December 9, 2020

Earlier this semester, The Daily Gamecock at the University of South Carolina made waves when it published an editorial announcing it was “going dark” for a week and taking a break from producing any content.

The editorial board wrote:

It’s hard to ask for a break knowing that an already overworked colleague would have to pick up any of the tasks that you were unable to fulfill. So, for the most part, we’ve been pushing through. Waiting for it to get better. Failing to take care of ourselves.

We haven’t been sleeping. We’ve forgotten to eat. We’ve been staring at screens for hours on end. Our negligence of our mental health has started to impact our physical health, and it’s also affected our ability to produce the highest-quality content possible. There was a tension in the newsroom, a feeling that everyone was close to their breaking point.

It’s difficult to step away. We are all deeply invested in the work we do at this paper, but we have to allow ourselves to exist outside our identities as editors and producers. While we strongly stand by our commitment to report, fighting burnout and practicing self-care ensures that we will be able to continue to serve this community to the best of our ability.

It was a bold move in the middle of the semester, just weeks before a contentious presidential election. But the staff recognized that they couldn’t be doing their best work if their nerves were frayed and their mental health was suffering.

Student journalists, as you make coverage plans for winter break, I want to challenge you to consider: What would it mean to “go dark” for a week?

For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, commit to logging off and not publishing anything. Log out of Slack and delete your “work email” from your phone. Set an out-of-office reply to explain to sources who might contact you that you’re taking time off. Even consider logging out of Twitter (gasp!).

This will be easier for some parts of your newsroom than others — university news will likely be quiet anyway over the holidays, as faculty and administrators take their own breaks. Sports, on the other hand, tend to continue over breaks and that section may have to take a different approach.

If scheduling a staffwide week off doesn’t feel feasible, split up winter break into weeklong or two-week shifts and designate people to be on call for each section. Make this schedule clear to the whole staff so people know who to call or send tips to if news comes up.

The bottom line: Make sure everyone on your staff has at least a week or two where they are truly, totally off over the holidays. (Editors, that means you, too.)

It might feel like you’re neglecting your responsibility to your campus and community when you take time off. But ultimately, you can’t do that work if you’re not taking care of yourself. Stepping back and taking a break will help you jump into a new semester and a new year, refreshed and ready to tackle whatever comes up next.

Send me your best work

I want to see the work you’re proudest of from 2020! Collecting student journalists’ favorite projects has been illuminating and inspiring these past two years, and we’re continuing that in an especially newsy year. (Here are examples from 2019 and 2018.)

Fill out this Google Form by Friday, Dec. 11 to share work your publication is proud of, whether you or someone else created it. I’ll compile them for next week’s newsletter issue.

This is not a contest — I’ll include as many submissions as space allows, and I’m not judging the work samples. To allow as many students to share their work as possible, please only submit one piece per journalist.

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One story worth reading

The distribution of vaccines is getting closer and closer. My editor Barbara Allen writes in her Alma Matters newsletter for journalism educators:

“Some considerations as the story evolves:

  • Who gets vaccines, and in what order? How does your community decide?
  • Where will the vaccines be administered — doctor’s offices, pharmacies, university health facilities? Get in touch now — and keep in touch — with medical personnel at your university health center. Talk to them weekly about what they are hearing. Offer to help spread information that they need to get out to the public.
  • Your students need to have a good handle now on the medical distribution systems in place in your city and county. Make sure you’ve walked them through an organizational chart of the county health bodies. Reach out now to anyone who might be involved, and stay in touch.
  • Here’s a good example from The Washington Post of stories you can start now.”

Poynter’s hosting a free webinar on Monday, Dec. 14 to help you prepare to report on COVID-19 vaccines. Register here.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Take what you need to finish the fall semester

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
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