Talking TV: One Reporter’s Work-Life Balance Win

Amanda St. Hilare, an investigative reporter and news content manager at Fox-owned WITI Milwaukee, found a healthy balance between her demanding career and personal life. In her management role, she’s now trying to do the same for others. A full transcript of the conversation is included.

The local TV news industry is groaning under the weight of a massive burnout problem, but Amanda St. Hilare has found a way to shift the load.

St. Hilare, an investigative reporter and news content manager at WITI Milwaukee, says since joining the Fox-owned station, she’s been able to organize her PTO for the best work-life balance she’s known in her career. And in her capacity as a news manager, she has also been empowered to lift her head above the daily fray and help find more sustainable career pathways for her coworkers.

In this Talking TV conversation, St. Hilare describes her own journey to a healthier work life in a deeply stressful industry and how WITI’s use of “development days” for reporters, producers and anchors has fostered productivity and creativity and pushed burnout that much further away.

Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.

Michael Depp: Young people entering the TV news business are increasingly insisting on a better work-life balance. Their older colleagues have sometimes looked on in amazement as they put up red lines around hours they’re willing to work or extra tasks they’re unwilling to take on.

Burnout is, after all, sending people out of the industry in droves. And many newsrooms are still unable or unwilling to stop fanning the flames. Amanda St. Hilaire is one person who may have found a way out of that trap.


St Hilaire is an investigative reporter and news content manager at WITI, a Fox-owned station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In a recent LinkedIn post, she shared her gratitude for finding the best work life balance she’s yet known in her 11-year career. Partly, it’s down to what she characterizes as generous maternity leave and PTO [paid time off] at her station. And partly it’s about a mindset that both she and her station have adopted around setting up support systems and giving people an opportunity to recharge and get relief.

I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. Coming up, a conversation with Amanda St. Hilaire about how a work-life balance has a direct correlation with newsroom productivity and performance. We’ll be right back.

Welcome, Amanda St. Hilaire, to Talking TV.

Amanda St. Hilaire: Thanks for having me.

Amanda, as I mentioned at the top, you’ve been in this business for 11 years as an MMJ, an investigative reporter and now also a news content manager. Can you briefly take us through the trajectory of your career in terms of how burnout was historically a concern for you?

Sure. And I’ll say to start, it wasn’t a concern for me because at 21 years old, when I started in this business, I said, I’ll go anywhere, and I’ll do anything. It was that mindset of this is what I have to do to stay in this business.

I felt like my college professors really prepared me for the realities of working in television news, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the impact of that. So, I worked long hours and kind of ascended the way you usually do. Where I started as an MMJ, I moved into a reporter role. I then made a market jump. I helped found an investigative team, and then I came here to Milwaukee for an investigative reporter role. And in the investigative world, we have kind of the blessing and the curse of more time to work on stories. That lends itself to a little bit more of that work-life balance, or as Jill Geissler calls it in her work, work-life harmony. But I still felt looking around our newsroom like there was more we could do.

To your point, we have people who are leaving the industry. We’re losing good journalists, and we have people who are coming in who are saying, hey, maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. So, I kind of came into my content manager role knowing it was going to be a hybrid. I’m still a reporter. I still do my investigative reporting, but my job is to look at our overall systems and how they work for our big picture content.

Our assistant news director jokes I’m our chief development officer, so it means I’m looking at how things work and going, do we need to rethink how we do our live hits? Are we giving our field crews enough time to stop and think about their work and build sources? Are we giving producers enough time to stop and think about their shows and learn new things that can help them showcase but also break out of the daily grind?

I want to come back more to your position and what that involves shortly. But first, I want to lock in on your experience with your own PTO time and experience at WITI as opposed to other stations, which I think is part of what enabled you to find this healthier balance in your own life and career. What was it about the station that was different?

The places I had worked prior — and this isn’t a knock on prior news managers — I think for a lot of us this was the way it was. You have four months of the year where you’re not allowed to take vacation because those are “sweeps” months. It seemed like in the corporate structure of things, I’d hit my limit at two weeks of vacation time. And at the time, you know, when I was 21, I thought, OK, I guess this is just what I have to deal with.

It meant, though, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of giving up family time and again I was prepared for that. But when I came to Fox 6 here in Milwaukee, I was kind of amazed that there are no blackout months for vacation time. You can take your vacation year-round. We have a couple of dates that we send out when we know big things are happening so that people know about them in advance. But you’re not blocked out from taking your time off for an entire month at a time.

