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Home > Publications > Quill > Work and Play

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Friday, December 1, 2006
Work and Play

An editor’s ability to juggle home lives and job responsibilites is key to a happy newsroom

By Michele Holtkamp Frye

When a breaking news tip comes in at 6 p.m. or later,

editors have to figure out who to put on the story and fast. The decision isn’t as simple as picking the strongest reporter; all journalists have lives outside the newsroom that are beckoning.

One reporter may have to pick up a child from the day care that closes in 30 minutes. Maybe a reporter left early because a child got sick at school. Another may have plans with a spouse, family or friends.

Occasionally, Poynter faculty member Scott Libin senses resentment from journalists who are always asked to work the crummy shift under the pretext that if they don’t have children, then they don’t have family demands. That’s simply not true, said Libin, who teaches in Poynter’s leadership and management group.

News organizations must recognize that although it’s no surprise that journalism can be an intrusive career, the need for a healthy work-life balance is more important than ever because the industry is demanding more of journalists, said Libin, who has a background in television news as a reporter, anchor and manager.

But Edward Miller, former editor and publisher of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., predicts fewer employees will be asking for accommodations that allow them to strike a healthy balance between work and family because of the pressures in the industry with layoffs and buyouts.

Also, newsrooms haven’t seen or perceived the need to make adjustments, Miller said. Because many newsrooms are laying off employees or holding the staff at a certain level, the idea of retention and recruiting is becoming more abstract, he said. Miller is now an independent consultant and coach for newsrooms around the world.

Because some journalists feel their jobs are threatened by industry changes, they are less likely to be aggressive and lobby for work-life balance issues, he said.

“I don’t see a culture or climate that is going to loosen this up quickly,” Miller said.

Newsrooms aren’t good at providing on- and off-ramps for employees who need to tend to their families or personal lives. Long-term maternity leave can be a sticking point with some managers.

“We certainly don’t encourage that,” Miller said. “When someone comes in and suggests an eight-month leave of absence, they get a hard stare.”

The employee’s fear is that they’ll lose their status in the organization and it’ll be a bad career move, Miller said.

The kind of flexibility that can be offered ranges across the newsroom, Libin said. Reporters can have great flexibility as to when and where they work, as long as stories are covered and they turn in high quality work by deadline, he said.

Copy editors or newscasters have to be in a fixed place at a certain time, however.

Resentment can arise

Libin is concerned about the backlash he sees in some newsrooms from employees who are single or married but childless.

“For all the best reasons, editors and news managers have been trying harder to accommodate the demands of parenting,” Libin said. “Unfortunately, that puts an undue burden on employees who don’t have children but certainly have outside lives.”

Phil Semas, editor in chief of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Chronicle of Philanthropy, recalls a situation several years ago when three of four employees in one department were parents who worked flexible, part-time schedules. The one reporter who didn’t have children felt like she was always being called on to work the late story.

That’s when the company became aware of the resentment that could be festering. Now, they try to avoid it and look more closely at situations, asking whether the company can afford to have two people in one department on the same type of schedule at the same time.

The set-ups are re-evaluated every year.

“In most cases, these are people who we value,” Semas said. “These are people doing very good work who we don’t want to lose.”

A key factor is whether the person requesting the more flexible schedule is organized.

“One editor is so incredibly organized that you almost forget that she is working 4/5 of the time because everything just runs like a clock,” Semas said.

In other cases, employees who moved to part-time have had to work full weeks because they aren’t organized enough to get the work done in the time allotted, he said.

Journalism is a demanding, intrusive field.

“If people don’t want work to ever interrupt their evenings or weekends, then they should look for other options,” Libin said.

Journalists can’t have it all in this sense: They can’t achieve the civilized lifestyle of a 9-to-5 job every day and have an encouraging, satisfied position, he said.

While there will always be breaking news, the unpredictable nature of newspapers has changed, Miller said.

So much of what used to be breaking newspaper news has been stripped away by television news, and he sees less and less news in daily newspapers.

Newspapers are becoming more like daily magazines with centerpieces that should be planned weeks or months in advance, Miller said.

And when there is breaking news, he sees an industry that doesn’t respond the way it should.

He offered an example of a recent breaking news story that happened in the morning. But the next day, when he looked at the front pages of 300 newspapers, he saw the same headline over and over again, as if readers didn’t know what the news was.

“What they needed the next morning was a great deal more. What does this mean? Why do we care?” Miller said.

Newsrooms are good at planning in advance and reacting to breaking news, and they have fun with that, Miller said.

