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Pressure on online journalists challenges job engagement

Pressure on online journalists challenges job engagement

| Text: Berit Kvam

New technology puts more pressure on journalists to be ‘online’ and makes their job situation more diffuse and the journalists more vulnerable. Meanwhile support systems have not changed. If you want to create commitment and job engagement you need to strengthen work environment resources, say researchers.

Online journalists are often called 24/7 journalists.

“Because they have the possibility to work all hours of the day and night, the expectation for them to work 24/7 has probably increased too,” says Asbjørn Grimsmo, researcher and author of the 2012 Journalist Survey (Journalistundersøkelsen). He and co-author Hanne Heen, in cooperation with the Norwegian Union of Journalists, have compared the 24/7 journalists’ work environment pressure with that of other journalists. 

“It’s a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.” That’s how journalists described their occupation back in 1978, 35 years ago, when the Work Research Institute (AFI) conducted the first work environment survey of journalists. Since then AFI has systematically conducted work environment surveys among journalists every 10 years. Ten years after “a dog’s life” the description was “a dream job, working your heart out”, and in 2002 the journalists were ”markers for the future work environment”. Then the digital age kicks in. The work environment survey published in February 2013 focuses on the online journalist. Online journalism, news on mobile phones and the rise of social media have all led to comprehensive changes to the business: printed newspapers have closed, editorial staff has been cut and “digital heads” have been hired.

The hunt for digital heads

The largest cuts to staff took place after the survey was conducted in 2012, but the changes had started and the hunt for ‘the digital heads’, journalists who understand the new technology and manage to deliver, had started.

The 2012 Journalist Survey shows 61 percent of the journalists who took part delivered or produced online content – around three in five. In 1992 the number was zero, in 2002 it was five percent. In 2012 most journalists who produced online content worked in a multi media setting:

  • 43 percent produced for two platforms 
  • 14 percent produced for three platforms   

The 2012 survey also shows that journalists who produce for two or more platforms produced around half for print and online, one in ten produced for radio, TV and online and six percent produced for TV and online. 

“Developments within communication technology have led to greater flexibility when it comes to where and when you work. But journalists are also available all of the time and must relate to a continuous deadline. While stories used to have a naturally end as the paper hit the printers or as they were filed, they can now continue online,” says Asbjørn Grimsmo. 

Difficult to separate work and spare time

When asked “How often, outside of working hours...” around 85 percent of the journalists said they checked their email at least once a day outside of working hours. The use of information technology outside of working hours means the journalists find it difficult to separate work and spare time, the 2012 Journalist Survey shows.

When asked what is expected of them when it comes to availability “at all hours”, keeping in touch with sources “at all hours”, and deliver or update stories “at all hours”, one in six journalists said they to a high or very high degree face what they call 24/7 expectations in their work.

  • 45 percent said to a high or very high degree they themselves had these expectations  
  • 30 percent felt the expectations to a high or very high degree came from superiors, employer/commissioner or customers 
  • One in four said the 24/7 expectations to a high or very high degree came from audiences and sources

Social media

One in four journalists told the survey that they use social media a lot to gather information, highlight their own stories or to communicate with sources or audiences. Social media allows journalists to get in direct contact with readers, viewers and sources. The 2012 Journalist Survey shows the use of social media in work increases the risk of confrontations with sources and audiences.

“Information technology has made it easier to perform tasks like information gathering and publishing, but the technological development cannot compensate for the increased demands on efficiency at work. Meanwhile the amount of resources which should help make the job manageable have not increased,” says researcher Asbjørn Grimsmo.

Demands and resources

The 2012 Journalist Survey shows that the 24/7 journalists faces greater work environment challenges than other journalists: the 24/7 journalists face: 

  • greater quantitative, cognitive and emotional demands at work compared to colleagues 
  • more frequent role conflicts through work 
  • more conflicts and difficult cooperation at work compared to other journalists 
  • more confrontations with sources/audience

Important resources which help master the demands of the work environment include:

  • participation
  • social support 
  • trust within the organisation
  • learning opportunities
  • meaningful work 
  • organisational justice 

The 2012 Journalist Survey shows that the 24/7 journalists have access to the same work environment resources as other journalists, but that demands have increased.

“What’s new in the journalists’ situation – online production, social media, new technological developments and the expectation for them to “be online” 24/7 – has all led to increasing demands at work. It has made their job situation more diffuse and increased their vulnerability in the face of sources and audiences. At the same time it looks like work environment resources, the support functions which journalists can draw on in the work environment in oder to tackle the challenges they meet at work, have not developed. The balance between work environment pressure and work environment resources is now skewed,” says Asbjørn Grimsmo.

Burnt-out or committed journalists

The burnt-out journalist is according to the survey ‘a journalist who is emotionally exhausted, downbeat and who has a cynical attitude to work, to people around him or her and to him or herself. The burnt-out journalist also downplays his or her own ability to perform.” The committed journalist is ‘vital, enthusiastic and consumed with his or her job.’ The survey also says burn-out and work commitment are considered to be opposites. Both are results of work and both are considered to be lasting conditions. The journalists’ replies to 16 different statements have helped the researchers develop a scale for burn-out and work commitment running from 0 to 100. Based on this, the average journalist seems to be ‘a little bit burnt-out and quite committed to work.’

The 2012 Journalist Survey authors say the statistics show that journalists who face quantitative demands, many conflicting roles and a lot of conflicts and difficult collaborations, and those who experience insults at work, run a greater risk for burn-out than other journalists.   

The most committed journalists reported a high degree of meaningful work and fairness in the workplace, good learning opportunities and a lot of trust in the workplace. Other factors which create work commitment, although to a lesser extent, include the chance to take part and to get support from colleagues.

“Work environment pressure and work environment resources seem to influence work commitment and burn-out among journalists in different ways. Small amounts of work environment pressure seem to reduce the risk of burn-outs, but doesn’t necessarily create job commitment. Work environment resources have an effect on both.  

“The most burnt-out journalists have a higher degree of sick leave than those who are the most committed to their jobs, and the length of sick leave increases in step with the degree of burn-out.

“A good work environment with access to good resources results both in work commitment and good health.”

If you want to create commitment and job engagement you need to strengthen work environment resources, says work environment researcher Asbjørn Grimsmo. 

The 2012 Journalist Survey has been conducted in cooperation with research colleague Hanne Heen and the Norwegian Union of Journalists. The reference material used in the survey is gathered from COPSOC and QPSNordic.


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