Fox6 'Development Days': A possible solution to newsroom burnout

Education Resources, Leadership, News & Information,

By Chris Tuohey

TV news reporter Bret Lemoine came to a career crossroads a few years ago. As a veteran general assignment reporter at Fox6 in Milwaukee, he was coming to the end of his contract. He had recently become a father while going through the stress of covering news during Covid-19. He just wasn’t sure he could have a family and keep working at the same pace the industry demanded. 

“In my twenties and thirties, I was giving 100% of my time to the TV station I was working at…and I was fine with that.” But with his new family responsibilities, he decided something had to change, he adds, “My foot was more than out the door.”

This was about the same time investigative reporter Amanda St. Hilaire was taking stock of the Fox6 newsroom operations and looking for ways to increase the station’s investigative output. “I came here as a full-time investigative reporter. And then I accidentally talked my way into a management job because I'm terrible at minding my own business.”

Together with Senior Executive Producer Sara Heidenreiter, St. Hilaire began discussing the concept of “development days,” with the goal of giving staffers more time to produce quality content and improve their storytelling skills. It also occurred to them that such a program might not only improve station content, but also reduce the likelihood of “burnout.” One key decision was that this would all be scheduled on company time.    

The Development Days program is continuing to evolve to include specialized training and feedback for all newsroom staff. For reporters it generally falls into four categories: “Two day turns” for producing longer, more complex stories; “Learning” where the reporter might critique their own work and the work of reporters in other markets; “Sourcing” for off-camera meetings with current sources and developing new ones; and the fourth, recently added element of “Shadow days” where employees spend the day shadowing someone else in the newsroom with a different job. 

Lemoine says he finds the sourcing days particularly valuable. A reporter working for multiple newscasts and platforms just doesn’t have the time to look ahead while covering the news of the day.

Whatever the area of focus, accountability is built into the day with specific goals needing to be met by the employee and a discussion at the end of the day with whoever is supervising that Development Day. Everyone knows heading into the process that it’s not a day off from work, but an opportunity to focus on personal development outside of the daily grind.  

St. Hilaire says news photographers have also been brought into the Development Days through critique sessions and watching NPPA tutorials. 

In order to not make the Development Days feel like performance reviews, employees will primarily interact with people other than their direct supervisors as often as possible. In her Senior Executive Producer role at the station, Heidenreiter works on projects that keep her outside the daily newsroom activities. She says that makes her a less threatening figure when she’s working with a show producer. “I can kind of come in and be like. ‘How are things,’ you know, from almost like being a mentor or a counselor versus a boss.”

St. Hilaire says one producer had a particularly eye-opening day shadowing a reporter. “He came back, and said, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ This guy is so efficient and is using every second of his time.” More importantly though, she says this experience can build empathy and relationships among the staff.

When VP News Director Brandice Bailey joined Fox6 last September, the Development Days were already up and running. She says she was on board immediately. “Because I love that we're still teaching on the job, because I'm a firm believer in that every day you can learn something.”

Bailey says she measures proof of success in a couple of ways. First, she says she can see improvement in her staff’s work both on air and behind the scenes. But she says what really surprised her is the strong buy-in in the newsroom. She says staffers often ask when their next development day is coming up. She also notes, saying “knock on wood,” that there’s been little staff turnover since she arrived.

St. Hilaire admits it takes a big commitment to do this right. She says in any given week there will be two or three staffers on one kind of Development Day or another. Reporters get one every month or so. Is it worth it?  Lemoine thinks so. He will be the first to tell you, St. Hilaire’s work on this program pulled him back in the door.  “I want to keep doing what I love, which is broadcast journalism, and stay at Fox6, which is a station that I love.”

Chris Tuohey is an Associate Professor of Broadcast & Digital Journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He worked in TV News as a Reporter, Producer and Executive Producer at several TV stations.