Credit: Journalists are taking steps to prevent becoming frazzled under the weight of emails, pushes and notifications

John Crowley is a digital journalist, consultant and member of the European Journalism Centre. This article has been republished with permission, and can be read in full here.

Journalists are 'overwhelmed' by the information they process in their working day and want to explore solutions with third party providers and management to make it more manageable, according to a nine-month project involving discussions across the industry and a revealing in-depth survey.

The research is part of the European Journalism Centre’s News Impact Network which climaxes today (3 December) in Berlin. Its aim is to look at ways at making journalism more sustainable in an ever-changing media landscape.

As part of my project, I have been blogging this year about how journalists are wilting under the weight of emails, pushes and notifications they get each day and what we, as an industry, can do to change the narrative.

Sally Pook, a Fleet Street journalist turned psychotherapist, told me that journalists in modern newsrooms were succumbing to “anxiety and exhaustion” because of the need to monitor the “seemingly endless sources of potential sources” available to them.

A key finding from the survey shows that just over 50 per cent of journalists said they were overwhelmed by information during their working day and wanted to 'explore solutions' to make it more manageable.

In addition, 43 per cent said they were overwhelmed, but were dealing with it, and just under 7 per cent said they had things 'well under control'.

In a strong showing, 73 per cent said they would like news outlets to start a conversation with the news industry while 26 per cent said third party outlets did not have a role to play.

In the survey, I asked a series of questions. A selection of anonymised answers can be found below:

Are you overwhelmed with information during your journalist working day?

"It is impossible to keep on top of everything as it pours into the newsroom — and even harder when you are out and about (where you should be as a journalist) — glued to your phone (like you shouldn't be) on rapidly dying batteries not engaging with the world properly."

How do you filter out noise at work on desktop/phone?

"I've deleted Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat from my phone. I've deactivated notifications from virtually everything, though I do have to keep them on for breaking news for work reasons. I never really got into Twitter, thank goodness, but do spend hours checking my LinkedIn feed. At least, it can pass for work. Most important thing is I've told everyone on my team that Slack or email were not means of immediate communication and I wouldn't always be checking, especially nights and weekends. If they need me, they know they can call... and they never do, proof that we are not nearly as indispensable as we'd like to believe."

If you could wish for one thing to be invented to help you filter out noise, what would that be?

"A genuinely smart, AI assistant, like Her (but not one that disconnects me from reality). Not like Alexa, who doesn't understand my accent half the time and can't handle contextual conversation."

A key takeaway from these insights suggests that it is too easy to point fingers at third-party providers and technology. Instead, management, either through wilful ignorance or a strong desire to react to the changing face of digital journalism, are simply asking journalists to stay connected far too much.

Mattia Peretti, who is running the News Impact Network programme, says he has created 'safe spaces' to maintain some semblance of sanity. His phone is also only WiFi-enabled which means he cannot be reached by message or notification if he is not on 4G.

Someone else also dialling down their screen-time is Alex Entwistle, a fellow cohort member on NIN. He has turned off social media messages during certain office hours, but also strives for a positive work environment by introduced meetings at the end of the working day and has encouraged his team to express their feelings through a musical ‘mood board’.

"This mood board could look like management rubbish,” he says with a chuckle. “But it is important: you can't expect people to be switched on 24/7 because all the evidence is there."

Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia, editorial, at Thomson Reuters, has turned off notifications on email, tries to keep her phone on silent and has culled her Twitter list down to a “reading list rather than a constant stream”.

She spoke with Lucy Kueng, a Google digital news senior fellow at Reuters Institute, Oxford University at the Digital Editors Network in October, and both on spoke about rethinking leadership attitudes to safeguard against burnout in young reporters.

Francois Nel, director of journalism leadership at the University of Central Lancashire, says this is a 'massive issue' the industry has failed to address which behoves journalists to come up with 'intelligent solutions'.

"Employers haven’t provided us in the main with the tools. Our content management systems are set up with an old paradigm. We have bolt-on solutions which take in this mass information. We bolt a Tweetdeck dashboard or a LinkedIn dashboard on," he said.

However, he also firmly believes management at news organisations need to creatively engage.

"The numbers of what people are expected to produce are staggering. How many pieces of content are expected to be professionally communicated? No wonder people are burning out."

These words from Molly de Aguiar, managing director of the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, perhaps best sum where our industry is at.

"Clearly there are many things converging to overwhelm journalists right now — the 24/7 news cycle, the amplification and urgency that social media adds to that, the intense pressures to churn out stories that will generate traffic and generate ad revenue, the attempt to discredit journalism by calling it 'fake news'.

"Most journalists don't have the authority to actually do much about how their newsroom operates."

It is not too dramatic to say that many outlets we regard as big will not be around in 10 years' time. de Aguiar feels the newsrooms that do succeed 'are the ones who understand that the one-way broadcast model is not sustainable'.

"People want to participate, they want to tell their stories, they want journalists to listen. Newsrooms that figure out how to do this in a genuine way are the ones who are going to build brand loyalty," she said.

"It's not easy, though — it's time and labour-intensive and they won't be able to build trust overnight. Furthermore, it requires buy-in from people in the newsroom with the authority to make decisions."

Why should we care about workplace burnout? It will make our daily jobs easier and we will able to produce better journalism. It’s as simple as that. Then we can move on to other pressing challenges for our industry.

I hope this project in a small way kick-starts a wider discussion. We need to talk.

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