It used to be fun. It used to be challenging. It used to be what you wanted to do with your life. But it isn’t anymore. Deadlines are getting harder to meet, fresh stories harder to find and the long hours harder to endure. The money you once thought didn’t matter now does. And the stress you once thrived on is getting harder and harder to cope with.
Journalism. It was going to be your way of changing the world. You soon discovered that wasn’t part of your job description. You could look, but you couldn’t touch.
Always on the outside looking in that was the price you paid for the byline and the sign-off. But neither makes up for the frustration, the disillusionment and the stress anymore.
You’ve played Heat the Clock for too long and now you’re exhausted.
Look in the mirror: you’ve become another statistic for the American Institute of Stress. On the top-10 list of most stressful occupations, the institute ranks journalism seventh.
Decide now whether to hang in and hope the byline blahs pass, or drop out before you burn out. As Sara Procopio writes in “Dropping Out,” it’s a choice that has led many journalists into the public relations field. But for others, the thrill of chasing fire engines dies hard, and the price is paid in ulcers, addictions and frustration. Caroline Butler examines the symptoms and the solutions for those who have clung to the fire truck ladder for too long in “BurningOut.” The Editors Dropping out.
“Look around,” laughs Eric Evans, vice-president and corporate secretary for Unicorp, as he scans his dark woodpanelled penthouse suite. “Newspapers don’t have offices like this.”
Evans, who is now in his early 30s, was once a rising star at The Financial Post. He was fascinated by business. So much, in fact, that it soon replaced his fascination with journalism. He grew tired of being a “voyeur,” he says, “tired of always looking in the window and reacting to what other people were doing. I wanted to be causing things rather than reacting to them-and it didn’t look that hard.”
After only four years at The Post he began questioning his future. “I started asking myself, ‘Where will I be in five years?’ There just didn’t seem to be much chance of advancement,”
Evans admits that he thought about the money when making his decision to leave. “For the first few years the money at The Post was pretty competitive with those of my peers who had gone on to do other things, but what was happening was I was starting to get left behind and I knew I was going to get left way behind.”
The impediments to advancement, the triviality of some stories, and, more importantly money, forces many journalists to leave the profession. And many find themselves in the public relations field. After all, the skills acquired and perfected during their journalism careers, such as finding facts fast, handling pressure and meeting deadlines, are essential in the communications business. Journalists who decide the profession isn’t what it used to be find PR is an area where they can easily adapt their skills,
Marjorie Wallens, once host and anchor for Global’s early morning news and public affairs program, “Daybreak,” turned to public relations when she decided to end her 10-year career in television news. Wallens, now the director of public affairs for the Toronto Transit Commission, earned her bachelor of arts in journalism at the American University in Washington D.C. in 1972. Shortly after, she came to Toronto, “dying to be a journalist and wanting to be in television news.”
Her first job in Toronto was as a freelancer with Citytv. In 1974 she joined Global to become researcher and story editor for its business show, “Global Post.” Because of several financial reversals, Global was forced to let her go. Her career took her to CJOH- TV in Ottawa as a reporter then back to Global as parliamentary correspondent. Her career in journalism ended in 1982 after “Daybreak.”
“I left the profession,” she says, “because I started getting restless and I started to see that the economic climate for news and public affairs was changing. I could see down the road that there wouldn’t be a lot of money spent on new programming and so I saw no opportunity for professional growth and development.”
Wallens started feeling that she, like Evans, had been an observer for too long. “I wanted to be more active,” she says. After 10 years in the profession she decided it was time to get out. “My whole professional career had been consumed by the news business and I had no personal life to speak of. It’s a lot of commitment, and I was getting tired. I started thinking that there was more to life than working around the clock and what side Joe Clark parts his hair on. I saw it as a young person’s game.”
“News papering is definitely a young person’s game. The hours, the lifestyle, responsiveness and everything are for young people,” says Anne Moon, who is now directing the communications activities of the Toronto health department. She graduated with a journalism diploma from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in 1961. She worked for a series of newspapers including The Oakville Record Star and the Hamilton Spectator before moving to Toronto with her husband and landing a job with The Toronto Star in 1969. There she took on the education beat and later was entertainment editor for three years before finally becoming senior editor with page-one responsibilities.
