October 10, 2021

Last week I linked to a column from Michigan Daily editor-in-chief Claire Hao. In “I’m taking a break, and here’s why,” she wrote about the extreme stress and burnout she’d been suffering as a result of her leadership.

I heard from an unusual number of you in response, concerned about similar stories from your own students and looking for answers.

“I think this is emblematic of a larger problem in the journalism industry as a whole,” Hao said in a phone interview last week. “And I wanted to be honest about what it was doing to me at the very beginning of my career.”

Hao entered the University of Michigan with a love of  writing. Like so many of us, she found herself in love with journalism via her campus newspaper. The University of Michigan doesn’t have a journalism department, so The Daily is the de facto school. It employs hundreds of students and includes over a dozen different sections, newsletters, a magazine and podcasts. A 2019 New York Times article put a fine point on the fact that The Daily was the only daily news source dedicated just to Ann Arbor, a badge of honor the student journalists took to heart.

That identity is both a source of pride and part of the problem, Hao said. As students work through The Daily and eventually graduate, turnover is naturally high. Value is placed on replicating the success of the past. That means high-quality journalism, for sure, but it also speaks to handed-down traditions that haven’t changed in decades — say, for example, the editor-in-chief reading the bulk of the content before publication.

During the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and a summer of protests, Hao found herself increasingly involved in coverage and the decision-making processes for The Daily, especially as they pertained to issues of diversity. More people began turning to her for guidance and help, eventually encouraging her to seek the top editor spot. In January 2021, she began as The Daily’s editor-in-chief, running the paper from her apartment as the pandemic raged. After a summer internship with a regular 40-hour rhythm, Hao found herself back as editor of The Daily, overseeing 400-plus students and hundreds of thousands of words each week. She was overcome by dread and exhausted at the prospect of another semester of 70-hour workweeks for a stipend that shakes out to about a dollar an hour.

“These structures and processes that we’ve had in place for years — maybe even decades — come from a time when, I mean, the industry has changed dramatically since then; our newsroom has changed dramatically since then,” she said. “We just have so many different kinds of journalism that we’re producing, and we’re also living in a world that has such different demands.”

Hao said she’s identified three main takeaways after stepping away from her leadership role (she’s back at the helm now) for a week.

For one, she said, she gained a better sense of her personal limits — her priorities and intent now have more clarity.

Second, she was surprised at the positive reaction her column got in her own newsroom.

“I’ve started to see my editors set their own boundaries,” Hao said,” being more firm in setting their own limits of what they can and cannot do, instead of, you know, maybe staying up till 3 (a.m.)”

Finally, she said it’s time that journalists examine historic newsroom structures and rethink them, even when they’ve been handed down through generations — in both campus and professional settings. She’s convinced that journalism has to change, especially for journalists of color.

“If this isn’t reckoned with by the industry as a whole,” Hao said, “no matter how many  race and ethnicity (beat) reporter positions are opened, no matter how many fellowship programs there are, I don’t really see there being the kind of diverse and accessible industry that I hope we can be.”

Resources to help students

It feels like there’s not enough time in the day to pause class lessons or news operations to check on your students. But I suspect you’ll find value in even a 30-minute check-in session in which some brave students will expose their vulnerabilities, and other students will pile on. It can inform your teaching, your news operation and your ability to truly impact these students.

Take a look at some of these resources and get a brief sense of what’s out there. Then check in with your journalism students and see if they are expressing specific needs that you know you can resource (for example, time management or vicarious trauma).

My personal advice for professors and advisers:

  • Pick one day a week and leave home in time to swing by the grocery store and spend $10 of your own money on bananas, apples, water bottles and granola bars. Keep them in your office but let students know they can have a healthy snack any time they want one.
  • Make walking the activity instead of sitting. Secretly pick some routes around campus that take 10 minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes and pick a route that you know will be right for the occasion. “You OK with taking a walk? It helps me to move while I’m thinking about problems.”
  • Especially for newsroom advisers: Take the time to check in. Don’t expect most of your students to come to you with their stress. They might not want to appear “weak.” Find a way to compliment them and then check in. “Great editing on that video package but it must have taken forever. How late were you here last night?”

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

Diverse headlines

One valuable way that you can reinforce diversity, equity and inclusion in your classroom is by sharing journalism about, by and for diverse communities. Consider ways in which you could use these stories in your curriculum. Here are a few examples I saw this week. (In this space I also include headlines about DEI news and issues.)

Internship Database

This week, we’re featuring a variety of spots within NBCUniversal. From the listing: “NBCLA.com and Telemundo52.com are looking for digital news interns. Interns will work with an integrated digital news team, working alongside veteran award-winning journalists who publish on the TV stations’ websites in English and Spanish, post to their branded social channels, and much more. Interns will cultivate news writing skills, work in a fast-paced environment, sharpen reporting skills, and learn to work in a multitude of programs toward one major goal: breaking accurate news fast online.”

See this and other internships in Poynter’s ongoing internship database.

The Lead

This week, we featured the advice of a dozen student newsroom leaders in “‘You’re not supposed to know everything’: Current and former student editors share advice on leadership roles.” Among the many gems: “I wish I had known how much less writing you get to do as an editor. I really missed it.”

Subscribe to The Lead, Poynter’s weekly newsletter for student journalists, and encourage your students to do the same.

This week’s Professor’s Press Pass

In this week’s Professor’s Press Pass, we ask students to do a gut check on how hard they think they should work right out of school and beyond. We examine Poynter reporter Angela Fu’s story “Journalists report working hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime at Gannett papers” and discuss the concepts of salaries, overtime and dues-paying.

And a reminder: The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University is sponsoring free speech-related case studies for free. The second installment, Taking the Rap for Murder, is available for free without a subscription. (The first, F- Everything!, is also beyond our paywall.)

Look for another free case study each month, including one later in October about the free speech rights of student athletes, for a total of 10 by the end of this academic school year. Thanks, Free Speech Center! 🙂

Resources for Journalists

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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