From Surviving to Thriving: 8 Ways You Can Prioritize Your Well-Being This Year
By Sam Ragland
Being a journalist is hard, and being a news leader … becomes even harder.
We seldom talk about this reality because we’re often so driven to the “thick-skinned, no crying in the newsroom” mentality. We’re also so driven to take care of our people, our teams, to see above the haze and make the coverage calls that our well-being is a backburner issue. But the news industry has a long history of stress, and we can no longer afford to accept this culture as a daily, non-breaking news part of the job.
But one thing that’s important for journalists to know — just as other first-responder industries such as medical professionals, public safety and the military have known for quite some time — is that it’s impossible to be exposed to trauma and not be impacted by it.
For news directors whose job is not just to direct coverage and protect staff but to live and engage with the community as a community member themselves, the job of being a journalist is that much harder.
Several well-being habits arose during conversations at our American Press Institute Local News Summit on Mental Health and Sustainability, where RTDNA was a sponsor. Here are some ways to take care of yourself as a news leader in TV and radio. These can feel selfish, but we must remember that we’re no good to anyone when we’re burned out and depleted. Showing up for yourself enables you to show up better for others.
Close your door: The idea received sincere “oohs and aahs” at the API Summit. It is novel and yet so simple. Here’s the thing: Managers pride themselves in having “open-door policies” without acknowledging the boundaries needed for those policies to be helpful without causing burnout for the manager.
Set your OOO: How might you manage other folks’ expectations of you? You use your “out of office” email notice as a “slow to respond” notice. This will protect deep thinking time. This will also help you manage your expectations of yourself — especially regarding response time and self-distraction.
Know your value: How might you stop equating your value within your news organization to the number of hours you spend on the clock and available? Your value goes beyond your investment (or sacrifice) of time: Your perspective is valuable. Your character is valuable. Your news judgment is valuable. Your ability to ask questions, admit mistakes and take a good joke are valuable.
Model the behavior: Talking about well-being in the newsroom can sound like a mixed message when your habits and behaviors are out of alignment with the things you’re telling others to do. If you’re asking your team to take PTO, you should take PTO. If you ask them to leave on time, you should leave on time (and be loud about it). If you encourage them to pace their work, show how you have redistributed your workload.
While you’re showing up better for yourself, you may notice it gets easier to be a responsive, socially aware manager to your team. You may also notice it gets easier to be fully present, thoughtful and novel in how you pivot toward their needs as they also navigate the hazards of this important work.
Set big-picture 1:1s: It’s easy to get caught up in the assignments and the deadlines, but when you’re trying to take care of your journalists, quality time and interaction are important. This is where you communicate their value and future. It’s where you build trust. It’s also where you experience a baseline of behavior in how they show up. Knowing this baseline will help you know when they’re off, which could be early signs of traumatic exposure or burnout.
Listen in layers: As journalists, we’re trained to listen for the facts and even the feelings. It’s more difficult to listen for the values. But workplace interventions are best when they're targeted toward what we value. This is especially important for your rising stars and overachievers. It will help you clear hurdles for them, advocate for them behind closed doors and optimize their workload — all of which create psychological safety and communicate their value to you, which increases belonging, workplace well-being and the likelihood of them staying in your newsroom.
Encourage emotional granularity: Another concept that hit home during the API Summit is the idea that we go beyond broad strokes to share how we’re feeling and instead pinpoint the exact emotion. Use your journalism training and curiosity to encourage your staff to “tell you more” because more could mean the difference between knowing someone is angry versus humiliated, bad versus unfocused, or fearful versus inadequate. And this difference will prompt a more custom solution for you to support them.
Praise in detail: Feedback is a two-sided coin. We’re more accustomed to getting the specifics on corrective feedback and less likely to get it on praise, but the latter is such a powerful tool for our workplace well-being. Praise should be detailed, should come from all sides and should be shared often. It’s a small thing with a huge upside, including helping us break the stress cycle, helping us tell more accurate stories to/of ourselves, and helping us connect our work with our purpose.
If we are to offer truly caring and psychologically safe spaces for ourselves and our journalists, we will need to enact moment-for-moment care at a rate so consistent it would suggest the world is watching, when perhaps no one is. Transformational working relationships — intentional and deliberate awareness of and connection to others — are at the crux of healthy people and healthy work cultures. And yet, what we most often experience are transactional ones.
Connection has been proven to counterbalance adversity. And the adversity we face as journalists is much higher than we like to admit. Ahead of what could be a stressful and exhausting election year, we must be consistent and proactive in how we navigate the adversity, challenges and risks of being a local journalist.
Sam Ragland is the vice president of journalism programs at the American Press Institute; she’s also an award-winning local newsroom leader who thought she was immune to burnout. She wasn't. And since the start of the pandemic, she's been studying the hazards of being a journalist, collaborating with trauma therapists and getting certified in digital wellness to coach and support journalists in their stress response. Using her tenure as an editor at the Palm Beach Post and USA TODAY, Sam has developed trauma-informed leadership practices and trained more than a thousand journalists worldwide. Find more resources in API’s curated guide to mental health for journalists.