Reporter burnout happening faster

ARLINGTON,
Virginia – In most newsrooms, the joke would have been obvious.

It
was April Fools’ Day last year, and Politico’s top two editors sent an e-mail
message to their staff advising of a new 5am start time for all reporters.

“These
pre-sunrise hours are often the best time to reach top officials or their
aides,” the editors wrote, adding that reporters should try to carve out
personal time “if you need it,” in the mid-afternoon when Internet traffic
slows down.

But
rather than laugh, more than a few reporters stared at the e-mail message in a
panicked state of disbelief.

“There
were several people who didn’t think it was a joke. One girl actually cried,”
said Anne Schroeder Mullins, who wrote for Politico until last month, when she
left to start her own public relations firm. “I definitely had people coming up
to me asking me if it was true.”

Such
is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young
journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are
instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought
or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news – anything that will
impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.

Tracking
how many people view stories, and then rewarding – or shaming – writers based
on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms.
The Christian Science Monitor now sends a daily e-mail message to its staff
that lists the number of page views for each story on the paper’s website that
day. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all
display a “Most Viewed” metric on their home pages. Some media outlets,
including Bloomberg News and Gawker Media, now pay writers based in part on how
many readers click on their stories.

Once
only wire-service journalists had their output measured this way. And in a
media environment crowded with virtual content farms where no detail is too
small to report as long as it was reported there first, Politico stands out for
its frenetic pace or, in the euphemism preferred by its editors, “high
metabolism.”

The
top editors, who rise as early as 4.30am, expect such volume and speed from
their reporters because they believe Politico’s very existence depends, in
large part, on how quickly it can tell readers something, anything they did not
know.

“At
a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually
sitting there on deadline, trying to file,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s
executive editor, in an interview from the publication’s offices just across
the Potomac River from downtown Washington.

“Now
at any point in the day starting at 5 in the morning, there can be that same
level of intensity and pressure to get something out.” (Not all reporters are
expected to be on their game by dawn, VandeHei added, noting that many work a
traditional 10am to 7pm newspaper day.)

At
Gawker Media’s offices in Manhattan, a flat-screen television mounted on the
wall displays the top 10 most-viewed articles across all Gawker’s websites. The
author’s last name, along with the number of page views that hour and overall
are prominently shown in real time on the screen, which Gawker has named the
“big board.”

“Sometimes
one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a
monolith,” said Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder. Denton said not all
writers have warmed to the concept. “But the best exclusives do get rewarded,”
he added, noting that bonuses for writers are calculated in part based on page
views.

The
pace has led to enormous turnovers in staff at digital news organizations.

Departures
at Politico lately have been particularly high, with roughly a dozen reporters
leaving in the last six months – a high number for a newsroom that has only
about 70 reporters and editors. Gawker has churned through about an editor a
year since it began publishing in 2003.

Physically
exhausting assembly-line jobs these are not. But the workloads for many young
journalists are heavy enough that signs of strain are starting to show.

“When
my students come back to visit, they carry the exhaustion of a person who’s
been working for a decade, not a couple of years,” said Duy Linh Tu,
coordinator of the digital media program at the Columbia University Graduate
School of Journalism. “I worry about burnout.”

In
Washington, the news cycle promises to become even more frenzied as outlets
like The Huffington Post expand their operations there. The Atlantic Media Co.,
which publishes the National Journal and The Atlantic, plans to hire 30 new
journalists to staff a new venture set to open this fall that will publish
breaking news and analysis online.

At
Politico, VandeHei, who has been known to pace between rows of reporters’ desks
asking who has broken news lately, said editors experimented with monitoring
how many stories reporters were writing, but decided that raw numbers did not
give a full picture of a reporter’s performance.

But
output matters to the editors. An unofficial credo around the office is
“W.W.M.D.,” short for “What Would Mikey Do?” It refers to Politico’s famously
indefatigable front man, Mike Allen, who is known to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. to
start work on his daily newsletter, Playbook.

Politico
editors talk about losing their audience as if it could happen at any moment.

“Everybody
in the audience is his or her own editor based on where they want to move their
mouse or their finger on the iPad,” said the editor-in-chief, John F. Harris.
“And if you’re not delivering to that reader, you’re going to lose them.”

It
is not uncommon for reporters to awaken to find e-mail messages from either
VandeHei or Harris – sent before dawn – asking why the competition had a story
Politico did not. Both men, former Washington Post reporters, harbour deep
aversions to the inefficiencies that can burden large news organizations.

“That’s
one of the reasons we were very attracted at starting our own thing,” Harris
said. “We just felt like you could start from scratch and build a culture that
doesn’t have those bad habits already cooked into it.”

But
some former reporters described feeling overtaxed at times.

“Sometimes
you felt like it was just too much, whether it’s the workload, the pressure,”
said Helena Andrews, a former Politico reporter who left to write a memoir,
“Bitch is the New Black,” in which she discusses being a young journalist. “I
think that some people felt like they were sinking. It was like boot camp, the
Politico. But I know a lot of people were proud they survived.”

Many
of Politico’s reporters are in their 20s, enticed by jobs where starting pay
can be around $40,000 for the promise of working at a news organization that
influences the conversation among Washington’s elite.

VandeHei
and Harris say they are self-aware enough to know that reporters can feel
pressured at times. But they said the notion of Politico as a journalistic
sweatshop is pure mythology.

Still,
Politico management seems to be trying to soften some of its rough edges.
Employees recently received an e-mail message informing them that they had been
entered in a drawing to win an iPad. The catch: They would all be required to
wear a name tag for a day in the spirit of fostering friendly workplace
conversation.

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