February 16, 2023

Tucked into the corner of the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, next to the open kitchen, is a small room overlooking Mission Street. Most days, it sits empty, available for reporters who need to duck in for phone calls. But once a week, the room transforms into office space for the Chronicle’s in-house therapist.

It’s part of a new effort by Hearst Newspapers, which owns the Chronicle and 23 other dailies, to better support employees’ mental health. The therapist, Mariah Winslow, is available for all Hearst employees in California and Texas — the two states where she is licensed. Conversations with her are confidential, and appointments are booked through Hearst’s employee assistance program Spring Health, of which Winslow is an employee. She does not share information about her sessions with Hearst.

Winslow started seeing clients virtually in November, and last month, she began working out of the Chronicle newsroom one day a week for free, in-person appointments. Her schedule has been “pretty consistently” full.

“I think the general consensus as I’ve been working is that people are tired,” Winslow said. “People are ready to get the help they need.”

The initiative to get a dedicated therapist for Hearst has been years in the making, propelled by internal conversations about mental health in the wake of the pandemic. Those discussions started in January 2021 when Chronicle health reporter Erin Allday sent her editors an article about the struggles health reporters faced in covering the pandemic. They asked her if she had tried calling a phone number that had been set up to help Hearst’s reporters.

She had, but it hadn’t helped. The call had been 20 minutes, and the person who answered the phone gave advice that she could have found through a Google search.

“I said, ‘I’m covering the pandemic. I’m really stressed out,’” Allday recounted. “And they were just like, ‘Well, when you’re feeling stressed out, stand up and stretch,’ or, ‘Breathe in for this count and breathe out’ or ‘Focus on an object in the room’ — things like that.”

Allday said her editors were dismayed and wanted to do better. A few months later, they, along with Hearst’s human resource staff, approached Allday and a few other reporters to hold focus groups about mental health challenges the journalists were facing.

During that conversation, reporters shared stories about being on the frontlines of mass shootings and wildfires and fearing for their lives. They described the devastation they saw and the crushing relentlessness of the news cycle. They talked about pushing their bodies to their limits to cover breaking news events, working long hours with little sleep. They spoke about the brutal harassment they faced online, the isolation of the pandemic, and the pressure they felt to do justice to their communities with their reporting.

“We told all of our stories, and I remember literally their mouths kind of dropped open and their eyes got really big,” said education reporter Jill Tucker, who was part of those conversations.

They also talked about the unhealthy coping mechanisms that previous generations of journalists had once turned to in order to manage their stress.

“Not that long ago, journalists sought therapy on a barstool, and that didn’t turn out well for a lot of people,” Tucker said. “We really wanted the Chronicle to be a healthier environment, for people to acknowledge what this job can do to you, and to have resources available to prevent burnout.”

What followed were more focus groups as well as a series of changes. The newsroom instituted a policy that reporters who were in the field covering traumatic breaking news events had to come back after three days. Hearst organized a few group counseling sessions. The company also partnered with Spring Health to offer a number of free therapy sessions for each employee.

Those changes were welcome, but they didn’t address the issue of therapists not understanding the unique culture of journalism.

“These are not experts in what our job is like or how journalists are,” Tucker said. “We don’t like saying no. We don’t like looking weak. We want to think that we’re these superhero-type people who can just keep going and going and going and going in this noble profession.”

So Hearst worked with Spring Health to find a dedicated therapist who could serve their newsrooms. In October, Spring Health hired Winslow, who has a background in trauma.

“This is someone who is dedicated to our businesses who will then start to understand our businesses and how they operate,” said Hearst senior vice president of human resources Renee Peterson, who led the effort. “She’s just dedicated for us.”

Winslow said one benefit of working as a dedicated provider with Hearst is that she can help drive conversations about mental health. In addition to providing therapy for employees, she has held sessions for HR staff and managers on how to recognize when workers are struggling and how to respond in an “empathetic and trauma-informed way.”

It is not uncommon for newsrooms to hire temporary therapists after a mass disaster, said Elana Newman, the research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Having a therapist onsite can help news organizations send the message that mental health issues are not something to be embarrassed about and makes it easier for employees to get assistance. Therapists who understand a newsroom culture can also tailor treatments for their clients with that culture in mind.

After hearing that the Chronicle would have an in-house therapist, city hall reporter Trisha Thadani shared the news on Twitter in the hopes of inspiring other newsrooms to start similar initiatives.

“I felt so supported in that moment, just seeing that Hearst and the Chronicle were willing to actually put money behind us taking care of ourselves,” Thadani said.

Thadani said she hopes Winslow’s presence in the newsroom helps destigmatize the idea of talking to a therapist. Journalists, she said, often struggle with asking for help because there is not a culture of putting yourself first. Seeing a colleague stop by the therapist’s office, even for a brief moment, can help normalize the practice.

During her visit to the newsroom last week, Winslow held a group session. It had been two weeks since the Half Moon Bay shooting that left seven dead. The Chronicle had covered the shooting, which took place just 30 miles from San Francisco, extensively, and several of the reporters involved in that coverage decided to attend.

Allday said she spoke about the heaviness of the responsibility she felt in covering the tragedy. Part of her assignment had been to tell the stories of the victims, who were all immigrants. She struggled to find information about them or their families.

“These were people who were invisible in their life, in their communities. These were farmworkers who were living off the radar,” Allday said. “And now in their death, they were just as invisible, and I found that just gut-wrenching.”

Tucker, who was also in the room, said the session gave her a chance to express thoughts that in years past she might have kept private out of fear of appearing weak. The group was able to talk about the difficulties of their jobs in an environment where others understood their experiences.

“To have people in the room nodding or agreeing — you don’t feel alone,” Tucker said.

Peterson said that Hearst plans to hold “touch points” with Spring Health to gauge the success of the new program. Though Winslow only works with employees in California and Texas, Hearst journalists outside those states can access other mental health resources through Spring Health.

The journalists at the Chronicle are still trying to figure out how to best use this new service, but they are excited that they can have these conversations about making the newsroom culture more supportive of mental health. Tucker said she finds the fact that they have a dedicated therapist “mind-blowing.”

“I don’t think any of us sitting at that conference table months ago could have envisioned that we would have an in-house therapist as a result of it.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at or on Twitter @angelanfu.
Angela Fu

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