Can it be done? Making newsrooms work for working moms

December 13, 2018 12:00

It’s a calling. A passion. Not a job, but a vocation. You’ve got to love it, because you’re not in it for the money.

That could apply equally to working in news and to being a parent. But what does it take to be able to do both?

A headline last week in The Atlantic caught my eye: “It's Almost Impossible to Be a Mom in Television News.” Julianna Goldman, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist with both TV news and print experience, argues that “for female television reporters, the decision to have kids can be a career-ending one.” She herself declined a network contract extension as the mom of a young son, saying, “it didn’t really feel like much of a choice,” and pointed out the relatively small number of working moms at the network level.

But what about in local TV news? Do perspective parents face the same challenges in stations across the country as in high-pressure network roles? What does it take to be a mom and a local TV journalist?

I decided to ask women in one of the most demanding roles in local TV news: Multi-media journalists, the solo crews who act as reporter, photographer, writer and editor of their daily stories.

I heard from more than a dozen. Many moms said that yes, the struggle to balance working in TV news and being a mom lead them to leave the business. For some, the decision was a “no brainer.” They’d missed too much of their children’s’ lives, or could no longer manage with two kids what had only just worked with one.

Others said that their career demands were a big reason they don’t have children.

More than one potential parent expressed wanting kids someday, but worrying about how to make it work as a working mom.

Challenges for moms
The moms I talked to described a litany of challenges they faced at all stages of pregnancy and motherhood.

Pregnancy  One mom said she was penalized on a year-end review for calling out sick more than others due to her high-risk pregnancy, though still under her sick day allotment. She said she felt supported initially, but felt like support slipped over time, so she had to continually reiterate her needs. She’s not the only mom at her station, but the only MMJ mom. She’s considering going part time or leaving altogether for a while.

Breastfeeding  Working TV moms, and particularly MMJs and reporters who spend a lot of time in the field and may have irregular schedules, can struggle get the accommodations necessary to pump regularly.

Daycare  Child care costs across the country are family budgets’ third-largest expense, unaffordable for as many as seven in ten families. Coupled with the salary picture for reporters and MMJs, expenses are a major concern for working TV news moms. Minimizing daycare costs requires careful scheduling and splitting duties with a spouse, as well as flexibility. “There were so many times I broke down crying because I had to leave [my daughter] at daycare secluded from other kids because of her fever and I couldn't take off of work,” said anchor Kathleen Barkley.

Activities  News jobs often require working hours outside a typical 9-to-5, covering weekends and holidays and being on call for breaking news, which can mean working moms missing birthdays, bedtimes and big moments. Of the moms I talked to, missing time with kids was the challenge most often mentioned. For Barkely, an evening anchor, taking personal days to spend time with her daughter and making sure to read books together via FaceTime are priorities to maximize mom time.

All these challenges make it difficult to make career moves and commit to signing new contracts, a decision Julianna Goldman, the author of the Atlantic piece, faced.

The biggest common denominator for whether TV news moms could face those challenges successfully: Managers.

Managers can make or break the job experience for working moms.

Challenges for managers
Baby Nolan
Jill Geisler (Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago) with grandson Nolan. If you can't help but smile at this picture, you probably already know Jill's tips below!

To see how newsroom managers fit into the equation for working moms, I talked to Jill Geisler, who speaks from experience on multiple levels as a leadership and management expert and working mom. When she was a TV news director, she gave birth to two children, both challenging pregnancies (now both healthy, grown adults). She said of the challenge news managers face accommodating working moms:
“It’s important to recognize that even the most forward-thinking, family-friendly news managers in our country are working against a tough reality. Here it is, described in an April Washington Post story:
‘The United States remains the only advanced economy without government-mandated paid maternity leave, and there is widespread agreement that United States also lacks affordable child-and elder-care options, making it harder for women to work.’
Imagine how different that Atlantic piece might be if maternity leave and family care were as valued and accessible here as they are in other countries. That wouldn’t change the 24-7 nature of journalism today, nor the personal emotions any of us working parents feel when away on assignments, but it might keep more women in our vocation.

Local news directors can't control corporate policies or benefits - but even working within them, they can make their newsrooms as family-friendly as possible, both for men and for women.”

How to help
So far, we’ve seen how working moms in local TV news face an uphill battle, as do their managers, with developing family-friendly workplace cultures a larger ongoing social issue.

So what can be done?