Then, when we became a Fox O&O looking at the leave options, that’s really for me when things started to change. So having 12 weeks fully paid maternity leave and six weeks of fully paid parental leave, that was huge. And not having to worry about that, starting with three weeks of vacation plus floating holidays, plus sick time separate from that, and then having a trajectory where you could quickly move to that fourth week of vacation time. That was huge as well. So, all of a sudden, this whole world kind of opened up where I didn’t have to use my vacation time only to travel to see family. It made it much more realistic to live further away from family, but it also meant being able to take time just to rest. And that concept was so new to me.

I want to go back to that concept of work life balance, because when we say balance, it implies this like 50/50 split, and I don’t think anyone really has that. Again, Jill Geissler writes a lot about this work-life harmony, when you have different points in your life where different things can take priority. That’s the key.

So, I have parts of my job where I have weeks where I’m staying maybe later than I’d want to on a daily basis. And I’m OK with that because I know there are also other times when I’m encouraged to take time off, time where I can take that rest time when something’s going on with my family or my children, where I can prioritize that. And I’m going to have managers and I’m going to have a structure here that allows me to deal with the ebbs and flows of life.

So, you have time to wax and wane. You believe that a lot of the conversations around work-life balance tend to put the onus on the worker. Why is that problematic?

It’s problematic because it’s not really solving the problem. I remember being on a seminar about work-life balance and burnout, and the person kept just telling us to drink water and do yoga and take deep breaths. And I just felt so dissatisfied with that.

Nothing against yoga or drinking water or taking deep breaths. All of those things are important, but burnout is structural, and there’s so much research about this. It’s about your workload. It’s about how engaged you feel at work, your emotional connection to your work and is what you’re doing sustainable. Deep breaths and stretching aren’t going to take care of that.

And being in a management seat now, I’m extra sensitive to the fact that when we put the onus on the employee, it means then we kind of get to avoid getting at the root of the issue.

OK, so what do newsroom managers need to hear and to understand about why this is their issue, too?

I think sometimes there’s a misconception that if we are questioning the systems that we have in place, that we are somehow coddling people or we are somehow lowering our standards. Rethinking how we do things and building time into the day for people to take a deep breath and do really important aspects of their job that they don’t have time to do when they’re sprinting and day-to-day news that actually allows us to raise our standards, because then we’re keeping good journalists in the business.

We can expect more from people and we can push them to be better and better because we’re giving them the infrastructure to do that. It’s kind of like when I was in high school and I ran cross-country. I was very bad at it. But our coaches had a very regimented training system, and in that training system we had one day that was our off day, but we weren’t doing these crazy hard workouts the other six days a week. We actually had three runs a week that were recovery runs.

And the idea is you’re learning how to recover while you’re still moving, but important work is happening, happening during that built-in recovery time. And the coaches didn’t do that because they particularly cared how we felt. They were they were pretty old-school military. I don’t think they cared very much about how we felt, but it was because they wanted the results and they wanted to get our peak performance. And if we were injured all the time, they knew they weren’t going to get that.

So, when we talk about building recovery time into our systems, we’re not talking about being soft. We’re not talking about holding hands and singing Kumbaya. We’re talking about making sure that we’re setting it up so that we can get the most out of our staff and they can get the most out of their time at the station and the most out of their careers. It’s about the math. It’s about the results.

Let’s come back to your job, then, because what’s particularly interesting is that a large part of your job, the news content manager side, has come now to mirror some of the prerogatives that you pursued personally. You started explaining a little bit about what it entails before, but can you expand on that?

Sure. So, I take a step back and go, is this system working and how does it affect our content? An example of that would be we’ve implemented something at our station called development days. If you’re a reporter today where you’re off the air, if you are a producer, you’re off your show and you have that day. It’s a structured day.

You are watching your own work and evaluating it. You’re watching work from other markets. You’re meeting with managers to get feedback, but also for us to pick your brain about how things are going, where you see areas where we could improve, what are the day-to-day challenges you notice, and are there easy fixes or hard fixes that we can then as a management team, go back and brainstorm and pick apart. You’re meeting with sources or following up on stories. And that’s something for us that has brought a new energy into our staff.

So, we started it with reporters and we’re getting better story pitches. We’re getting reporters who have a renewed excitement about their work and we’re getting people who are ready every day with additional tools to do their jobs really well. Now, it was harder for us to figure this out with producers at first, because by nature, if you’re not producing your show, someone else has to, right? If you’re a reporter, maybe we can do without that one reporter for the day. It’s harder for producers. So, we actually added to our producer headcount and we’re now approaching a space where we’re able to give producers that time more regularly because we have to. It’s not an extra. It’s a necessity.

