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Journalists Model the Cost of a Cowboy Work Culture

Imagine, for a moment, the movie journalist. He is unshaven. He looks tired. He’s almost certainly a he and he’s almost certainly poorly dressed. His whole look can be summed up in one word: integrity. His virtue is eroded by long hours and low pay, but he stands strong. That idea of the journalist–though maybe less common in the era of “fake news”–remains a ghostly presence in newsrooms across the country, where hard work is more often valued that happiness. A new study from Poynter, the news source about news sources, drives home the very real ramifications of keeping a legend alive. The cowboy culture of the media is putting journalists with families into difficult positions and, one can extrapolate, potentially affecting coverage of the evolving relationships with companies and the people they employ.

While two thirds of the companies employee the 390 respondents to the Poynter survey boasted some form of paid parent leave—much higher than the national average, presumably because optics are critical in publishing—less than half of the respondents reported taking full advantage of the policy. This is presumably due in part to the acceleration of the 24 hour news cycle, particularly for political reporters, and to a culture in which commitment is frequently demonstrated in hours worked at night, which can be particularly punishing for parents. As one respondent put it: “Feeling like putting in less than 50 hours a week makes me a bad employee, and putting in 50 hours or more makes me a bad parent.”

Journalists seem to have backed themselves into an untenable position.

Some of this is unavoidable. News breaks unpredictably. If a catastrophe happens in the middle of the night, media outlets and news publications need reporters (particularly the crisis-hardened hacks often called “firefighters”) to move quickly. The media is, after all, an immensely competitive business and what used to be a race measured in days is now a race measured in seconds.

“When news happened, you needed to work…even if you also needed to be home and newsrooms are too lean with no backup to get help if you need it,” one respondent explained.

As of right now, the solutions to the problem presented by journalism’s cowby culture aren’t immediately apparent. Paid leave left on the table confirms that the issue isn’t necessarily with corporate governance, but with professional and perhaps personal expectations. The most damaging aspect of journalism today may be the culture surrounding the field (and the threat of lingering unemployment), which demands that older workers compete with ambitious young colleagues or wash out.

Competition and workplace values in the media aren’t changing fast enough to accommodate parents, even as the rest of the country has found ways to adapt and evolve. One respondent summarized the issue: “It’s all about productivity and stories. [W]hat’s happening in life is my own problem…just keep that copy rolling.”

What does that mean for coverage of shifting corporate and political attitudes about work/life balance? It’s unclear. Journalists paid to be professionally neutral tend to be quite good at that. Still, one suspects that the culture within the media leads to either an kneejerk cynicism about corporate responsibility programs or a deeply romantic notion of what’s possible. Either way, it’s not good news for newshounds.