social sciences

Stress and burnout among Estonian journalists is caused by the lack of routine

Journalists need to carry out tasks for various mediums – work that used to be carried out by four journalists 20 years ago is now being done by one. Author/source:
Journalists need to carry out tasks for various mediums – work that used to be carried out by four journalists 20 years ago is now being done by one. Author/source:

In converged newsrooms, where journalists often have to be able to produce news for various mediums, no routines have developed that would support the journalists in their work. This is due to the fact that newsroom managers simply do not have the skills to manage these work processes efficiently.

For the above-mentioned reasons, journalists encounter more and more work stress which leads to the decision to leave the field. This was observed in the doctoral thesis by Signe Ivask, defended at the University of Tartu. One of the main factors affecting whether a journalist experiences burnout caused by work stress or not is the journalist’s professional experience.

Older journalists use the skills they have acquired over the years, for example, working at a newspaper or some other traditional medium. At the same time, they feel the pressure to learn new work practices as quickly as the younger journalists. Furthermore, the journalists with more experience but less diversified skills feel that newsrooms encourage a continuous renewal of skills; however, the organisation of work often does not give them time to apply these new skills.

In her thesis, Signe Ivask has an interesting approach on routines. In this context routines are nothing bad or boring. Ivask interprets routines as organised activities that support coping in different situations.

Journalism theory sees the routines in work processes as something that should help the journalist in their work. “This means that the actions of the person are somewhat automated: when pitching an idea for a news article, you already roughly know how you’re going to construct the story, who you’re going to use as a source, etc. In a non-routine situation, you can then rely on your previously developed routines and adapt them accordingly,” explained Ivask.

But in the current developments of converged newsrooms, the managers do not know how to give the journalists clear tasks and thus no routines are created.

Often a journalist has to work for multiple platforms simultaneously. For example, journalists often write a story for online and the newspaper parallelly, but the workflow often lacks strategic and efficient management. This was particularly visible in Ivask’s research article, in which she looked at the work routines of sports journalists covered the Olympics. “The journalists had trouble deciding whether something that went online should also be printed? And if yes, then in what lenght, in which format? They started shifting responsibility away from themselves, which in turn indicates that the journalists did not know how to handle such a situation.”

According to Signe Ivask, this implies that newsroom managers don’t know how to efficiently manage workflows for multiplatform content production. In the newsrooms studied by Ivask, what stood out was poor professional communication: a lack of clearly formulated tasks, feedback and feed-forward, explanations on what was expected, what was good, what was bad and what could also be continued in the future.

“How should the journalist know how to act and what to do, and how should they know if they have done their work well thus far, if they do not get any professional feedback? Especially in a situation, which is new or stressful to the journalist,” said Ivask.

Newsrooms are often led by people who started out as reporters in the 1990s. However, Ivask points out that the skills and knowledge about work and the organisation of this work date back to the time when news was created mainly for one platform, e.g., a newspaper, and it was a clear and routine process.

“It is wrong to say that it used to be worse,” noted Ivask, referring to the claim often made by editors. She continued, “These things cannot be compared as situations and society as a whole has changed so much. We are talking about many different processes occurring at the same time, and writing stories for many platforms, e.g., online and the newspaper, is not straightforward,” said Ivask.

She brought an example, that very varied content can be created for an online publication, but this all takes time, and the web as a distinct medium has its own requirements to present content well on there.

Burned-out people leave

An additional factor contributing to the burnout of journalists is the amount of information. When the daily amount of information for a journalist 20 years ago was about one newspaper, nowadays, information is pouring in constantly. Based on her research, Ivask pointed out that constantly following the information flow often means that the journalist’s work does not end at the end of the workday, and that work is also done during leisure time and while on holiday.

What is the situation in journalism: are the newsrooms filled with people who have burned out or are burning out?

“Many burned-out journalists do not work anymore. They have left the newsrooms,” noted Ivask. Estonian journalists often work to the limit of burnout where a decision is made to either make a drastic change or to leave journalism altogether.

It is quite easy for journalists to go into the field of communcation where salaries are often significantly higher than in journalism. But is salary the main motivator for leaving?

Ivask explains that two thesis papers at the University of Tartu Faculty of Social Sciences indicate that, although salary is an important aspect in leaving, it is not the most important one (1; 2). The positive aspects of working in the communication field that the theses pointed out were clearly defined workdays and tasks, and the longer time given for filling the task.

Another reason pointed out by journalists in the research was that they would like to write thorough and meaningful stories, but newsrooms rather assume a large number of short and essentially empty pieces. “The profession could no longer offer people that something special they went into journalism for, and for many leavers, this was the nail in the coffin,” noted Ivask.

Recommendations to journalists:

Audit your skills

Every journalist should review their skills and competences and evaluate which skills are required in their work. “This is where older journalists are able to calm themselves down, as there are more new skills expected than actually applied in practice.”

Read your employment contract through

You should definitely check what is written down in your employment contract and evaluate whether the tasks given are contractually agreed upon.

Visit the web page:

This is a recommendation Ivask gives to everybody. On this page, you can test your state of mind to get an objective overview of your levels of stress and, if necessary, make respective changes in your life. “This is necessary for a journalist to be able to continue in their profession, to remain healthy when working,” explained Ivask, noting that it is bad for Estonian journalism as a whole when journalists quit their jobs.

Recommendation to newsroom managers: plan and manage strategically

“Ideally, managers should deal with managing people and work processes, and less with micromanagement,” stated Ivask. She noted that it is up to the managers to make systemic decisions about what kind of content can be produced with the capabilities, funds and people available.

“The newspaper Äripäev is testing several different profitable solutions which might in turn help keep the newspaper afloat, including journalists who can fully focus on their work and do not have to worry about web-statistics.” According to Ivask, there are some well-managed newsrooms in Estonia, which is illustrated by low staff turnover and employee satisfaction, among other things. “However, there could be more of these well-managed newsrooms in the entire pool of newsrooms,” she said.

Ivask gives the managers tips from journalism studies, which show that the rest of the world is moving increasingly towards the principle of doing less, but more thoroughly and with higher quality. “New models are being sought, even people themselves are looking for new models, and at some point, it might happen that civic initiatives might rob journalism of the last of the possibilities to grab the attention of the auditorium.”

Signe Ivask’s doctoral thesis “The Role of Routines, Demands and Resources in Work Stress Among Estonian Journalists” was supervised by Kadri Ugur. The opponent is professor Tamara Witschge from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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