Overcoming burnout on the road to ‘digital first’

“We will be and are burning people out.”

That quote from John Paton led the final paragraph of a Jan. 15 Los Angeles Times profile on his “digital first, print last” transformation of Journal Register Company and Media News Group.

My finger reached out and pointed to that part of my laptop screen when I saw it. “This. … This!” This is important. It won’t keep us from getting where Paton is leading us. But it has slowed us down, no doubt.

When asked whether journalism would suffer as newsrooms juggle Twitter, video, blogging and other digital tools, Paton said he’s afraid it might in the short-term, “not because of (digital) tools,” but because of burnout.

Burnout, you say? Didn’t newsrooms invent burnout?

Actually, Journal Register Company took it to another level in the pre-John Paton days. After years of cost cutting and bankruptcy, the theme song of our newsrooms could have been a cross between something like this:

and this:

Then Paton came along and laid out this urgent plan to completely change the workflow of newsrooms, which required we learn a whole bunch of new tools, a whole new skill set. Even longtime top editors, even the most curmudgeonly members of our city desk or sports department, would have to learn and change.

And we’d have to do it while continuing to get a print edition out the door and satisfying the expectations of our print readers.

Paton described it at the time as “trying to change the tires on a moving car while driving down the highway.”

Remarkably, he sold tired and cynical editors on that message. They went from burned out to enthused to rally behind a vision for preserving and reinvesting in local journalism. Paton’s playbook is a great guide, actually, for companies who are dealing with their own digital first burnout questions.

But two years into the JRC turnaround, we’re dealing with a different and perhaps more critical stage of burnout.

If folks who’ve bought in to “digital first” become overwhelmed or discouraged, the danger is that they’ll slip into a going-through-the-motions daze, holding us back from the next stage of real cultural change in the newsroom. As one editor said, “I just don’t feel like I’m doing any one thing well. I don’t even know where to start sometimes.”

They bought into Paton’s message because there was a clear strategy, communicated well and executed with transparency. He has treated them with respect, focused on the important stuff, provided the tools needed to get the job done and empowered them to try new things.

Preserving those conditions as the company grows in size and advances to the next stage of “digital first” will keep them buying in. But to keep them from burning out, we’re at a juncture in which top editors must step back, prioritize and recognize human limitations, starting with themselves. That means a ban on the words “do more with less.” It means deciding NOT to do things that are less important or to at least place a lot less focus on them.

If we believe producing quality journalism and connecting it with as wide and engaged an audience as possible is our number one goal, let’s learn about and use every tool possible that will help us do that. But if we’re doing things that don’t support that goal, we have to stop doing them. And we have to stand up to our own publishers, our own staffs, and our own sense of tradition, to draw that line.

Respect for journalism and journalists

Paton got JRC editors’ attention literally on day one by inviting them to a seat at the adults’ table. When he gathered publishers to a meeting near JRC headquarters the day after he started as CEO, he surprised both by inviting editors, too.

He said things like “quality journalism is our business model,” and, with raised voice, that we would never let advertisers dictate or compromise newsroom decisions under his watch.

Treating journalism and journalists with respect is a great weapon against burnout.

Treating someone with respect means listening to them – really listening – and it didn’t take Paton long to hear about how much lack of investment in basic hardware was holding newsrooms back, especially as they peered into the digital first future from around their Windows 98 PC and tube monitor.

Paton launched an “evergreen” program that replaces computers at least every three years. He backed up his emphasis on video by giving every reporter in the company a Flip camera. And he backed up his call for top editors to lead by example in learning new tools by sending each of them a smart phone and iPad.

Providing proper tools to do the job is a great weapon against burnout.

Empowerment and Experimentation

Paton used two projects in his first year as CEO to give newsrooms a sense of confidence and empowerment when it comes to the world of digital journalism.

The Ben Franklin Project involved publishing the print edition and website of every JRC daily newspaper for a single day using only free, open source, web-based tools.

By proving we could do it without them, it enabled Paton to win major savings from software vendors, savings that helped fund the aforementioned hardware upgrades.

But the real genius of Ben Franklin was that it forced newsrooms to behave like startups. By necessity, they were turned on to a whole world of online storytelling tools. And editors who’d rarely shared resources or knowledge naturally reached out to each other without prompting to compare notes and share discoveries.

Paton followed Ben Franklin with the JRC Idea Lab, which freed up 15 employees to spend 25 percent of their week to experiment, plus a monthly stipend, smart phone, Netbook and iPad.

The Idea Lab had direct benefit to the newsrooms where members were assigned. They saw through ideas and projects that would otherwise never have materialized from the daily grind.

But it sent a broader message to newsrooms across the company. It’s OK to experiment. It’s good to experiment. And experimenting means failed experiments. And that’s OK, too. It’s part of the process.

Empowering staff to try new things and fail is a great weapon against burnout.

One foot in digital, one foot in print

So here we are, two years in, and we’ve improved our journalism. Digital audience and digital revenue have grown tremendously. And just over the horizon we catch glimpses of Paton’s “crossover” point where digital growth exceeds print losses and local journalism is saved.

But there’s a lot of truth to Paton’s analogy of changing the tires on a moving car. It has felt like that at times. Hey, at least he warned us!

JRC is a company of small newsrooms – dailies and weeklies where top editors are laying out pages for the print edition after a day of live blogging, tweeting and editing video, and motivating the team in between.

It’s amazing how much they’ve willingly placed on their shoulders over the past few years.

We’re at a stage when some key remaining pieces (a new, integrated CMS, for example, and the Thunderdome project that will provide print pagination and national news coverage) are coming soon, but not here yet.

Rather than complain about the difficulty of jumping into digital first with both feet when they still have one foot in print, they’re finding ways. They’re masochists. Or they really believe in what John Paton is saying. Probably both.

You can keep that up for only so long, though, before burnout endangers the mission.

And if a local editor is attempting to put the whole thing on his or her back, chances are they are putting off some difficult but inevitable decisions.

What’s not part of the mission? Why are we still doing it?

Is the newsroom still organized around print or the premise of a larger staff than exists today? How should job descriptions change?

Are you working more hours, juggling more stuff and obtaining more gray hairs to avoid answering these questions?

Old way or new way, staff of 50 or staff of 25, every day you arrive at work and make decisions about what you are not going to cover and not going to get to.

If learning new tools is important, if dedicated training time is what it will take to get there, you have to decide (for you, or for one of your employees, or both) to do one less thing that day.

If using a new tool improves the quality of your journalism and/or helps you connect that journalism to a wider audience, but takes longer than the old way, you have to decide to drop something that’s less important.

The first step to overcoming burnout is knowing that it’s OK to make those decisions.

If they came easily, it would be much smoother sailing in my own newsrooms right now, and I wouldn’t be thinking so much about whether my staff is burning out. But I do think it’s the conversation we need to have.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming burnout on the road to ‘digital first’

  1. Great point, Matt. First step is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Second step is to start discussing solutions. In ’06-’07 in Philadelphia, one answer I pushed was to greatly reduce geographic zoning. The zoned editions required a lot of reporting and processing time devoted to small-bore coverage. Making the change freed up resources for stories that had broad relevance to larger audiences. It will be useful to hear what other editors have tried.


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