A better way to praise journalists for putting in extra hours

CJR Editor Kyle Pope and our resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about the responsibilities of newsroom managers to ensure their people take the vacations they’ve earned, to protect journalists from online harassment, and to respond with class when staffers are offered better opportunities elsewhere.


Kyle: In this kind of news cycle, can a journalist ever really go on vacation? I’m a big believer that they should. But I know a lot of folks, particularly those working the politics beat, who just don’t think they can afford to unplug. Advice?

Jill: You’ve raised a traditional challenge of managers, one that’s grown as newsrooms downsized. Vacations, holidays, and maternity/paternity leaves are essential to employee well being. They keep burnout at bay. They take journalists out of their usual hangouts and into new habitats – always a good thing. Yet for their bosses, staff absences create scheduling headaches. Can we run short-staffed? Do we assign more hours/days to other employees to cover holes? Will we lose momentum on a big story?

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At the same time, some journalists get queasy about taking time off. Their identity is defined by their output. The adrenaline rush from producing news, especially scoops, is more rewarding than digital detox on a sun-kissed beach. Sadly, some news staffers fear their bosses will think less of them if they opt for time off. It’s especially likely when those leaders are rarely take vacations.

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Even managers’ well-intentioned public praise, “This superstar skipped her vacation to nail the exclusive!” can telegraph to staff that success is measured in sacrifice. An alternative message might be: “This was terrific work. Please let your family know they’re getting you back now – with our thanks.” It’s a reminder that non-stop work isn’t the norm.

Here are six tips for “time-off management”:

  1. Treat time off as important. People have earned it and benefit from it.
  2. Don’t let planning be your newsroom weak spot. Schedule ahead so people know who’ll be away and how you’ll cover for them.
  3. Create backups for big stories and beats. When journalists can share sources with a trusted newsroom partner, they’re more comfortable taking a break.
  4. Know your people well enough to understand what charges their batteries. Some need a nudge to take vacation. Some want to be gone but still connected. Some take every minute they’re entitled to – and that’s fine, too.
  5. Managers may choose to be “happy workaholics,” but they shouldn’t expect the same from their teams. In fact, it’s even more important for such bosses to encourage staff to take time off.
  6. Think in terms of “work-life harmony” rather than “work-life balance.” Balance is an unrealistic expectation. Our lives aren’t a 50-50 split between our jobs and the rest of our time. Think in terms of what enriches our lives. Today it might be working overtime on a great story. Tomorrow, it’s a nature hike with the kids. It’s on us to determine what harmony means in our lives.

When I teach about work-life harmony, I like to quote veteran network news producer Tom Bettag, who’s won walls full of journalism awards. When he oversaw Nightline with Ted Koppel, he told his staff: “Our relationships don’t fail because of the long hours we work. It’s because of the promises we break to people who care about us.”  

As news managers, we can create cultures where staffers can make good promises, and then look out for each other so they can keep them.


Kyle: We’re in a moment now where journalists have become targets of online attack. People’s home addresses and phone numbers are being published. What precautions should journalists be taking, and what should they do if they find themselves a target?

Jill: Before we make this a “journalist, protect thyself” conversation, let’s move it right back into the news managers’ offices. In fact, let’s take it higher than that – to the corporate level. I believe media organizations have an obligation to invest in employee security – whether it’s on the ground or online. We know from ugly experience that journalists are attacked and doxed, and that women are an especially attractive target for harassment. I’ve been told by front-line journalists that their managers often encourage them to be “active on social media” but do so with minimal strategy and little discussion of safeguards.

Social media is an essential aspect of reporting, sharing and engaging, so newsrooms should offer basic training on online self-defense. There should be protocols for reporting threats; how and to whom. Management should stand ready to intervene. Journalists should trust that their organizations fly cover for them as they go about the everyday tasks of journalism – and especially when they’re assigned a story that’s red meat for trolls.

Managers should also keep an eye on the emotional toll that online ugliness can take on their employees. Journalists are easy targets who are expected to take the high road in the face of viciousness and vulgarity. Anonymous and sadistic snark may not be as sinister as outright threats, but it can nonetheless sting. Encouragement and support from an empathetic boss can mitigate that pain.

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Kyle: Is it bad form for a manager to tell an employee they should actually take a competing job offer they’ve received? If we really care about our people, it seems inevitable that there will be times when people get offers that are, legitimately, good moves for them, no?

Jill: Unless your employees are under contract, they are free agents. If you’re a great boss, you look out for their best interests. In return, they may be less likely to job hunt and less likely to move on for a few dollars more.

But when the really good offer comes their way, one with opportunity and/or income you can’t beat, be unselfish. Don’t react like a jilted partner. Don’t try to “guilt” them into sticking with you. No matter how much you’ll miss them, how much of a hole it leaves in your team, or how ticked off your boss may be about it, support the move. It only enhances your reputation for character and class. Remember: The most important thing leaders do is help others succeed.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.