But, after 21 years in the business, Moon left The Star. “I was going to be a writer from the age of eight. It wasn’t until I became senior editor that this great flash of consciousness hit me,”she says. “I was having a whole lot of ethical concerns about journalism, such as the blowing up of trivia, the lack of attention to serious social issues, especially at The Star,” she recalls. Although she accepts that newspapers have an important role to play, she also feels they exploit people’s misery.
Because of these ethical concerns, Moon does not regret the decision she made seven years ago. “The only regrets I have are when I see idiotic mistakes in the paper which I know I wowd have caught had I been there. Occasionally, I have regrets when there’s a really big story happening and I miss being part of the action and I miss having the inside scoop. There was always that sort of seductive feeling of being in the middle of everything.”
However, these regrets do not out weigh the number of times when she, like other reporters who were beaten by the system, found herself asking, “Why are we doing this?” She says that too much time was spent on non-stories, “on silly stories, stuff that wasn’t put into the context of people’s lives.” It was this feeling that convinced her she should leave her chosen profession. She’s not alone.
Bob Purcell quit journalism for similar reasons. His first job was reporting for the Vancouver Sun in the mid-sixties. He later relocated to Toronto and worked for The Star as reporter, editor and political writer. “I left the field in the mid-seventies because what I considered the fun aspect of journalism was fading fast. The newsroom camaraderie, the enthusiasm for valid and prompt news coverage seemed to be less than it had been in previous years,” he explains. After 12 years, Purcell felt he had had enough of being a “down and dirty journeyman” and sold his sow to public relations. Today he occupies a comfortable office as manager of corporate public relations for INCO Limited.
“I was ready for something new and different. The Star had been kind to me, giving me a myriad of assignments but I had run out of new and different things to do and decided I wanted to try private enterprise..”
Feelings such as these, unfortunately for the profession, lead some journalists to drop out of their chosen careers and into more promising fields. For others, however, the decision is one that is made for them.
Stuart Allen was drinking in those days. A lot. It took an ulcer and a failed marriage to make him realize that he had a problem and needed professional help. That was 20 years ago. Now, after finding the right psychologist and three years of “just talking,” he’s okay again.
Today, the former CBC Radio producer has found happiness in a new marriage and two new businesses: a consulting firm and a production company. The scenario might not have ended so happily. Allen could have ended up an alcoholic or a drug addict, could have sunk into a deep depression or, like four others he knew, could have killed himself.
Instead, he learned to control the stress and to accept his limitations. “When I realized I didn’t know it all,”
he recalls, “I stopped yelling, I stopped screaming, I stopped, quite frankly, drinking as much as I drank.” He says that it’s not easy for a journalist to accept the fact that he does not know everything and that there are things he cannot do. One thing Allen couldn’t do was deny that he had opinions. “One of the hardest things all of us have to learn to deal with are those biases, those personal feelings,” he says. “It’s impossible to go out and report on a story without becoming personally involved with it, without having some kind of conclusion which you may not put into print or broadcast on radio and television.”
Allen says that journalists are expected to deal so dispassionately with events they cover that they can forget they have emotions. He says this is just one of the reasons journalism is such a stressful occupation. “That kind of feeling you keep inside yourself, that kind of tension builds up because you’re writing a story about a group that you might hate,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know how to deal with it.”
Therapy alleviated some of the pressure and he became more honest with himself. “If I felt strongly about something,” he says, “I learned to speak up. If I disagreed with something, I disagreed with it and I didn’t hold it inside.”
Cindy Clegg was with CBC Radio for 13 years as reporter, senior news editor and producer. She finds that one of the more stressful aspects of the field is its very nature-objective reporting rather than active participation. She says that journalists are “forever outside looking in.”
What makes this particularly hard, she believes, is that the people drawn to this career are those who want to change things, people who “care intensely about so many things.” Nevertheless, she says, “you are relegated to the role of watching.”
