Journalist Burnout and Its Effect on Public Relations

There have been a number of alarming stories lately about the burnout rate among journalists. While many of these stories focus on the physical and mental toll the COVID-19 pandemic has had on journalists personally and professionally, the fact is the pandemic has only hastened many of the issues plaguing modern newsrooms.

Newsroom employment has been declining steadily over the past decade and projected to decline another 11% by 2029. At the same time, news cycles are getting quicker. There’s an expectation for journalists to generate content at scale to feed hungrier and faster news cycles. In parallel, there’s a healthy distrust of the media that has taken root and flourished over the last five years following the 2016 U.S. election. Layer the effect of the pandemic on top of that, it’s evident that a good portion of reporters and journalists are deciding the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

Journalist burnout will have a profound effect on public relations, especially in the area of pace and cadence of coverage, if it hasn’t already.

Content onus will fall on SMEs

Contributed content, bylines and op-eds have always been a healthy part of any PR mix. Due in part to reporter burnout, a trend has emerged over the past few years where publications will respond to a proactive pitch, not with a request for a briefing but for the client to craft a contributed piece of content on the subject. There are simply not enough reporters to generate enough content, and dedicated beat reporters are a dying breed. So, if a publication finds a topic interesting enough, it’s easier to put the onus on the subject matter expert to write the piece.

The upside is that the demand for contributed content presents executives within brands more opportunities to showcase their thinking and build a platform for their expertise. Contributed content, however, is much more time consuming than a briefing from a time and resources standpoint. Also, since many contributed pieces are breaking news adjacent at best, the timeline for coverage can be much more protracted than that from a traditional briefing.  While the PR balance should have a healthy amount of proactive pitching, writing and content generation is fast overtaking it.

Fewer friendly journalists = longer education process

Public relations teams spend significant time, money and resources building and fostering relationships with journalists. Having a friendly reporter who fundamentally understands the market or vertical a client fits into or can comment on helps quicken the path for coverage. With the threat of reporter burnout, this becomes a less reliable tool. When reporters burn out or change beats (or publications) more frequently, their institutional knowledge goes with them. PR teams will need to spend more time on continuing to educate reporters. Instead of relying on them to instinctively know where a client plays in the space.

Hopefully, now that the country is turning the page on the pandemic, there’s a chance, however slight, that reporters will be able to take a bit of a breather, and the burnout will subside. That might be pie-in-the-sky thinking, and reporter burnout may be with us for the long run. PR campaigns will need to adapt to remain effective.

This article was authored by Justin Finnegan, VP of Account Services at partner company SHIFT.

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