Burning Out

And other stories from the job

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 47th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.

Burning Out

In third grade, Ms. DeMarco asked my class to write about anything. Anything at all. After 10 minutes of twiddling my thumbs, I stood up and walked over to the rhombus-shaped table she was using as a desk. “Ms. DeMarco, I’m stuck. I don’t know what to write about.”

“That’s called writer’s block, Scott. If you don’t have anything to write about, just write about that feeling. Write about not being able to write.”

It was good advice. It broke me out of my rut and I jotted something down on the page that was probably much more creative than if I had written another story about how my pet goldfish were dying (They were named Phil I, Phil II, Phil III, Phil IV and so on until thirty-something. Those stories were fairly entertaining).

I’ve carved out a career of sorts by writing about writing. Ms. DeMarco, who taught me a lot of what I know about writing, was on to something.

At what point does a person become burned out? I stare at the blank screen for a while before even Googling to find an acceptable answer to this question. My eyes glaze over, out of focus. A gentle hum rings through my skull. Relaxing music plays from my phone. In a way, I’m completely relaxed. In another, I’m wired. Zombified.

I’ll just write about not being able to write.

Citing definitions is lazy writing, reminiscent of a high school essay (“Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines ‘burnout’ as…”). But my mental capacity is limited if not depleted, my fingers typing automatically, so here’s what the World Health Organization says:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

If you don’t remember the WHO it may be because, a few news cycles ago, Trump decided to formally withdraw from it in the middle of a pandemic. And if that feels like a long time ago to you too, you may also be burned out. I just checked: That was two weeks ago.

Let’s get back to the definition:

  • Do I have chronic workplace stress? Who doesn’t?

  • Am I managing said stress well? As well as I can.

  • Do I have feelings of depletion or exhaustion? Yes.

  • Am I distanced from my job, negative or cynical? Sometimes, though I’m a pretty positive and motivated person.

  • Do I have reduced professional efficacy? I think I’m doing a good job, but can anyone really say they are doing their best work right now?

I know I’m not alone, especially now. People with much tougher jobs than mine feel burned out: Health care workers, first responders, grocery store clerks, teachers forced back to school.

Written journalism is an odd job. Writing is in many ways a solipsistic craft and reporting is quite the opposite, relying on external sources for information. Journalists process the external world, ingest it and spit out the closest version of the truth possible. That first part is what I find particularly hard—taking in the outside world.

I cover technology and media, not directly the pandemic itself or the plight of individuals affected by disease or economic tragedy. And still it is difficult to be a working journalist in this place and time. There is no escape from the news, nowhere to go, and nothing really to do. It’s tough.

As I write, my processing power and synthesizing skills are waning, so I’ll leave you with some headlines about burnout in journalists—if you have any energy to read them:

It’s okay to be burned out. It’s okay to write about not having anything to write about, or talk about how you have nothing to say anymore. There’s so much going on in the world and yet, if we’re lucky, so little going on in our individual lives. (What good can come from doing anything?)

After the novelty of friend-and-family Zoom calls dissipated this spring, conversations became more and more strained. What can you say to one another when there’s nothing new going on in your life? The world sucks, a pivotal election nears, the pandemic rages on, unemployment rises, work is tough, relationships are tough.

And I’m incredibly lucky. Almost as lucky as can be. I feel for those who have less than I do. But even in the best of circumstances—if we’re not dying, not sick, not laid off—we’re all very far from being okay. That’s just what life is right now and I suppose that’s going to have to be okay.

I hope to get coffee with each of you when all this is over. Or something stronger.

I miss that.

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Across the Country

Around the World

The Trouble in Portland

The George Floyd protests in Portland, Ore. continue to rage on—and the Trump administration has sent in unmarked law enforcement officers into the city who have used force and arrested peaceful protesters. Journalists have not been spared from that treatment, as the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documented in the Twitter thread below:

Inside Baseball and Other Resources


A TikTok about TikTok

I’ll end on a funnier note, since my opening essay was fairly morose. Here’s a TikTok of me explaining how the Trump administration can try to restrict TikTok in the United States. You can read more about it in my article here—or just watch the TikTok below:

Thanks for reading Pressing today and always. Like what you read and want to support me? Consider a paid subscription here. I’ll see you next Tuesday! Send tips and feedback to sgnover@gmail.com.