The news business is unfair to journalists with children. Let's change it for the better.
Many journalists think of their work as a calling. They live for breaking news, scoops, deadlines and remarkable stories. Early mornings and late nights are a small price to pay for getting people the information they need — or even shaping the news cycle.
But the profession doesn’t always feel compatible with having any other serious responsibilities or interests, much less kids who have hardcore deadlines of their own, including doctor’s appointments, daycare pickups and 7 p.m. bedtimes.
If you’re struggling with balancing journalism and parenthood, you’re not alone. Hundreds of your colleagues across the country are grappling with the same dilemma. That’s what Poynter learned after asking 390 journalists about whether their employers are family-friendly.
The survey was designed to gauge if and how journalists are accessing family-friendly policies like paid family leave, telecommuting and flex-scheduling. We also wanted to hear how workplace culture is shaping people’s experiences.
The results are both encouraging and disappointing. On the surface, many of the journalists who took the survey work for companies that offer key benefits and policies. Yet they’re also overwhelmingly worried about their career prospects after becoming parents and say they have few role models in management who demonstrate what it means to have a viable balance between work and caregiving responsibilities.
Their responses also indicate that journalists’ individual experiences are heavily reliant on whether their direct supervisor understands the challenges of being both a journalist and a parent.
If these findings confirm your worst fears, there’s still hope. Experts who study workplace policies say that pushing media companies to embrace work-life balance is an important business strategy for retention, loyalty and productivity. That approach is particularly essential for ensuring that newsrooms are as diverse as the audiences they serve: Female journalists won’t ever reach parity with their male colleagues if senior leadership refuses to acknowledge that journalists also have caregiving responsibilities, which still fall disproportionately to women.
Newsrooms need to envision and implement new ways of assigning and valuing work in order to give all employees — not just parents — the chance to have a fulfilling life off the job, said Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and formerly a veteran reporter for The Washington Post.
“When we judge you by how much time you’re willing to put in, how many hours you work, how late you’re answering your emails,” she says, “what we’re really doing is reinforcing this culture that to be a good journalist you pretty much can’t have a life outside of journalism, and we all know that’s not true.”
Even if we know that’s not technically true, plenty of people who completed our survey feel the pressure to downplay their private life and caregiving responsibilities. When we asked participants why they delayed having children, the second-most popular answer after financial concerns was a lack of clarity about how to balance deadlines, hours and family life. People also worried that parenthood would affect their chances for a promotion.
As one survey respondent put it: “It's all about productivity and stories. [W]hat's happening in life is my own problem...just keep that copy rolling.”
The survey, which opened in November, received 390 responses to multiple-choice questions about workplace policies and workload. We also received hundreds of answers to three open-ended questions.
While the number of participants represents a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. journalists employed in the newspaper, radio, internet publishing and broadcasting industries, the responses help illustrate common concerns and experiences. Those who chose to share the name of their employer reported working at local papers and television stations, big regional dailies, national newspapers, major websites and network and cable television stations.
Here’s an overview of which policies and practices were — and weren’t — common amongst our respondents.
Parental leave: Two-thirds of employers offer some paid parental leave, but less than half of the respondents took the full time allotted. It wasn’t clear whether they went back to work earlier because they received only partial pay or felt they needed to return without taking full advantage of the policy. Either way, only 14 percent of private employers in the U.S. offer paid leave, so journalists may have access to better policies than the average worker.
But paid family leave hasn’t become as essential in media as it is in Silicon Valley, where 16 or more fully paid weeks of leave are seen as standard. Media companies aren’t under the same pressure to be transparent about staff diversity and hiring practices as tech firms, nor are they necessarily competing for the same talent.
Breastfeeding: Fifty-one percent of respondents said their company policy helps new parents breastfeed. Nearly one-third said the policy was unsupportive, and 19 percent said they didn’t know what it was. It was disappointing to hear that so many people worked for employers who provided little to no aid for breastfeeding at work. With some exceptions, federal law requires employers to provide breastfeeding parents both a reasonable break time and private accommodations (that aren’t a bathroom) to pump.
Flexibility: More than half of respondents said their employer allowed them to adjust workdate stop and start times. Only 41 percent said they are permitted to work remotely. That flexibility is key for helping all employees achieve harmony between their work and personal lives, but it’s particularly important for parents who have to juggle daycare, pick-ups and drop-offs, doctor’s appointments, after-school activities and early bedtimes.
While we didn’t ask about schedule- or shift-sharing, that can be another critical strategy for giving employees creative options as they look to balance caregiving and work responsibilities.
Getting newsrooms to care about work-life balance
Many of these challenges sound familiar to Schulte, who raised two children while working at The Post. She is also the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.”
Most American workplaces, including newsrooms, have a “macho” approach to performance, which makes it hard to achieve work-life balance, Schulte said. While journalists expect to work long hours when there’s a major event, many newsrooms are steeped in an always-on culture.
People in your office, for example, may brag about staying up all night to file a story, or pull 12-hour workdays because they won’t leave until the boss does or refuse to take time off at night or on the weekend because they fear missing the next big story.
This sort of behavior probably worked well for journalists a few decades ago, when the industry’s ranks comprised mostly men who felt less pressure to make it home in time for dinner or bedtime.
But that’s just not our reality anymore. Both people in two-parent households often work full or part-time. There are more single parents who can’t leave it up to a spouse or partner to get dinner on the table. At the same time, the overwork that’s common to many newsrooms often leads to burnout — and sets the unfair expectation that the best reporters are those who are always “on” and have no life, Schulte said. It effectively rewards those who have no family responsibilities or can afford to have someone at home taking care of domestic needs.