So, those are the kinds of things that I tool around with. You know, do we need to rethink how, when and why we do our live hits? Is this system working not just for the viewer but also for the employee? And are we getting the most benefit compared to the cost?

And I understand the anchors are going to be able to partake in these development days, too.

Yeah. So, we actually are just wrapping up our first round of anchor development days. We have someone having theirs tomorrow and that’s been really eye opening and helpful as well because they’re in leadership roles in the newsroom and they have a lot of experience that sometimes we don’t fully tap into in the day to day.

So, doing these development days, it helps me understand individual goals and how we can help people meet those. But it also just gives us a bigger picture of what’s happening in the newsroom and how we can work with kind of the natural newsroom leaders that we have in place to have the kind of work environment that we want to have.

What’s the frequency with which you’re able to do these days?

So, reporters, it’s about once a month. With the anchors, we just finished the first round, and then we’re going to evaluate how often we think makes sense for that. And then for producers, the ideal is going to be once a month. I’ll be super transparent with you. That’s not what we’ve been able to do to this point, but with a couple additional hires that are coming down the pike, ideally, it’d be once a month.

What’s the feedback you’re getting from people? You said that reporters are coming in with better pitches. What other sorts of upsides are you seeing so far?

I mean, I was just talking to someone else about this where they said they had gone two years in this industry without getting a single piece of feedback on their work and that coming here to our station in the first two months, they got more than they had in the first two years.

And feedback isn’t just, hey, you need to do X, Y and Z better. It’s here’s what we’re noticing and here’s what you do well. But also, here are some tools that you can use to help you do your job better. So, we have employees who say they feel a comfort in kind of knowing where they stand. It puts them in a position to have regular conversations with managers and not just hearing about when something is bad, but then it’s also unlocking a certain level of creativity.

When you’re sprinting from day to day, there’s just there’s a part of your brain you can’t use when it’s in that mode. And by shifting into this other mode where you can think about things ahead of time, you’re able to create that muscle memory where you can bring more of that creativity into your work.

This all sounds fantastic, but economically, this is not going to be a smooth year for most newsrooms. There’s no political revenue this year. There are very strong economic headwinds. Do you think that newsrooms are going to be able to afford this kind of breathing room in this in a tough year like this? Is it sustainable?

I think we can’t afford not to do it. It’s one of those things where I’m really fortunate I work at a station that is well-resourced and has a long history of prioritizing quality, and that foundation has really helped us. It has put us in a really strong position to be able to do this. When we started rolling this out, it would have been very easy for my bosses to say, Well, if we have room to do this, maybe we don’t need as many people. And that never once came out. It was right away. We believe in this. We are committed to doing this and we’re seeing the results because they could look at the big picture.

You can either do without the employee when they’re calling in sick because they’re burnt out and they’re run down, or they’re disengaged. Or you can do without the employee for that day because they’re actively learning new things and they’re getting re-energized for work.

I would argue, and especially looking at the data, because I’m an investigative reporter, there’s so much research directly linking employee engagement to productivity. By tapping into this pretty innocuous way of engaging people, that that’s actually going to help us through some of those hard times.

Does that mean that some days we’re going to have three reporters and instead of four? And it’s going to be tough to get to certain things? Yeah, it is. But we’d have to do that if that person called out sick anyway. And somehow, we make it work and somehow, we figure it out. Part of it is a shifting of our priorities and the recognition that being off air or being off your show doesn’t mean you’re not working. For so long some of these things have been on the employee to do on their own time, and that’s also led to burnout. And when you bake it into the system, you’re sending a message that says this part of your job is crucial. Meeting with sources is crucial. Thinking about your shows is crucial.

I’m not saying we’re perfect at this. You know, Fox 6 is a wonderful place to work. It is not a utopia. We still have a lot of work ourselves to do in this area, and we don’t have all the answers. And to me, that’s the point. In the same way that managers, we expect our journalists to be curious and to be able to go back and rethink past stories and to be open to where the story takes them.

I don’t think we as managers are absolved from that. I think we have an additional responsibility to do that and to question ourselves. As we keep looking at our systems and how we change them, we’re learning along the way as well.

Well, Amanda, you’ve managed to carve out some space to keep yourself sane while doing this job and perhaps some people listening to your example today might be able to follow suit. Thanks for sharing your story.

Thank you.

If you have a similar story about how you’ve been helping your newsroom become a more sustainable workplace, or if you’ve figured out a good hack to make your job more sustainable for you, share it with us, too. We’d love to hear it. You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on and on YouTube. We have a new episode almost each week. And thanks for watching. See you next time. 

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