“More women in the top ranks at broadcast and cable networks would be a good starting point,” Goldman argues in her Atlantic piece. And we are starting to see more women in management roles in local newsrooms, RTDNA’s latest research shows, a positive trend.

But that’s just one step, and an incomplete and not immediate one.

Several of the working moms I talked to said that even managers who are parents aren’t always as understanding as one would hope, and at least one has found a surprising champion.

Take anchor Kathleen Barkley, who used to cry at work when she wasn’t able to leave and pick up her sick daughter from daycare. She had told her management as soon as she was offered the job that she had a 4-month-old, but often didn’t end up getting the support she needed. Years later, her story has changed with her current news director. “He isn't married and has no children, but is always understanding when it comes to my daughter,” she says.

So what is a single, childless manager’s secret to making his newsroom work for working moms? I asked that news director, Travis Ruiz. He said it’s important to help his team with their work life balance because “By being human and respecting their lives, they are more willing to go the extra mile at work.” His big secret for management is to “be human.”

“I find it important to check in on my employees, not only from a business perspective but also personally. I think managers should get to know their employees so they can better understand what motivates them,” he says. “In Kathleen’s case, I know all about her daughter Adalae. Adalae is the biggest part of Kathleen’s life so why should I not know about Adalae. I do not have my own children so I put myself in the newsroom moms’ shoes (and dads!) and ask myself how what I’m asking of them affects their family’s lives as well.”

In other words, empathy and mindfulness are the biggest keys to managing a team:

“News managers ask a lot of their employees and it can be easy to forget that their employees have tons of stresses and situations in their personal lives. You never know what a person is going through so sometimes I have to tell myself to step back and think of that.”
Jill Geisler’s guidance for news leaders managing newsroom parents:
  • Eliminate the fear that parenthood is a disadvantage in your newsroom. Even today, women tell me they’re afraid to mention to potential employers that they’re pregnant. Even though it’s illegal in the US to discriminate against pregnant job applicants, women fear they’ll be screened out under some other pretense. 
  • Tell people to take their benefits. There are employees who fear that if they take the parental leave the company provides, they’ll be seen as slackers, or miss opportunities for advancement. When the boss tells you it’s important to take what you have coming to you, it reduces their anxiety.
  • Be a superb scheduler. Breaking news will always challenge our work/life harmony, which is all the more reason everyday scheduling should be done well. That means people shouldn’t have to guess what hours they’re working next week or when they can take vacation. Good news managers get schedules out early and have good systems for vacation planning and coverage. 
  • Trust your audience; they have families, too. Far more than their network counterparts, journalists in local broadcast news grow bonds with their audiences. That’s why surveys routinely place local TV news at the head of “most trusted” lists. When local TV talent are expecting, or on maternity leave, or share stories of their family lives, viewers enjoy the human connection. This doesn’t mean broadcast journalists should be forced to overshare on air or social media, or take up valuable news time on their personal stories over the day’s news. But no news leader or staffer should get caught up in the foolishness about appearance that was reported in the Atlantic piece. Maternity clothes? Flaunt ‘em. Weight gain? You’re keeping it real. Circles under the eyes after an all-nighter with a croupy kid? You’re definitely not the media elite - and that makes you relatable.
  • Welcome children into your newsroom. We had a ritual in ours. Whenever someone brought in a baby, we lined up behind our assistant news director. As Senior Ranking Mom on staff, she had first holding rights. When a single dad on staff ran into an occasional child care glitch, his son played with crayons in my office. As a visiting youngster strolled by his desk, a clever staffer offered this greeting:  “Hello there. You know, we haven’t had a child in this newsroom in, oh, fifteen minutes.” And that’s just how we liked it.
  • Don’t penalize the single or the childless. Even as you build the most parenthood-friendly culture possible, don’t do it at the expense of those without children. People also care about parents and partners and pets.  They have extended families that matter, too. Keep everyone’s humanity in mind as together, you produce great journalism.

It takes a village
So, can it be done, or is it next to impossible to be a mom in TV news? “This job also demands a lot, and finding a balance even with great managers is going to be difficult, especially as an MMJ. But with the right support it can be done,” one MMJ, who is currently considering a break from the business, summed up well.

TV news moms need a strong support system, from spouses or partners to newsroom colleagues to, perhaps most importantly, managers.
“No Babysitter, No Problem” How one station isn’t just family-friendly, but is a station family.

It can be done, but it can’t be done alone.


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