Caregiving in and around Journalism
What we’ve learned about taking care of people while working in news
When my husband and I were expecting our son, we were swimming in friends’ recommendations for bottles, bouncers, and swaddles. They sent spreadsheets with notes about best value items and starred must-haves for newborns. The information was useful, but what I wanted (and continue to wish for) doesn’t exist: a cheat sheet on how to be a sane, productive parent in the news business.
The pressures on news staff to be resourceful and to deliver have never been greater. The stresses involved are compounded by our day-to-day caregiving responsibilities for our children, parents, and friends, among others. I remember feeling relieved when a colleague in the New York Times newsroom told me that she and her editor partner were “basically getting it handed” to them on a daily basis while trying to meet deadlines, raise their two young children, and balance a lengthy commute. But I was also terrified: both at work and at home, they had more experience and more responsibility than I did. Did I even have a chance?
I started soliciting these co-worker friends’ advice and saw that I was drawn to fellow caregivers who were forthcoming about what worked for them and willing to unselfconsciously share their spectacular mishaps.
In that spirit, at this year’s SRCCON in Minneapolis I was happy to co-convene a conversation about good practices for prioritizing work while being present for loved ones, with Joe Germuska from Northwestern.
We shared examples from what works at different news organizations, in countries around the world, and from our own experiences. During the session I excitedly scribbled “look into Instant Pot!!” and “negotiate more vacation days.” Below find more detailed suggestions on self care practices, modeling the management practices you want to see, and advocating for the work arrangements and benefits you need to do your work well. September and the change of seasons can be an opportune time to start changing your habits, and please share your own ideas and hacks in the comments.
Taking Care of Yourself
Our group in Minneapolis agreed that investing in self care–even when it’s inconvenient–is imperative for sustaining yourself and your work long-term. Yes, the concept of this care has been consumerized, as Arwa Mahdawi explains in the Guardian.
I encourage you to think well beyond “popular media’s portrayal of self-care: manicures, pedicures, and massage,” as Kate McCombs writes, to think about longer-lasting approaches. This can take the form of scheduling annual preventative care appointments, committing to a weekly exercise class (yes, even if it falls during work hours), and keeping regular dinner rituals with friends who care about you. You might walk to work when weather allows or get off your bus or train a few stops early to go on foot, and biking all or part of the way to the office can make for a more level-headed arrival.
At work, our participants recommended keeping a full water bottle with you at your desk and at meetings. Block your calendar for brief regular walks or schedule walking meetings, particularly for gatherings that don’t require a screen.
Scheduling ergonomics evaluations for office and home work stations can eliminate strain and improve your posture and breathing. If you’re a remote employee or freelancer curling up on your couch at home, investing in a desk share at a co-working facility can provide a much-needed change of environment.
If you’re easily distractible (like moi), you might use this month to start being disciplined about turning off or muting notifications for more efficient work on writing, coding, and design projects–not to mention time to think and process. Software tools that can help include BreakTime (to give eyes a rest and move periodically) and website and app blocker Freedom. The Pomodoro technique, which involves carving work projects into discrete 25-minute blocks, also has a loyal following. I like using Ommwriter for distraction-free drafting and wrote this post in Google Docs using View > Full Screen mode…while listening to ChronicBabe creator Jenni Grover’s Take Good Care playlist, no less.
Taking Care of Your Team
I’m encouraged by an article by Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (via Stacy-Marie Ishmael) that reminds us to "be a role model for self-care. By taking care of yourself and sending out reminders to others to do the same, you encourage your staff to adopt healthy practices. This is not only a matter of occupational health but of preserving good news judgment.” In our session, examples of managers setting the appropriate tone were numerous. One Minneapolis Star Tribune staffer said that seeing a lead editor working out at the office gym daily on their lunch break had a positive effect of normalizing it. Managers who discouraged unnecessary weekend work earned loyalty from their teams, as did those who mandated that their staff get off Slack and email while on vacation (even if they initially pushed back).
Brandi Grissom, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, said she works to instill in teammates that they have a right to a life life beyond the newsroom. One idea for encouraging this is knowing the names of colleagues’ family members and pets–and genuinely asking how they’re doing with regularity. If your team is undertaking intense work to meet a deadline, support them by offering flex time in the form of an offer to take a day or two off the following week. (Also, if you’re in a position to be generous with what’s counted as sick versus vacation time, you might offer leave for something that’s not strictly employee illness but does prevent work getting done effectively.) Consider how you can be a safe person for direct reports to tell, “Hey, I had a panic attack so I’m staying home sick today.”