A career counsellor (who wishes toremain anonymous because of client confidentiality) agrees. “I think people go into this field with great expectations and with high hopes and certainly a desire to change something.”
There are many other pressures on journalists, notably the competition to get not just the story, but the best story-on time. This kind of stress may sometimes twist a reporter’s ethical arm and consequently facts are tampered with. CBS News, for example, was recently criticized for faking footage from the Afghanistan war. Allen says that living with the guilt that goes along with bending the truth puts an even greater strain on journalists.
If bending the truth carries a high penalty of conscience, the temptation to lift someone else’s words under pressure to produce can end tragically. More than one lost job or lost life has been linked to plagiarism. Ken Adachi’s suicide last year followed a charge that he had plagiarized in his Toronto Star column. Timothy Pritchard, managing editor of The Globe and Mail, thinks plagiarism is “an illness and a desperate calling for attention.” It’s a symptom of a greater problem. Another threat to a journalist’s peace of mind is the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome. Journalists often rush to an assignment just in time to sit around for what seems like an eternity waiting for something-any thing-to happen. Clegg remembers one assignment when she was covering the Pope’s visit to Fort Simpson, NWT. After days of waiting the visit was cancelled due to fog. A small, unrelated incident later that evening triggered tears. “I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed,” she says. Not because she was upset by missing the Pope, but because she had been so worked up, only to be so let down.
Clegg paid the price for her dedication to a career in journalism-60-hour work weeks, stress-related health problems and a divorce. But she doesn’t place all the blame on the business: “You can be your own worst enemy. I could never walk away from a story.”
Journalists are “high-drive people and I think it’s a self-selecting profession,” says the career counsellor. Pritchard agrees. He says the nature of the work appeals to the people who are temperamentally suited for it. The stress acts as a drug for these people. Getting high on deadlines might be what pushes them on.
But sooner or later, this non-stop, one-sided life can get to be too much. “It’s very hard to be a journalist,”
Clegg says, “and lead a balanced life.” Many have family problems because of the long hours, the travelling and the unpredictable nature of the profession. Clegg recalls rushing from the family dinner table to cover breaking news.
Her desire to lead a balanced life led Clegg to walk away from the CBC. Now she’s the communications advisor to Christine Hart, Ontario’s minister of culture and communications. She says she still works long, hard hours but believes it was a good career move. She’s participating and not just watching. She realizes she can do more than write, and, “for the first time in a long time, I’m learning again.”
Still, Clegg loves the thrill of reporting. “It’s exhilarating, but it’s also demanding,” she says. “It’s like hanging off the ladder on a fire truck. And how many years can you do that?”
Today, journalists on the verge of burning out have a safety net. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which help staff deal with personal and professional problems, have become more and more popular among Canadian businesses. Though they have been around since the 1940s, their numbers have increased by 54 per cent since 1980. EAPs are strictly confidential. In the case of the CBC, employees call a Resource Centre line that puts them in touch with counsellors. There’s no intervention from management.
The career counsellor finds journalists open and sensitive in discussing their problems. “When they’ve put their finger on the fact that they have a problem,” he says, “they want to find out what the truth is.” Psychologists, social workers and career counsellors are within easy reach.
Along with stress management, counsellors are trained to deal with alcoholism and drug abuse. And even though journalism is changing, the image of the boozing reporter is still not far from the truth. “The nature of journalism is such that stresses are recurrent on a daily basis,” says Martin Shain of the Addiction Research Foundation. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and gambling too often provide an escape from the daily grind.
But as more companies make an Employee Assistance Program part of the modern newsroom, journalists on the verge of burning out are more likely to recognize the symptoms before they begin to feel like Clegg often did: “like you’re at the bottom of the bathtub and somebody’s pulled the plug.”
Journalism. It was going to be your way of changing the world. You had great expectations. A desire to change something. But now it might have to be your attitude. Even your job.
About the author
Sara Procopio was the Copy Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
Comments are closed.