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The burnt out journalists

Recently I read a story, written by a young, local journalist who, about a year ago, received a newcomer’s award from our Journalist chamber. It wasn’t a success story, it was a story that lead into exhaustion and despair. Reading his words about the kind of career they promised to him and the kind that he actually had made me realise we’re actually all in the same boat. I’m not sure if it’s just in my profession, but lately I’ve been reading burnout stories more and more often. If it’s true that there’s a lot of us out there who share the same experience, then I need to share a piece of his story along with what I’m experiencing at this moment in my journalistic career.

In my country, journalism was been devalued a long time ago. It happened somewhere along with the whole Internet boom, as I’ve written here before, in my article “Did internet kill journalism”. The logic behind it is that now just about anyone with a keyboard and an opinion can be a journalist. Or a blogger which is kind of the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many years you spend behind books and how many essays you’ve written to graduate in journalism. Nowadays no one even asks me if I have a degree in journalism when I apply for writing jobs. They all just want a link to my blog.

So this newcomer of the year, he was writing entertainment features for a local newspaper. In one single year he visited 120 concerts, 60 football games and conducted 50 interviews, all for different editorial sections. You’d think he was a successful journalist, living the good life and enjoying good reputation from his colleagues and editors. At least that’s what the statistics say. The truth is a whole lot different. The truth is he was burnt out and literally broke. You’re probably wondering how can this even be, but it will make a lot of sense in a minute.

In our beautiful country, nobody employs journalists anymore, we’re all freelancing. This may sound like a dream, but it’s where all the problems begin. Freelancing means you have two options: you can work on an a copyright agreement where the government takes 50% off your gross income or you can open your own business and have the status of an independent contractor, where the monthly costs for insurance, pension and such raise to about 300£. That wouldn’t be such a big expense, but as we all know, journalist fees are very low and here, a monthly wage for a writer isn’t much more than an average national wage of 600£. So the costs of having your own company amount to half of what you make. It becomes a problem.

So let’s summarise. No one employs journalists. They need to work for low fees and on top of that open their own companies which lead to high operating costs. If they want to survive they need to work a lot! It’s possible there won’t be enough work for you at just one media, so you need to write for multiple magazines and websites. For instance our example was working on multiple editorial boards inside one newspaper, basically accepting any assignment he could get in order to produce enough content and earn enough money to survive. Morning to late night he spent behind his laptop and when he managed to get away it was only because there was an event to attend and report on. Naturally it lead to exhaustion and even illness. All that for about 800£ per month.

To top it all off, his colleagues and editors thought he should be thankful for all the work he’s been given, with the explanation that there are hundreds out there who would kill for his job. But would they really? On the outside this job looks all fun and games, but no job is fun anymore when you do it for 18 hours a day. When he finally got to the stage where he couldn’t handle it anymore, he got very sick. The editorial staff at his magazine thought he finally became crazy. And it wasn’t just the workload, it was the attitude from inside the workplace that got to him. It was the constant remarks on how he would do the job for less money because, well, he’s so eager to do it, and the lack of respect for his work and uncomprehending behavior of his editors. To them, it was insignificant if the piece gets published this week or the next one, for him it was money lost.

Reading his confession, it was like reading my own words. At first I couldn’t believe this was happening at a renowned newspaper, I thought it was something only associated with smaller media. I always thought this is something only the young generation of writers is facing in the confused era of the Internet and that sooner or later it will get better, I will gain more experience and reach that level when magazines will offer me proper jobs. Well… if it didn’t happen for this fellow I’m now a bit worried it may never happen for me as well. They promised him a bright future; winning an award like that exposes you to certain circles. But after a year nothing has changed for him, other than he’s now looking for another writing gig. Or just about any gig that doesn’t drain him alive.

At the moment, I’m writing for 5 different media, one of which is my own blog, where income is something I, for now, only dream about and only one of them is local media. Writing in my country is so undervalued it’s almost impossible to even get a paid job and when you finally do, it’s for a very low fee. Thankfully I learned English pretty early in my life and by now perfected it to the point where not many of my editors even know English is not my first language. This gave me the opportunity to look for writing gigs abroad and find a few solid ones which produce just enough income to pay the bills and get me through the month. But more and more often I’m wondering if it’s all worth it?

When I was still in school I dreamed about the kind of job that would allow me to wake up at 9 am. That was it, that was the dream. Not which profession I would do, but what time it would allow me to sleep till. Today I can happily say I’ve achieved that, and I do what I love, I was always good with expressing myself with words. But lately I’m stuck behind my laptop for days at a time, weekdays, weekends, mornings and late nights. When I’m at the co-working office I don’t even take lunch breaks, 2 minutes to stretch my legs or even go for the toilet. I just write, write, write! When I go out to run errands or for a drink with my friends (which happens maybe once every two weeks) I feel guilty because I know I could spend this time working.

A few days ago I started to feel the exhaustion. It was after that drink with friends, because as soon as I got back to my laptop I was on a mission to catch up with all the lost time. I was so drained I couldn’t even write properly. Hell, I couldn’t even see my screen properly. But I finished what I set out to do and it made me very satisfied despite the feeling that I want to drop dead. Is this how far it has taken us? We need to feel exhausted in order to feel successful? Sometimes I don’t even know how I manage. I know I’m awesome at organising and I often call myself a professional multitasker, but juggling 5 medias in 2 languages would make many people go mad. To me, at most, it makes me confused and sometimes takes a few minutes to switch from one language to another. I hate to admit it, but Google translate is my best friend in this case, since my mind works in English most of the time.

I know sometimes my writing gets affected by the crazy long hours I put in and lately my body and my mind have started showing warning signs when I need to slow down. If I could change anything about my job, I would love to dedicate all my time and energy into one single magazine. Imagine what kind of magic would happen if I could put all the work I do juggling 5 media into just one. But that is just a dream. Not just mine but of so many other journalists that are in the same boat as me and the burnt out journalist with an award. I don’t know what the solution is to this, other than just continue to work hard. I’m still optimistic and believe that one day someone will appreciate all my experience and offer me the kind of writing job that won’t lead into exhaustion. If I don’t burn out sooner. Or find a job in retail.


  • Karen Athwal Karen Athwal says:

    Katja, as a fellow slightly burnt out journalist/writer and online editor, you’ve really put into words exactly the same sort of feelings I’m going through right now. I’ve always thought this is a career that is driven by passion rather than money, but we also need to live! Finding that right balance between the two is becoming increasingly difficult. I think people have this glossed over image in their minds of what a freelance career looks like; you are your own boss, you can wake up when you want, divide your time between work and pleasure, even work in your PJ’s if you want…while that might be true for a very small percentage of us, I find myself working much longer hours at home than my peers who work a 9 to 6 in offices, sometimes without a break! I also juggle several different medias and have this creeping sense of guilt when I’m doing something other than working! This career path takes a lot of strength and patience, let’s hope we find a healthy balance soon!

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