You might also explore ways to foster organization when work can feel out of control. Tim Herrera writes about being more selective about the meetings you attend. Asking direct reports and collaborators for meeting agendas and follow-up notes is a good practice, said Sydette Harry, editor at Mozilla. (You may not need to go so far as the Bezosian approach of demanding pre-meeting memo writing, but having advance notice of items for debate can make for faster meetings.) Harry also said that rather than assuming she knows what people need from her–which can have stressful mental implications–she asks that they formalize their asks for her during weekly 1x1 meetings.
Negotiating Flexible Work Arrangements
A major theme of our conversation was the importance of not feeling guilty about taking care of yourself and telling people what you need. This includes making the case for flexible work arrangements, which are both necessary and achievable, even in historically inflexible orgs. A few ideas for undertaking this include:
- Calendar maintenance & creating space for spontaneity: Blocking your calendar as needed and making details visible (i.e. “vet appointment”) can be quite effective for fostering a culture of transparency. You might also consider ways that employee-led unpredictability grants flexibility: for some people whose roles aren’t dependent on attending daily in-person meetings, it can be highly beneficial to have geographic flexibility and to maintain an irregular schedule of entering and leaving the office. This can allow you to feel less monitored and less guilty if you need to leave “early” and get back to work later in the day.
- Formalizing your arrangement: When talking with your boss about scheduling, including the possibility of set hours to be offline and limited remote work, request to have agreed upon details put in writing and added to your file with HR. This can help provide continuity if your reporting structure or role changes.
- Making the case for benefits beyond comp: Consider what’s valuable to you and low or no cost to your current or future employer, such as title changes, additional vacation days, ability to select collaborators, and waived eligibility requirements. If you’re in a Guild, it may be able to help negotiate on your behalf. This negotiation and compensation resource from the ONA-Poynter Women’s Leadership Academy is helpful too.
- Strength in numbers: It’s easy to look to Scandinavian countries’ comparatively lengthy parental leave offerings and Israeli working caregivers’ allowance of set afternoon hours for school pick ups with jealousy (and oh, have I). But lobbying with others to make the case for improved flexibility and time off is a better use of energy than turning green with envy. In Rebecca Ruiz’s Poynter article “The News Business is Unfair to Journalists with Children,” she advises to “band together with colleagues to research and propose new policies.” She notes that “pushing for change in your newsroom may sound intimidating or scary, especially in an era defined by financial turmoil and layoffs,” though you might look to recent employee-led leave changes at the New York Times and elsewhere for inspiration. Consider starting affinity groups formally or informally, such as Slack groups for people who share similar caregiving concerns or people who live near you for train delay warnings and help with the inevitable late pickup.
Advocating for What You (and the People You Care About) Need
As Katherine Goldstein wrote in the recent Nieman Lab story “Where are the mothers?”: “Certainly, it’s not just birth mothers who need better support in the workplace. Fathers and non-birth parents, people caring for aging parents, and even those without family responsibilities can also benefit greatly from progressive family policies and supportive work cultures.” Some of the policy improvements you might advocate for with colleagues include separate sick days for family members’ illnesses, pre-tax spending accounts for caregivers, childcare at conferences, and work retreats that don’t extend into evenings or overnight. Darla Cameron described Bright Horizons backup child, adult, and elder care as a great benefit of working at the Washington Post. I’m personally eager to see more employers offer to pay for or subsidize use of Care.com and baby and petsitters when news keeps caregivers working later than expected.
Angelica Quintero of the Los Angeles Times told us: “Journalism is a rare job. We’re lucky to get to do it.” Still, she acknowledged that it’s sometimes nearly impossible to manage a job you care about and being with the ones you love. I’m hopeful that talking about and brainstorming on these topics gives us agency–but we have a great amount of work ahead of us.
Emily Goligoski is research director for the Membership Puzzle Project, a collaboration between the Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent and New York University. She previously worked as a user experience research lead in the New York Times newsroom and at Mozilla Foundation. She is on the board of Youth Radio and studied journalism at Northwestern.