October 26, 2021

Adriana Lacy is a digital and audience engagement editor at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. She also runs Journalism Mentors, a mentoring program that connects industry professionals with student and early career journalists to help them forge their path in media.


Something that I think about a lot with journalism is this idea of burnout. It’s been something that has been happening to a lot of people for a really long time, but I think the past few months has been a great time for the industry because we’re starting to be really loud about it and talk more about.

It’s definitely something I’ve experienced, especially working in newsrooms, just the grind of being on social media and being on all the time. It can be extremely stressful. I just remember my past days as a social media editor, there would be days I’d cover a mass shooting and the next day it’s an earthquake, and the next day it’s a wildfire and it’s really hard to just be exposed to so much trauma every single day. What honestly really helped me was taking a step back from newsrooms and doing a bit of freelance work and really just partnering with organizations where I can advise on strategy, but I’m not necessarily in it and doing it every single day.

Something else that’s really helped me keep going in times where I felt burnt out is really just taking a break. I realize how much of a privilege it is to be able to say no to an assignment or go on a vacation, or even just get a mani-pedi and really just relax. I think just realizing that journalism is not connected to my identity and realizing that I can have passions and dreams and goals outside of the industry has really affected the way that I approach burnout and it’s really made it better for myself.

When it comes to early career students, the biggest advice that I have is to really just be a sponge in your first few jobs. Something that I really have noticed is that when you’re a lot younger, there’s so much for you to soak up, ask as many questions as you can really interact with as many people as possible, and really just immerse yourself in the industry. And I think as much as you can do that really sets you up for success as an early career journalist.

The other piece of advice that I have is use those first two or three jobs that you have to also realize what you don’t want to do. I think a lot of times we get our first job and we think that we have to stay that path forever. And that’s not necessarily the case. I think that a lot of times, while our jobs and our experiences really hone in on our passions, they also help us realize the things that we don’t like about our jobs or the career path that we do, and we’re able to make that pivot.

Something I’ve been coaching a lot of early career students on lately is this idea of feeling like a failure, because maybe you want to be a reporter all your life, and you don’t want to do that anymore. I think realizing that that’s okay is really important. You’re not failing, you’re simply just taking a pivot. You’re simply just starting your career in a different way and that’s completely fine. So just don’t feel like changing your path is a failure. It’s actually setting you up for success in the future.

And when it comes to newsrooms that are trying to do better to attract and retain young talent. I think the most important thing is mentorship. I remember some of the places I’ve worked in the past, just being able to see people who looked like me in leadership positions and being able to be introduced to people and just really have that experience really affected my career. One of the hardest things, when you’re an early-career journalist is being in a newsroom with a bunch of seasoned people and not feeling like you’re supported, you can have all the free snacks and all the perks in the world, but if you feel like no one has your back, then it’s extremely isolating.

So something I want newsrooms to know is that you really have to pour into your young talent and really make sure that those career paths are charted out. And that there’s really a path for success in the future.

Alice Wilder, North Carolina-based freelance audio producer and writer of Starting Out, a newsletter for early career people in the audio industry. 

Do I have experience with burnout in journalism?

Yes. Yeah, for sure. It just feels like dragging yourself through the day. And like loss of excitement over something it was once a dream to do. And that can be really depressing when you’re like, wow, my college self would be so thrilled that I’m here right now, and yet I feel like I’m just getting through each task.

Honestly the real solution — and this is like not accessible to everybody — but I have started taking like two weeks between jobs. So, because when I work as a contractor, I’m usually working from like four to six months at a time on a project. And usually by the end, I feel really spent and exhausted.

And so when I’m talking to someone about taking a new contract, I will kind of give myself a buffer of two weeks between the end of the previous one and starting the next one. And I have found that two weeks to be super, super restorative like doing the things that I’ve been putting off or just allowing my brain to reset, um, and setting an out-of-office message and just like not doing any work. And that has been super helpful.

So advice that I have for people who are early in their careers about looking at a workplace is like, first of all, if you have gone through an internship, make friends with the other interns. Keep those people in your life, because you’re probably going to be looking at the same jobs or working in sort of the same companies. And I found that it’s really helpful to just ask your group chat, like, “Hey, I’m interviewing at this place. What are the vibes? Like, what have you heard? What is their reputation like?”

Also red flags would be if a lot of people have been leaving. I would search on Twitter or something like the name of the organization and just see if there’s a mass exodus of employees who are leaving. I would see that as a red flag.

Um, and I would also recommend reaching out to people who currently work there or who just left, and asking what their experience has been like.

Honestly, This is the big advice that comes to everything I just said. I would think about it like a reporter and report it out: call people, research — you know, approach it like you’re doing a story on what it’s like to work with that organization.

Something I’ve been doing is putting in cover letters, the type of workplace that I want to be in because as an industry, we’ve had issues like abusive hosts or power differentials between producers and executive producers and hosts.

It’s like saying, “I want to work in a collaborative environment. I want to be in a place where even when we disagree, on an editorial matter or whatever, like we’ve remained respectful of each other.” I think like stating those values upfront in your cover letter lets people know, “if you’re looking for somebody who you can bully into doing XYZ, I’m not the person for you.” And if that’s a reason why they won’t hire you, that’s actually a good thing in the long-term.

Green flags would be like, somebody’s paying you for an edit test, giving you really clear timelines about what their hiring process is going to be like — and having like a union I would say is a huge green flag.

What would you tell newsrooms that are hoping and trying to do better in terms of attracting, retaining and talent?

I would say like have a clear pathway for advancement and mentorship opportunities. In my industry, in audio, we have a real problem with people being sort of kept at one level until you can basically prove that you’re already doing the next job.

And the other one I would say is just basic humane workplace practices, like let people work from home, and give them paid time off and, actual, meaningful, development opportunities. Basically like actually, really investing in people.

I think we’re no longer living in a world where everybody is working from New York and LA, and I think that’s a really good thing. And especially for young people who those cities are not affordable to live in, I think it makes a lot of sense to be flexible with where people are working from. Because, you know, people want to be human beings in addition to employees.

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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