Prevent burnout as a news business leader

A LION conversation about building a healthier work-life balance, with guests Ryan Belmore and Naseem S. Miller.

December 7, 2022 by Jenna Spinelle and Ben DeJarnette

Ryan Belmore and Naseem S. Miller on News Guest graphic

When you’re a leader at an independent news organization, it’s easy to feel like you need to wear all the hats – or that you can’t take a day off because your audience and advertisers depend on you. 

Sound familiar? We hear stories like this all the time from LION members struggling to find a work-life balance that feels sane, let alone sustainable.

In this episode, you’ll hear advice about how to identify burnout in yourself and your team — and what to do about it – from two experienced news leaders:

  • Ryan Belmore is the owner and publisher of What’sUpNewp, a LION member publication in Newport, Connecticut.
  • Naseem S. Miller is a reporter at The Journalist’s Resource, where she writes about health and medicine.

You can listen and subscribe to News Guest on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Ryan and Naseem and our host Candice Fortman, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

On the challenge of recognizing your own burnout

Ryan Belmore: In the spring of 2017, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and I was going through all of the treatment and the tests and chemo and radiation and driving back and forth, and I still couldn’t bring myself to step away and take time off. It took the community’s help to get there. Our readers put a fundraiser together for me, and one of our paying members said, ‘You know, it’s okay to take a day off and take care of yourself.’

That’s where a lot of the pressure had come from – subscribers giving me money, so I felt like I had to perform for them every day. But hearing that feedback, it got me thinking, ‘This business will be OK if I take time off to take care of myself.’”

Naseem S. Miller: I’ve been aware of the connection between trauma and journalism and how our jobs can affect our mental health ever since I covered the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, but it didn’t really affect me physically until the pandemic. I was reporting on one of the projections about how we were going to run out of hospital beds, and I got freaked out thinking, ‘What if I didn’t get these numbers right, what if it’s not correct?’ 

Next thing I know, my heart rate is so high, and I can’t bring it down. It was all weekend. Every time I passed by my computer in our dining room, I would feel nauseous. So on Monday, I messaged my doctor’s office, and I’m like, ‘I need help, I can’t bring my heart rate down, and no amount of deep breathing and Netflix is helping me.’

A certain amount of stress is good for us, it keeps us on our toes, it’s a survival method. But there is a level that – if you don’t complete the so-called stress cycle – it keeps building in your body. And that’s when it becomes dangerous, and it can turn into burnout. 

On why journalists are especially susceptible to burnout

Naseem: I think it’s the nature of our jobs. There’s a lot of online harassment, especially for women and people of color. There are extreme political issues going on now that we have to cover. Our jobs are unstable – we are dealing with potential layoffs and cutbacks. Newsrooms are shrinking, and we have to cover more and more and more. 

And of course, part of us is dedicated to this profession. We know it’s a public service and it’s so important. We want to keep doing it. But at the same time, if we really don’t look out for ourselves, we could burn out because we are human, and there’s only so much we can do. 

On learning to set healthy boundaries

Ryan: As a whole, journalists do a terrible job at setting expectations. We over-promise, and we’re the worst kind of caregivers for our communities – we put everybody before ourselves. 

Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve made my emails very personal. I’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s been a long week, I’m taking the weekend off.’ And people will respond ‘Oh, you deserve it. Here’s a $5 donation, here’s whatever.’ 

The one thing we can beat all the corporate conglomerates at is being people. We’re not machines, we are people – and we need time off. It helps us.

Candice Fortman: I always think about it the other way, too – if we are tired and burnt out from an election, so is our audience. There’s a degree of care that we show them when we give them a break as well, because information overload is a very real thing. 

On looking for signs of burnout on your team

Naseem: Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis per se, but in general it’s emotional exhaustion. You often have a low level of motivation to work. You might have a hard time sleeping. You’re agitated. You turn to drugs and alcohol more as a soothing thing. 

As managers, we’re not therapists, right? But the simplest thing you can do is check in with your people. You might hear back from somebody or you might notice some sort of change in their behavior. 

On strategies for managing stress and avoiding burnout

Ryan: In 2020, I was planning to meet up with other New England publishers in person, and then the pandemic hit. Suddenly we were all locked in our houses dealing with a pandemic that none of us had ever dealt with before. So we started talking every single Monday. The call still goes on. 

It started with just a few of us in New England, then eventually we’d have publishers from the other side of the Earth joining for these calls. It’s just important to talk to people who are going through the same thing. You need to make some friends to check in with once a week or once a month and have conversations, whether it’s about your dog or about publishing.

[Learn more about how to create support networks to combat isolation.]

Naseem: It’s so important to have that connection. Don’t isolate yourself, reach out to someone. And take breaks throughout the day. Get up from your desk every hour or every 15 minutes, and take a break. Walk around your house. If you have a yard, walk around the yard. Just get up and then come sit back down. Maybe do a couple of squats. You’ll be amazed what a big difference it makes.

Candice: We used to do a daily dance break in the office. Maybe I’ll bring it back after this conversation. So every day, somebody picked a different song, and for three minutes we’d do a silent disco – everyone would put in their earbuds and start the song at the same time. 

It was a reminder that we are human and that we are not just here to produce. But it also was a really useful way for us to connect as a team. I now know everyone’s musical tastes – some of them I deeply agree with, and some of them have me deeply concerned. 

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