Student newsroom culture is unsustainable, must be rethought

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: College newspapers often require long hours with unreasonable responsibilities, student journalists must be given more support.

Illustration of a stressed out person on a desk with the newspaper
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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Sacrificing blood, sweat and tears is more than hyperbole for student journalists. The editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, Claire Hao, announced Sept. 22 she would be taking a leave of absence for a week due to burnout. Hao’s decision must mark the beginning of an ongoing conversation among college journalists about reforming student newsroom culture to be healthy and sustainable.

The hours and responsibilities student editors shoulder, while balancing academics and other commitments, are unreasonable. The Daily Californian’s editor in chief works between 30 and 50 hours a week and is paid about $400 a month. According to Hao, she works about 70 hours a week and is only paid $150 a month. Both are on-call practically 24/7 and responsible for ensuring their newspapers remain financially stable and that, along with other editors, content is accurate and published on time.

Other students who serve as managing editors, creative directors and department editors are also expected to perform inordinate amounts of work. Many clock up to 60 hours a week and are responsible for dozens of student journalists.

For those who hope to work as professional journalists, college newspapers are often their only source of training and experience. High workloads make it nearly impossible for many students to step into these roles, especially if they have other responsibilities.

Of 73 spring 2021 editors in chief from award-winning college newsrooms, less than 6% were Black and only about 10% were Latinx. It’s no wonder newsrooms have historically misrepresented marginalized communities.

Student newsrooms, as well as local newspapers, also suffer from a severe lack of resources, making it difficult to appropriately compensate staff members and provide support. UC Merced’s The Prodigy was merely another victim of a national trend of decreased support for newspapers when it closed its doors in 2019 after losing its only source of funding. During the height of the pandemic, community members rallied to support local small businesses. It’s time that local newsrooms receive the same response.

Almost as much as it’s a matter of insufficient resources, it is a matter of newsroom culture. Students are tacitly expected to put their work at their newspaper first. This often includes pressure to edit first and study last, take fewer academic courses and work through physical and mental health emergencies. Establishing boundaries needs to be normalized for editors and staffers, as well as more breaks and days off.

As student journalists, we do the hard work because we love what we’re doing — but it shouldn’t be this hard. As the next generation of journalists, we have the opportunity to change newsroom culture now. This is also a message to The Daily Cal staff: Please communicate and take the time off that you need for both your mental and physical health.

Talking about this, while just the first step, is an important one. Student newsrooms across the country must take a closer look at the burnout culture that is so deeply ingrained in this industry and reform it one line at a time. 

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2021 opinion editor, Emily Hom.