But he said newspapers could have much more flexibility than they are willing to take in planning local coverage. Too many news reports for Tuesday are planned in Monday morning’s meeting.

By not planning very well, newsrooms are doing too much later in the day, so at 6 p.m., journalists are still trying to fix things that were changed or thought of throughout the day at various meetings.

“And we deal with it and roll our eyes. And then it is 7:30 and you’re still not in site of getting out of here,” Miller said.

Balance makes better journalists

Time away from work is crucial to make journalists effective, Libin said.

“Journalists are more effective and valuable when they have some sort of balance,” Libin said.

Time with family and friends or to engage in the community gives journalists an opportunity to attend parent-teacher association meetings as a parent, not a reporter, or to attend a football game to cheer, not to cover, he said.

Outside interests are compatible with journalism, not competing, Libin said.

Those experiences help journalists understand the way readers, viewers or listeners live, he said.

Don’t allow journalists that free time only to keep them happy and at your organization, Libin said. Do it because those lives also enable them to be better journalists.

“If all you employ are workaholics, I don’t see how they can relate to the people they serve,” Libin said.

“I don’t really think people who sleep with scanners on their nightstand are quite normal. I’m just not sure how much they have in common with the audience,” Libin said.

While it may be easier to populate the newsroom with workaholics, the work will suffer because of it, Libin said.

The product must reflect the values of the people it is designed to reach, Libin said.

If journalists stay in one newsroom for a significant period of time, it’s common to expect their life to evolve. Marriage and children are likely.

Journalists at WGAL in central Pennsylvania as they are growing into their adults lives, but many choose to stay for the majority of their career, news director Dan O’Donnell said.

As employees change from single up-and-comers to married with children, it’s important that managers also become flexible with the work environment, he said.

The personal responsibilities for an employee who has one or two children definitely change, but the demands and the responsibilities of the job can’t change, O’Donnell said.

He advises newsrooms to be open to the idea of people moving into different roles that are more friendly or accommodating to their lives outside work.

For example, the station’s top reporter on the evening broadcast suggested moving to an open morning news reporter slot when she had her second child.

On the face of it, moving the evening star to the morning slot might not seem like a good idea, but it has worked because she is doing fantastic enterprise work that enhances the morning show, O’Donnell said.

“The thing you have to be careful is that you have to be ready to apply that sort of fairness standard evenly,” O’Donnell said.

He advises newsrooms not to be tempted to shift employees in ways that you know won’t work. The situation has to work for the newsroom and the employee, and it has to come with the understanding that the news business often has crazy and unexpected hours.

Managers and editors have to constantly communicate and make it clear that sometimes there will be last-minute adjustments even though the circumstances of the employee’s life might not make that easy to accomplish.

But, on the flip side: “We make it just as clear that whenever day care calls and Junior has the sniffles at 3 p.m., we have to be just as flexible in return as when we ask to you stay late when it doesn’t work for you,” O’Donnell said.

That kind of acceptance makes the late-night breaking news stories easier to take for employees, O’Donnell said.

And because most parents can relate, others usually step up to help cover when someone has to leave.

While shifting the reporter to the morning shift was a permanent change, “others are more like temporary accommodations that can make it possible for someone to continue doing their job and deal with whatever circumstance has put a wrinkle in their life outside of here,” O’Donnell said.

Negotiate with team in mind

Newsrooms must be careful when making arrangements dictating that a journalist will not be called back to work or asked to stay late on certain days or a blanket agreement that they can leave at a certain time, no matter what is happening, Libin said.

When editors cut special deals, they must deal with the consequences of resentment or losing other employees, Libin said.

Few journalists are so good that editors should make agreements that may compromise the morale of the team. Libin said he would rather have an employee who is less of a star but whose presence won’t cause significant morale problems.

Transparency is an important value. Journalists asking for special accommodations should be told that editors have to explain the situation to their colleagues.

So most special arrangements should come with an asterisk, Libin said, that the editors will make a good-faith effort to accommodate the person.

“But this is the news business, and there may come a night, even the night of your child’s ballet recital, that we have to intrude on your life. We have to rely on you. On occasion, we have to impose.”

Demands that employees have certain hours off or get to leave by a certain time have to be negotiated among the team, Miller said.

On a team of five, two parents may have children who have to be picked up from day care by 6 p.m. or else they have to pay an extra dollar per minute.

“You can’t demand it and expect everyone to fall over for you,” Miller said. “You have to give something back.”