Either way, overwork tends to negatively affect the quality of what employees produce. People aren’t as creative and make mistakes when they’re exhausted. If your newsroom is staffed only by young, single people or workaholics, you’re probably missing diverse perspectives and life experiences that would otherwise enrich the company’s coverage.
Transforming this kind of newsroom culture is hard, but it’s possible, Schulte said. She recommends focusing on three key strategies:
1) Create systems that address employees’ legitimate need to have lives outside of work. This is a much different approach than requesting one-off arrangements from individual supervisors. In her own experience at The Post, Schulte said she negotiated a four-day week with her manager but was asked keep it quiet because one manager feared others would become resentful or ask for the same schedule.
“It was very uncomfortable to make it up as you go along,” she said. Respondents in our survey were grateful for their supportive managers, noting that without them they’d probably have to reconsider staying in the business. But retention shouldn’t come down to the luck of the draw.
Additionally, if newsroom culture defaults to overwork, ad hoc arrangements can end up looking like “accommodations” for “lesser workers,” said Schulte. That’s why it’s crucial to push for company-wide policies that address a common need. “When you create systems that work for parents, you create systems that work for everyone — and make the content better.”
2) Band together with colleagues to research and propose new policies. Pushing for change in your newsroom may sound intimidating or scary, especially in an era defined by financial turmoil and layoffs. That’s why Schulte recommends teaming up with others. This, she notes, might be easier if more newsrooms were unionized and if existing unions felt they had more power to broadly advocate for their members.
In the absence of union leadership, Schulte suggests forming affinity groups where people can conduct internal surveys about employee satisfaction, talk about policies they’d like to see the company adopt, and look into tracking whether a gender gap or caregiving bias shows up in hiring, salary and promotion data.
Those groups should include childless colleagues because they want a life outside of work too, and their involvement sends an important signal to staff and leadership. The point is to create a culture in which people stop seeing more humane work-life policies as special accommodations or the concern of just parents, Schulte said. That kind of collaborative work can also be done across organizations so that journalists can share stories and best practices.
3) It’s key to build a metrics-driven case for changing workplace culture and policy. The industry isn’t known for clear-eyed assessments of high-quality performance; instead we look at a combination of talent, industriousness and personal relationships to determine whether a journalist will climb the career ladder.
That subjectivity often causes long hours to become a proxy for productivity and success. In the face of that challenge, Schulte recommends that newsrooms experiment with the way they measure performance. Take, for example, the nine-hour workday, which is common in many newsrooms. That time commitment wreaks havoc for parents, who would have to hire someone to drop off and pick up their kid at school, feed them dinner and put them to bed in order to commute and then work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The other alternative — keeping a child up until 9 or 10 p.m. to get some face time — often creates a new raft of problems for sleep-deprived parents and their kids. The long hours are also not that fun for childless employees. Those in favor of a more reasonable workday might suggest running an experiment in which one team does a 7.5-hour shift while another does a 9-hour shift.
Instead of tracking the lowest common denominators, like byline counts and clicks, managers could explore the quality and performance of the content. Which team was more likely to reach an influential audience, generate unique views, hold people’s attention for longer and drive traffic? And which of those metrics should count more than others?
If the shortened workday creates problems for maximizing daily coverage, perhaps the teams can be staggered to address that need. These are tough questions to ask, especially if the effort is spearheaded by editorial staff instead of mid-level or senior management. But without this kind of experimentation and willingness to develop new measures of success, journalists will remain stuck in a model that prizes a person’s time above all else. “You want to use metrics that encourage reaching big and accept that sometimes there’ll be misses,” said Schulte.
There are at least two other challenges to solving this problem in journalism, said Kenneth Matos, vice president of research at the consulting firm Life Meets Work.
First, journalists are a competitive bunch. They want to scoop other outlets and sometimes even their own colleagues. But with so many people jockeying for attention and kudos from higher-ups, that can also make people less cooperative when it comes to improving newsroom culture.
Matos recommends that journalists form strategic alliances with each other. Senior reporters, for example, shouldn’t be afraid of someone who’s more junior. That person could benefit from mentoring, and they might also be open to picking up or co-bylining stories when needed. Together, you might be able to serve each other’s needs and create new models for collaboration, even if you’re still engaged in healthy competition.
The second problem is that newsrooms are “filled with bad behavior reinforcers” because work is often acknowledged unpredictably. When accolades do come, it can feel like your career was rescued from the doldrums. But that feeling fades quickly in this business.
“Every now and again something you do will get a reward,” Matos said. “You have to keep working at full-tilt all the time because you don’t know if this will be the time when you get the reward.”
As a result, people often react from a feeling of “gut anxiety” rather than a “deliberate choice” about how they want to live their lives. Changing this dynamic isn’t easy because it’s both personal and structural.
Managers also don’t know the effect they have on employees and may not realize that inconsistent feedback can make staff feel like they need to chase recognition, Matos said. They need to understand that the resulting burnout is actually bad for business because it creates costly turnover. Employees, meanwhile, need to take a fresh look at their lives and ask whether what they’re doing is worth the burnout — if it’s something they’ll even remember at 80.
Matos also questions the stereotype that the “best journalists are grizzled people” because they spend all their energy at work. “Do you really need to be that person?” he asked. “Can you be more complete and multifaceted?”
That cliche, made famous and glamorous by movies like “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” is really at the heart over journalists’ struggle to have both a fulfilling family life and a rewarding career.
As we seek to build newsrooms that are more diverse and representative, there’s no reason we need to accept the outdated “macho” newsroom as gospel — and no reason we can’t, in collaboration with our colleagues, create new models for what it means to be a great, hard-working journalist in the 21st century.
Based on the results of Poynter’s survey, journalists across the country are desperate for that evolution.