Journalist Burnout is Symptom of Sick Newsrooms

When I started my online-only news career at CNET (1999-2003), the metrics for success largely extended from print: Scoops (and for me, provocative analysis). Now, as Jeremy Peters writes for the New York Times (“In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger”), the measure is pageviews—and scoops, too, for some news organizations. Journalists are burning out fast and young, and for easily discernable reasons. Too much is demanded of them (and for too little compensation).

Jeremy writes:

Such is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news—anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.

Outfits like Huffington Post treat skilled writers like unskilled, indentured labor. Writers—be they bloggers, journalists, social media commenters or tweeters—are the coal miners of the Internet. They dig the web’s fuel but whither before the flames produced. Burnout is acceptable to new media moguls and dying old media monopolists because there are plenty enough out-of-work journalists to replace fallen peers.

The approach is only sustainable as long as labor is cheap or until some math whiz’s algorithms replace manually-produced story aggregation. But neither scenario will produce good writing or businesses sustainable by current advertising models. There is too much content that is too much alike. It’s a dire situation: There isn’t enough advertising too fill the ad space, and ad value also diminishes because there is too much supply of the same or similar content.

There needs to be more emphasis on original reporting and building lasting audience. That’s not going to happen with so much of the reporting being similar or the same. A year ago tomorrow, I asserted that “It’s Original Reporting or Nothing.” The concept matters even more now than when presented in July 2009. I contend that writers given chance to pace rather than race, will:

  • Develop more interesting topics
  • Craft the writing so the storytelling is better (wordcraft is a dying artform)
  • Find more satisfaction from their writing (slowing down—if not preventing—the burnouts)
  • Spend the time necessary to develop sources and establish longer-lasting relationships with them

Gizmodo’s iPhone 4 scoop should be a lesson to all online news organization. Gizmodo got one of the biggest tech scoops in a generation and muffed it. The released product showed just how little Giz learned about iPhone 4. A news organization with deeper reporting culture surely wouldn’t have missed so much.

Burnout is symptom of illness—or addiction, to the quick high big pageviews or large numbers of comments give. The high isn’t sustainable, nor the business model behind it. OK, I’ve mixed enough metaphors.

Photo Credit: David Sim