The case for family-friendly newsrooms
Editor's note: Poynter and the author of this story are working together to evaluate the family-friendlyness of the journalism industry. Please find the survey below if you're interested in weighing in.
When I gave birth to my daughter two years ago, I had no idea how to be both a mother and journalist. Both are all-consuming jobs, and neither boss cares if you didn't sleep last night.
I had already watched my own friends struggle to strike a professional and personal balance. Some left their jobs to freelance or take more flexible positions. Others drew boundaries that seemed like a liability, like leaving the office before 5 p.m. or working from home.
As a features writer covering gender, sexuality and equality at Mashable, I felt particularly attuned to workplace policies and expectations that make it difficult for mothers to succeed professionally while being fulfilled as parents. I benefited tremendously from Mashable’s inclusive culture and policies, which included 12 weeks of paid parental leave and the option to telecommute when necessary. But I knew that some of my peers had little to no practical or managerial support.
Additionally, the industry has its own challenges. Paid parental leave may be brief or nonexistent. In journalism, the days are long and often unpredictable. Weekend duty is common. Holidays are not sacred. For a breastfeeding parent, covering news outside the office means pumping in a car or bathroom.
We don’t talk enough about how this culture — and the ravenous pace of digital news — can sideline talented journalists when they become parents. These are not incidental casualties. They represent lost leadership potential as well as wasted reporting and storytelling savvy.
Addressing this problem feels especially urgent in the wake of the presidential election. Building newsrooms that reflect the diversity of the communities we report on is central not only to achieving workplace equality, but to telling thoughtful stories that resonate with broad audiences. If we’re prepared to reckon with how the media may have collectively failed the American public in aspects of its coverage, focusing on diversity as part of the cure, we cannot ignore the importance of creating family-friendly workplaces.
I suspect a few newshounds young and old flinch at that phrase. Journalists see their work as a calling. Some are addicted to the adrenaline of careening from deadline to deadline. We expect to be pulled away from anniversary dinners, birthday parties and even vacations to cover breaking news and big stories. That devotion is easy — until you have caregiving responsibilities.
I found that out the hard way. Though my husband, who is also a journalist, supports me unequivocally, and empathetic managers openly advocate on my behalf, I still occasionally encounter childcare conflicts that make me wonder if I’ve pushed the limits of working parenthood too far.
I’ve sat in the dark nursing my daughter to sleep — the only way she’d slip into slumber when she was younger — while scrolling through Twitter to gauge reactions to political and pop culture events that I had to write about later.
When I watched the most recent presidential debate, my daughter screamed for me in another room. I finally relented, joining her and my husband for bedtime. “Mama, what’s that?” she asked when I walked into her room wearing headphones. As I sang her to sleep I could hear Donald Trump in my ear shouting about the spread of ISIS.
I offer these anecdotes as examples of what it takes to remain in journalism as a parent, particularly in the early years. I realize they pale in comparison to the logistical and emotional demands of covering the courts or city council, for example, or spending weeks or months on the road. I’ve heard about more difficult challenges some mothers encounter — and the sacrifices they make.
I’ve worked hard — sometimes exhausting myself — to stay in this business. As I’ve learned firsthand at Mashable, it’s much easier to invest that energy into your career when your employer wants to help you succeed as a working parent.
And while I once worried about how my value might change upon becoming a mother, I now firmly believe that being a parent with more than a decade of professional reporting experience gives me a unique perspective and voice. If we’re obsessed about who leaves the office early to pick up a child from daycare, it can eclipse the long-term organizational worth of parental employees.
Too many parents feel they can’t successfully navigate a workplace culture that demands everything of them at all times. This is particularly true for women, and I wince every time I talk to a female peer who wanted to remain in the industry, or return to it after freelancing, but was deterred by the lack of common sense accommodations and policies. Every time that happens, we take one step back from achieving gender equality in newsrooms that badly need it.
These dynamics also affect fathers, same-sex, trans and queer parents, stepparents and adult children of aging parents. Since research suggests that older people of color rely on family aid more often, some journalists may also find themselves juggling multiple caregiving responsibilities. And any journalist without the means to subsidize unpaid leave, for example, may decide that there are simply too many barriers to success as a parent in this industry. Who could blame them?
Some journalists leave by choice, completely satisfied with that decision, and I cheer them on. What I can’t abide is the slow trickle of qualified journalists who wanted to stay but couldn’t.
I want to do something about this. The survey below is an opportunity for journalists to share their own parenting experiences, including details about the prevalence of policies and practices that lead to improved retention, boosted morale and gender equality. Please consider filling it out.
We also hope it provides a moment for journalists — and those who manage them — to reflect on their newsroom culture. Perhaps they’ll be inspired to advocate for a more family-friendly workplace. Much like the stories we tell our audiences, change often begins with one person who speaks with conviction for the greater good.