March 10, 2021

When I read Anne Helen Petersen’s most recent book for an impromptu pandemic book club, I knew I wanted to talk with her for The Lead.

“Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” unpacks the societal pressures and workplace conditions that have uniquely set millennials up for burnout. I’m on the youngest end of the millennial spectrum, and many readers of this newsletter fall into Gen Z, but the book has lessons for all of us after this past year.

The pandemic has taken a unique toll on journalists’ mental health. Separating work from the rest of our lives has become near-impossible — we’re still living through the biggest news event of our lifetimes while also reporting on it. Even if you don’t identify what you’re experiencing as burnout, know the signs to be aware of before it gets worse.

Petersen earned a doctorate in media studies and worked in academia before entering journalism as a culture writer for BuzzFeed. She left BuzzFeed in 2020 to start an independent newsletter called Culture Study with Substack, and she’s writing a book that will come out later this year about the future of work.

Petersen discussed how student journalists can guard against burnout and push their publications to create healthier work cultures. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Cover of Anne Helen Petersen’s book. (Courtesy)

Tell me about your journalism background. Were you involved in student journalism?

I had no journalism background before going to BuzzFeed and had never been on a school newspaper. My best friend in college was the editor of our college newspaper (at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington), and I knew on Thursday nights I had to bring her a coffee for production night. I was terrified of journalism because I really conceive of myself as an introvert, and the idea of interviewing people was very daunting to me.

A lot of my ability to pivot into journalism from academia is due to the fact that I took a bunch of creative nonfiction classes in college. Those taught me how to write an essay, essentially, and how to write about things that aren’t what we’d normally think of as a personal essay. When I was doing my Ph.D., I felt tension about wanting to make my dissertation and academic writing feel dynamic and not boring.

How did your own experience as a journalist play into your decision to write about burnout?

I burned out and I didn’t know what to do about it. The peak burnout moment for me came when I was in Austin promoting a book. My editor at BuzzFeed called me and said, there’s been a mass shooting an hour away, in Sutherland Springs. I drove over and covered it and the next day, I got on a plane for this trip I’d planned to be in a community in southeastern Utah filled with people who’d left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was there for a week, then went back to covering the midterm elections. I’d also written this piece about Armie Hammer that led to lots of harassment around that time.

After the midterms, I took two days off and was like, this is as much vacation as I need. I was getting into fights with my editor and crying — she said I was burnt out and I was like, “How dare you.” This led me to investigate what was going on with me and finally thinking about what I was experiencing as burnout. I’d been resistant to naming it that. From there, I opened the lens a little more to the specific dynamics in my generation that turned us into these burnout machines.

What do you wish you’d known about burnout and mental health when you started your journalism career?

I wish that organizations understood burnout and the diminishing returns of burnout culture. Right now, still, they’re only slightly changing their dynamics. They used to want our journalists to work all the time, because the perfect employee is someone who works all the time. The consequences of that posture are coming to bear: You can get a lot of work out of this person, but they don’t have any resiliency. The quality of work goes down.

In your book, you emphasized that systemic issues, not just individual choices, lead to burnout. What can student publications do to support their staff members and create a healthy work environment?

It’s hard because people see it as a proving ground. It’s their first opportunity to throw themselves into it and come away with great clips. Protecting yourself against something if you haven’t experienced it is really hard. It’s easy to say “That’s not my problem; I don’t have a burnout problem.” That was part of my posture.

Modeling behavior like the student paper at the University of South Carolina (who took a week off to prioritize their mental health) is really great. Students are trying to do so much in producing high-quality journalism, but what if they also work to produce high-quality journalism culture?

In one chapter of your book, you wrote about how pressure to find your “dream job” and follow your passion can lead to unhealthy work situations and burnout. That really resonated with me. How do you think that applies to the journalism field?

Connie Wang at Refinery29 wrote this great essay: “The ‘Grateful To Be Here’ Generation Has Some Apologizing To Do.” There’s an ethos in journalism that whatever situation you find yourself in, if it’s a job, be grateful. It doesn’t matter how exploitative it is, if it makes you feel like s—, if there are microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality — just do it. Grin and bear it.

That’s so unhealthy and so toxic, but millennials in particular have internalized that idea that it’s what you have to do in order to make it. Once enough people are willing to do that, when people do stand up to that culture whether it’s pushing back against harassment or forming a union to create more safety nets, it’s viewed as a lack of gratitude.

The major thing is for journalists to stop thinking about their work as any sort of passion or dream job. You are a worker, and workers deserve protections. That’s at the heart of a lot of unionization efforts in general. Newspaperpeople used to think of themselves as workers and there were so many of them. As it became rarified, it became more of this “do what you love” sort of job.

As student journalists enter the industry, how can they push their publications to recognize burnout culture?

One way millennials got their reputation for being self-centered and indulgent is that when we entered the workplace, we tried to set boundaries. When you first start in a job, you have to see what the expectations are and how toxic things are. If it’s incredibly toxic, stay there for a year if you can and then look for another job. You’re just going to suffer.

Try really hard to have open communication with your manager. It’s hard because in journalism, most of the time our editors are our managers, and they don’t necessarily have managerial skills. Being a good editor isn’t the same skill set as being a good manager.

The clearer you can be about expectations for production and when you shouldn’t be working, the better. In personal experience, a lot of the time the person setting these expectations for how much you should be working is yourself. Your managers would love for you to do a little less.

I’m on the youngest end of being a millennial, and many readers of this newsletter are in Gen Z. Based on your research, how do you think these trends will play out in this next generation?

I see two trends: One is that they’re intensified, and there’s more pressure to optimize yourself and continue to overwork.

The other trend: Gen Z will say, screw this, millennials are broken. How can we not be like them? I really appreciate that, and it’s natural to try to reject the ideological norms of the generation before you. I’m hesitant to predict anything, because many of the bad takes of what millennials are like started to formulate when they were at the same point Gen Z is right now.

It’s also important to remember that whatever we’re feeling now about journalism and productivity culture is not the future. After the pandemic, this will all be different when we have the ability to get out of our own homes.

Help out a USC journalism student

Natalie Bettendorf is a senior journalism student at the University of Southern California. She is currently assembling an online toolkit for student journalists who are struggling with mental and emotional burnout, toxic workspaces, and trouble balancing their academic and social life with full-time journalism (with little to no pay). If this sounds like something you’re familiar with, she wants to hear from you! Any experience in a student newsroom regarding mental health (positive or negative) is useful. For more information and to share your story, email nbettend@usc.edu.

Related reading: I talked with Natalie in fall 2019 about her efforts to address staff mental health at USC’s Daily Trojan.

One story worth reading

“It takes a certain privilege or sacrifice — oftentimes both — to be able to work for school newspapers,” The Daily Free Press wrote in a recent editorial. The Boston University student newspaper estimates that editors work 45 to 50 hours per week, and the publication doesn’t have enough funding to pay its staff members. The paper is hoping to bolster its funding to better support staff, editors wrote.

“The journalism industry as a whole breeds elitism and an unhealthy work-life balance, and it is this culture that bleeds into our own campus media,” editors wrote. “Regardless of which way you spin it, ‘free’ labor isn’t appealing, feasible or accessible to many students.”

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: How student journalists can find mentorship without working in physical newsrooms

📣 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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