Maybe the team can accept that the employee has to leave by a certain time two or three days a week. But on the other days, a spouse or family member will have to cover it.

But before that person starts working, editors and hiring managers can determine how that person will respond when news happens outside a comfortable shift.

Of course federal laws dictate some questions that can not be asked, but Libin suggests asking open-ended questions during the interview.

Asking prospective employees how they like to spend their time or to give you a sense of what a good week is like are safe questions that can be revealing without implying anything.

“As reporters, we should be good at asking questions,” Libin said.

He would want to hear that the job seeker wants to work hard and spend time with family. The warning signs would be if the person says a good week is when they can leave by 3 p.m. every day and come back at 9 a.m.

O’Donnell said his station lays out the expectations clearly during an interview. They don’t hide that the journalist will be expected to cover late-breaking stories. There are no surprises: Prospective employees are told they’ll have to work hard and will be tired by the end of the week.

Libin appreciates the system that Best Buy uses at its headquarters. Employees aren’t evaluated based on the hours at their cubicle. Instead, managers look at the quality of the work and worry less about when or where the work is performed, Libin said.

“If we’re curious, and we ought to be as journalists, then we should be looking at other fields for what they do that might be relevant,” Libin said.

European companies are far more advanced in terms of time off for men and women, Miller said. The newspaper industry in the United States has been more old-fashioned and doesn’t offer a lot of three- or four-day workweeks.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and Chronicle of Philanthropy publications have broken those old practices. Historically, the publications try to accommodate requests as much as possible to work part-time or structured hours.

“Ultimately, we care about if the work gets done,” Semas said. “If it can get done in 30 hours a week, then that’s fine.”

It is much easier in some jobs than others, but technology has helped a lot of employees work from home, Semas said. For example, some employees get up early, do some editing from home, take their children to school, then come to work. Another routine practice is to allow employees to work from home when a child is sick.

A fair number of employees work three or four days a week to get a couple of days at home. An assistant managing editor is temporarily working four days a week to help her son find the right college, Semas said.

Adding more rules isn’t the answer. Miller cites an example from the Falk Corp. of Milwaukee, which previously had a seven- to eight-paragraph funeral leave policy that spelled out time off depending on the employee’s relationship with the person who died.

The company decided the practice was nuts because the policy was created to control the abuses of 3 to 5 percent of employees but was punishing the majority of workers who did not abuse it, Miller said.

The policy was changed to one sentence, instructing employees to discuss the appropriate and needed time off with their supervisor.

Newspapers would be smart to create a climate with that kind of flexibility on routine schedules, Miller said. Then, editors could reward people who put in a lot of effort and give them breaks, such as a four-day weekend, all within federal regulations, he said.

Miller believes that smaller newsrooms are the most flexible because the employees spend their time in one room and get to know each other. Editors are more likely to see that an employee needs a few days off to deal with an issue.

That rang true for Michele DeSelms this fall when her son’s brain tumor threw her world upside down. She is the news anchor for a Fox station in Grand Rapids, Mich., and was part of the founding crew hired when the news show started eight years ago.

She had attributed her then-16-year-old son’s headaches to tension or a busy week. When they went to the emergency room, a CAT scan showed a golf-ball-sized mass.

The doctor’s phrases included references to an ambulance waiting outside and a neurosurgeon.

Moments before the news, she had glanced at her watch and thought about how she had to get to work. Now, those thoughts were gone.

She called, in this order, her husband, her parents and her news director.

The news director was the first person to get to the hospital, and in the coming hours most of her colleagues and their spouses gathered at the hospital in a show of support.

Her son had emergency brain surgery and is expected to make a full recovery.

Their support helped her family get through the ordeal, and she said they were there for her because most of them started at the station together and are like a family.

“So many are still there, for the same reason. We can’t imagine working for another news director,” DeSelms said.

“When one of us hurts, we all do,” she said.

The family-friendly atmosphere, which applies daily with recitals, hockey games and teacher conferences and not just when a crisis hits, comes from the top. Managers say that family comes first.

“There’s a lot of happy people in our newsroom because of it,” she said.

For example, no one even thought to call the weekend anchor back from her honeymoon when the events of Sept. 11 unfolded, DeSelms said.

She has stepped in for others when needed, and they did the same for her.

DeSelms was still off work three weeks after her son’s surgery to help him recuperate, but in late October she started talking to her supervisors about when she’d return. She brought up the discussion; her boss wasn’t going to ask or pressure.

“I think people need to know there are places like this in the business,” DeSelms said.

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