? Where is someone who works with words for a living when you need him?)

And the targets of my bromantic affection have a couple of other things in common.

Firstly, they both wear specs – as I do.

More importantly, though, they are both experts in the analysis and development of team spirit.

My first hero is the man whose mission is to teach the world to sing, choirmaster Gareth Malone.

I have so much admiration for his ability to get people who have never met before to bond beautifully, and for his extraordinary skill in using music to transform self-esteem.

His latest work, with wounded servicemen and women, was – as always – hugely moving, and hugely positive.

My other inspiration is writer and leadership expert Simon Sinek.

He has more wisdom in his little finger than many FTSE 100 bosses have in their entire bodies.

Essentially his messages are about the long-term financial benefits of putting people before profits, and about the need for company purpose and integrity.

Interestingly, both Gareth and Simon have worked closely with the military in recent years, absorbing and reinforcing key lessons about sacrifice, camaraderie and teamwork.

I’ll be drawing on some Sinek wisdom tomorrow, when I pick up the threads of an editorial management training programme with some senior journalists.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan revived the phrase ‘politics is a team game’ at the weekend. But it’s a sentiment that could equally well be applied to journalism.

So tomorrow, we’ll be exploring what makes a great newsroom team, and putting some of my obsessions – from tea-making to early morning watercooler moments – under the spotlight.

A day later, I will hopefully be watching the seeds of teamwork come to fruition, as our third year students stage their own version of The One Show.

Students will admit that the dynamics of news days and news weeks can be a real challenge – particularly coping with roles that require leadership and decision-making.

They can be frustrated over their colleagues’ commitment and attendance, sensitive over criticism and feedback, and worried over divisions of labour.

All of which is brilliant preparation for life in a real newsroom.

A strong and supportive team spirit goes a long way in the teeth of what former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger memorably called a ‘force 12 digital hurricane’ as he stepped down from the paper’s Scott Trust this week.

When I ask journalists when they experienced team spirit at its best, the answer usually involves overcoming adversity together.

There may be no I in team.

But there’s one in pride and passion, satisfaction and sensitivity, and craic and creativity.

And it’s those qualities that I’ll be keeping my eye out for this week.

 

The mini off-diary sabbatical

Two years ago, I was very proud to be a journalist.

I still am, it’s worth saying, and I hope that feeling will never go away.

But in March 2014, one of my reporters and I were feeling particularly chuffed with ourselves.

We had reached the endgame in one of the most satisfying and rewarding pieces of journalism I have ever been involved in.

After sharing the frustration of parents, staff and pupils at the frankly dictatorial regime operated at a local secondary school, we had been able to expose the head to proper and incisive scrutiny, and help usher in a new era of openness and relationship-building. And she had finally just resigned.

People said some very nice things about our investigation and we know it made some very harassed and voiceless staff feel listened to and vindicated.

The reporter concerned also won an award for her work later that year, which is always nice.

Those few weeks at the beginning of 2014 kept me going for a very long time.

If you ask most journalists why they came into the profession, one of the most common answers you are likely to get is ‘to make a difference.’

As I said in my last blog, it’s certainly an ambition that motivated one of my local journalism heroes, onetime Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern.

And undoubtedly, it was one that has kept reporters at the Yellow Advertiser going in recent months as they worked on an investigation into the abuse of around 60 children in the 1980s and 1990s.

But after that last blog, a senior journalist got in touch with me to express scepticism that time could ever be found to do justice to these hugely satisfying stories.

We need to produce them every year or so to recharge our journalistic batteries and to ensure that our investigative and story development muscles don’t atrophy.

But how, practically, can we step off the treadmill of what can so easily become the daily grind?

How can we reconnect ourselves with the simple truth that we are doing a job that can be the best in the world, one that others would kill to do?

Here’s an idea. As I begin to explain it, I fear it will shot down in flames.

Probably with the simple and understandable riposte to my question of ‘hire more staff.’

But what the hell.

I’d like to float the idea of the mini off-diary sabbatical.

Once a month, one reporter would be given two or three days off to pursue a story that they have had no time to develop in their normal working week.

That reporter would be chosen by his or her peers in what could even be a monthly Dragon’s Den social event, at which everyone pitches for an off-diary stint.

Those colleagues might have to work a bit harder and longer for those few days, which would clearly have to be relatively holiday-free.

But they’d know that their turn would come in the months ahead.

And they’d also know that the most satisfying journalism was actually happening in their offices.

So there you go.

If anyone wants to comment on my idea, I will be putting on my tin hat.

Putting the list into journalist

He’s never on my list of things to do each day, but I drive to wherever I’m going of a morning to the accompaniment of the Chris Evans show.

This morning he was talking about lists – and how he never uses them.

Perhaps he doesn’t need them because he’s got other people – such as the show’s producer, who he says has lists of lists – to do the list-making for him.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the list as a weapon in the battle against stress.

I’ve said before that planning is the journalist’s friend, that looking ahead and shaping your day, your week and your month can buy you the time to do the things you want to do.

Not everyone believes in them, as one of my favourite writers, the Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has reported. He remains a great list-maker, though, as well as a devotee of the mantra that anything that is going to take less than two minutes should be done immediately.

I frequently inspect reporters’ notebooks and diaries. Not in a weird way, I hasten to add, although I can sometimes get overly distracted by the beauty of decent shorthand notes.

I like to see how they frame their working days, the way they line up, marshal and corral the tasks, stories and calls they need to tackle.

Sometimes I am greeted by an ancient scroll, full of crossings-out and hieroglyphics which are the polar opposite of those beautiful shorthand outlines.

I point out the need to start each day with a fresh piece of paper, that the process of writing down the day’s agenda is itself a symbolic act of exerting control over the next 24 hours.

Confronting yourself with what needs to be done can be intimidating.

Chris Evans this morning complained that lists subverted his instinctive sense of priorities, forcing him to do whatever task he put at the top first.

Actually, the whole point of lists is to put you in – appropriately enough for Mr Evans – the driving seat.

I compose my lists in chronological order, aiming to organise the stuff I have to do in tentatively scheduled slots.

It works for me.

Anyway, I need to get on.

I’ve got a to-do list for tomorrow to start.