How to redesign your job and your newsroom

  • Journalism has always been a stressful career, but workplace design may offer some solutions.
  • Jane Elizabeth, a journalism instructor at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism shares her knowledge on how workplace design can help alleviate the stress of being a journalist in the 21st century. 
  • Managerial staff are often unprepared for dealing with the stress of their reporters. 
  • Elizabeth offers a detailed collection of tips on how to design your newsroom for safety and productivity.
  • The Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that provides continuing education, recognition and help to journalists across the 49th state. Become a member to support local journalism and attend the annual conference.

Workplace design, which refers to organizing and designing your tasks and workflow to maximize performance and safety of tasks, is often made to relieve stress. Therefore, it should be practiced in newsrooms; which are very stressful in their own right. However, it often isn’t, and Jane Elizabeth says that’s a problem. 

Lots has been written about the stress on newsrooms, and there are good reasons for that. Informing the public has always been stressful, but this time in journalism is particularly stressful. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact, but it especially impacts newsrooms across the world, with more people working remotely. 

But beyond the pandemic, reporters have too often been yelled at and shot at by rowdy protestors and law enforcement alike. There is also a sleep deprivation issue among managers that has to be addressed. 

 “Any manager is not going to just get up and go to bed in the middle of the night when you got [journalists] out there in danger, ” Elizabeth said.

Jane Elizabeth is a career journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She currently teaches at Ohio University and has spoken to the 2022 Alaska Press Club Conference. She shared her thoughts and research on newsroom stress, workplace design, the problems plaguing the journalism industry and journalism management, and how workplace design could be a potential helpful solution to some, though not all, of these problems.

The problems that could be solved by workplace design

One of the biggest problems, and arguably the problem that leads to other problems about to be sketched, is stress. Ignoring the stress on both managers and employees in the newsroom has only ever led to bad outcomes, Elizabeth said.

However, another major problem that contributes to this stress is budget cuts; and these problems have been recorded for a while. These budget cuts often mean there are not enough managers to go around, which can lead to more stressed out managers and less paid interns or even reporters. Some journalists have been underpaid to the point of going on food stamps. 

Whether it’s budget or other reasons, finding the root cause of stress is always important, and figuring out how to deal with it is as well. Workplace design will definitely be a great place to start.

Dealing with stress in the newsroom

Stress in journalism has existed since the beginning of journalism. For a very long time, it was viewed as something to be proud of instead of to be avoided; and this is largely due to the conflict and dramatic appeal it offered outsiders.There is also a degree of machismo that adds to the romanticization of a journalist’s stress. Complicating this, not having different perspectives in the newsroom early on has led to perpetuating these norms. Anyone new in the newsroom was “brought up” by those who came before them.  

“I do think it does show you the problems of not having diversity in a company, or in the room anywhere, turns into this fraternity that has traditions and norms that just perpetuate themselves,” Elizabeth said. 

Elizabeth told conference attendees about something she had read recently that shocked her. An editor of a major national publication told reporters that they can’t afford to fall into disarray or depression while reporting on the collapsing world around them. “If you are going through hell, keep going,” the editor said.  

“This is exactly what I’ve been talking about, exactly what you should not be doing right now, telling people, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,’” she reflects. 

Journalists and managers alike also often aggrandize their individual roles of informing the public for understandable reasons, and this especially true when reporting becomes increasingly dangerous due to the conditions outside their control. 

Journalism is great at showcasing a problem, but not always great at finding real solutions. The stress of this, the desire to not be seen as weak, coupled with the perpetual threat of job loss leads to a vicious cycle of burnout. 

Because of these wide-reaching problems in organization (many relating to stress) a lot of journalism research on stress has largely gone to waste. This is because the research is almost never shared with people who could make this organizational change to newsrooms. This can also lead to a lack of negotiation between employees and managers, added on by the plethora of problems already mentioned.

Problems with journalistic managerial staff

Managers are overworked just as often as reporters. Oftentimes in journalism, you’ll be promoted to manager because you were a good reporter to begin with and not because you have any prior management experience. 

Granted, there are some reporters who are good managers, but some aren’t. And either way, there’s little to prepare reporting staff for being a manager, especially in a time when journalists working for the managers could be regularly in danger. 

Overall, workplace design should not be seen as a permanent solution to these large problems, but they could help minimize the damage. 

How to design your workplace

Workplace design often sounds complicated, but it can be simplified. Here’s a good three-step process that Jane Elizabeth provided to her conference attendees. 

  1. Have a ‘to-don’t list

Every newsroom should have a list of what to stop doing. You should list every piece of work required of the job and ask yourself ‘can I stop doing this?’. If the answer is yes, of course add to the ‘stop doing list’. This can be scary, as it requires deconstructing everything you do in the newsroom, but you should do it because it will let you know what is sincerely important.

“You need to go through that and decide what is necessary and what is not,” Elizabeth said. “And that involves looking at your metrics. Is this feature that we are writing every Sunday getting the readership that we need.”

NOTE: If possible, ask for help from people in and outside your newsroom to help categorize this type of list. You’ll probably be amazed at how much you do not actually need to do, and looking at this with both fresh and critical eyes can only be a good thing.  

  1. Focus on work being done, not the job description

Look at all the responsibilities and chores of all staff and freelancers. This may sound a bit unusual, but oftentimes job descriptions you see of a given position can be dated and not based on the reality of the type of work or tasks the person with that job description does. See what can be changed about individual jobs for that reason.

“It is not really important who is doing it or what their job is, it is what the chores are, what the jobs are, don’t attach names to them,” Elizabeth said. “Just by looking at that body of work, you are going to see some obvious things that could be changed.”

Consider eliminating teams. This is a controversial tip but Elizabeth hopes newsrooms will entertain it. 

“Just by having teams you are boxing people in,” Elizabeth said. “Oh, that’s the politics team, they can’t help over here with our food section next week.” 

An important tip may be to outsource to consultants or business schools, or even university researchers if possible to help with this workload if there is something that needs to be done that is not representative of anyone in the newsroom’s jobs. 

  1. Build a shadow management staff

This is an expansion on the earlier point on job descriptions. A ‘shadow staff’ inherently sounds scary, though there is nothing particularly scary about it. It is one hundred percent a back-up crew, one that can relieve stress from the other people in the newsroom who, after enacting all the previous tips, still have way too much on their plate or are on the verge of being burned out. 

Beyond all that, both the shadow staff and regular staff should have less permanence and fewer boundaries. You see, less permanence and rigidity in their jobs may help the workload of all others, creating a sort of synergy that can help work get done independent of burnout. 

NOTE: You can also automate if necessary. As scary as this seems, it’s less about robots taking jobs and more about making sure the people who have jobs can do more important work 

  1. Take advantage of the money that is out their to help newsrooms survive

You can get a grant for this, especially if your newsroom is a non-profit, but even if it is not. Use additional funds to hire someone to help organize this redesign. You don’t want this process to cause you more stress. 

“You don’t want to add stress to your stress by trying to resolve your stress,” Elizabeth said.

And one final note: Make sure everyone has access to all these processes. You don’t want to do any of this in secret. People should have access to all lists, able to add their input, ideas and help make sure nothing is forgotten.   

These are just some of the insights shared by Jane Elizabeth, you can watch the full recording and Q&A here and check out the slides from her presentation here. Just remember that these tips can be just one solution to the complicated problems showcased in these articles, and newsrooms should see if these tips apply to them. That being said, experimenting with workplace design in the newsroom is still a great place to start. 

Related work: Journalism managers are burned out. Is it time for a work redesign by Jane Elizabeth for American Press Institute

Written by Logan Smith

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