Sick days at a newspaper?

Most of the newspaper’s staff has been hit hard by a cold/flu/something illness at one point or another over the last few weeks, myself included.

In prior professional settings I’ve worked in, I’ve had the privilege of being able to call in sick, and I’ve been fortunate to lead or work for teams where we benefitted from a compassionate approach to employee illness: if you’re sick you take time off to get better, you still get paid, and you don’t need to worry too much about the work left behind because it would either be handled by coworkers or expectations around deadlines, timelines, etc. would be adjusted.

In the world of software and web development in particular, it was usually easy to say “because of X the original timeline needs to be adjusted to a new launch date of Y” and with a few exceptions, folks were understanding all around.

I’ll say it again: privilege.

Putting out a print newspaper is turning out to be a different kind of animal when it comes to balancing individual and team wellness with customer expectations.

What would it look like to let thousands of print subscribers know that they weren’t going to receive a paper this week because our team was sick?

When the most loyal subscribers call us the minute their mail has arrived and their paper isn’t, for some reason, in it, I think they’d certainly notice and probably be pretty disappointed. Even casual readers would probably tilt their head at the question of why the paper didn’t show up that week. Our advertisers who were expecting to get the word out about something on a certain timeline would probably be pretty upset. Our vendors who expect to have the work of producing and delivering the paper each week would be pretty thrown off.

And so on. You probably get the point: not putting out a paper because of illness isn’t really an option.

It’s tempting to think, hey it’s a weekly paper, just shuffle some things around within that timeframe to accommodate folks being off work!

But there are a surprising number of things that have to happen in a certain way on a certain day to get the paper out on time.

Most notable of those is the actual news coverage itself; whether it’s attending a government meeting or sports game, with a small staff of reporters there’s not a lot of flexibility to just miss one of those. But there’s also the various deadlines related to advertising, design, layout, printing, delivery and more where the wiggle room we have for making changes can probably be measured in hours, not days.

We can scale back the scope of work to some degree: stop accepting new ads, shorten the length of the paper, delay getting back to folks who have called us or emailed us requests, etc. But as anyone who has ever spent two weeks preparing to go on vacation and two weeks catching up after vacation just to have a one week vacation can tell you, there are…implications…for all of those options.

I don’t intend to make a list of excuses as much as to note that this is turning out to be a hard problem to solve.

I know this isn’t anything new for small businesses and freelancers across the world that have to figure it out even when members of a small staff are sick or otherwise unavailable.

But I place a lot of importance on creating a work environment that allows people to take care of themselves and their loved ones as a top priority. It’s frustrating to know folks don’t always feel like they can take the time off they need, which can often make a health issue even worse and contribute to deeper challenges like burnout.

Long-term solutions involve hiring more people, bringing on short term contractors, doing more cross-training of roles, and generally having a better contingency plan for being short staffed. All of these require some investment of time and money, which is important but also feels furthest from easy to pursue when we are already running behind and beyond capacity.

Until then, here’s to hoping for good health for all.

Chris Hardie is a journalist, newspaper publisher, software developer and entrepreneur based in Indiana, USA. Read more from Chris on this site, learn more on his personal website, subscribe for updates or follow Chris on Mastodon.

One response

  1. Randy Baker Avatar
    Randy Baker

    Hi Chris,
    Just a quick word of encouragement for you, and that may be all the help this note can offer but after years of management I really relate to your healthcare and “off sick” issues.

    Sometimes I think that probably the best that can be done is to offer a fair amount of wellness education to employees, not in the context of work attendance but as an incentive for their own overall quality of life. As you already know, the workplace culture is where it’s at in terms of everyday activities but I believe there is a correlation between culture, education and overall health. (I always struggled with that at RP&L because each department was so diverse. Linemen vs. Office vs. I.T. vs. Engineering etc.)

    As I write, couple other thoughts come to mind. Probably easier said than done, and as you say, more “long term”, but Is it possible to team up at some level with other smaller local newspapers/organizations in the region to share workload in times of undue stress? How about some cross training among interested employees? Maybe some high school hopefuls journalists? Do you have a backup for yourself, or someone you are bringing along in the business? Are there any retired persons that could be standby on an “as needed” basis?

    Just spitballing a few thoughts but I think about you every Wednesday when the Western Wayne News arrives. Ironically, my wife and my son prefer the paper version as opposed to online for local news.

    Hang in there. Let me know if you need anything,

    Randy Baker

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