In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger

ARLINGTON, Va. — In most newsrooms, the joke would have been obvious.

On Gawker’s “big board,” reporters can check the most-viewed articles, a list updated hourly.
It was April Fools’ Day last year, and Politico’s top two editors sent an e-mail message to their staff advising of a new 5 a.m. start time for all reporters.

“These pre-sunrise hours are often the best time to reach top officials or their aides,” the editors wrote, adding that reporters should try to carve out personal time “if you need it,” in the midafternoon when Internet traffic slows down.

But rather than laugh, more than a few reporters stared at the e-mail message in a panicked state of disbelief.

“There were several people who didn’t think it was a joke. One girl actually cried,” said Anne Schroeder Mullins, who wrote for Politico until May, when she left to start her own public relations firm. “I definitely had people coming up to me asking me if it was true.”

Such is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.

Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms. The Christian Science Monitor now sends a daily e-mail message to its staff that lists the number of page views for each article on the paper’s Web site that day.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all display a “most viewed” list on their home pages. Some media outlets, including Bloomberg News and Gawker Media, now pay writers based in part on how many readers click on their articles.

Once only wire-service journalists had their output measured this way. And in a media environment crowded with virtual content farms where no detail is too small to report as long as it was reported there first, Politico stands out for its frenetic pace or, in the euphemism preferred by its editors, “high metabolism.”

The top editors, who rise as early as 4:30 a.m., expect such volume and speed from their reporters because they believe Politico’s very existence depends, in large part, on how quickly it can tell readers something, anything they did not know.

“At a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually sitting there on deadline, trying to file,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, in an interview from the publication’s offices just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.

“Now at any point in the day starting at 5 in the morning, there can be that same level of intensity and pressure to get something out.” (Not all reporters are expected to be on their game by dawn, Mr. VandeHei added, noting that many work a traditional 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. newspaper day.)

At Gawker Media’s offices in Manhattan, a flat-screen television mounted on the wall displays the 10 most-viewed articles across all Gawker’s Web sites. The author’s last name, along with the number of page views that hour and over all are prominently shown in real time on the screen, which Gawker has named the “big board.”

“Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith,” said Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder. Mr. Denton said not all writers have warmed to the concept. “But the best exclusives do get rewarded,” he added, noting that bonuses for writers are calculated in part based on page views.

The pace has led to substantial turnover in staff at digital news organizations. Departures at Politico lately have been particularly high, with roughly a dozen reporters leaving in the first half of the year — a big number for a newsroom that has only about 70 reporters and editors. At Gawker, it is not uncommon for editors to stay on the job for just a year.

Physically exhausting assembly-line jobs these are not. But the workloads for many young journalists are heavy enough that signs of strain are evident.

“When my students come back to visit, they carry the exhaustion of a person who’s been working for a decade, not a couple of years,” said Duy Linh Tu, coordinator of the digital media program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “I worry about burnout.”

In Washington, the news cycle promises to become even more frenzied as outlets like The Huffington Post expand their operations there. The Atlantic Media Company, which publishes the National Journal and The Atlantic, plans to hire 30 new journalists for a new venture set to open this fall that will publish breaking news and analysis online.

At Politico, Mr. VandeHei, who has been known to pace between rows of reporters’ desks asking who has broken news lately, said editors experimented with monitoring how many articles reporters were writing, but decided that raw numbers did not give a full picture of a reporter’s performance.
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