The Great Time Debate: Am I Working Right Now?

It’s hard as a journalist to “turn it off”. You are your own personal scanner, investigator, and caretaker of story ideas no matter what time of day and if you are on the clock or not.

I haven’t been an hourly employee for decades, so I’m always “working” in some sense, but I also love to work.

But where is the line between working and personal time? I can answer a lot of questions for you, but this one is tough.

ANNOUNCER: “There is no good answer to this question”.

I once worked with an investigative reporter, one of the best in the business, and he would carry his hidden camera with him everywhere. Once in Mexico, during a day trip (we worked in a city close to the border). He was enjoying a drink with a friend or two, and a man approached them and said, “Do you want some medicine?”. This intrepid reporter, smelling a good story between the Dos Equis, secretly turned on his camera and said, “Do you have any Rohypnol?”. The man said, “What do you need that for?” and the reporter said, “My girlfriends.” The man told him to come back the next day and he would get him what he wanted.

The reporter pitched the story in the editorial meeting and said he wanted to go down in the news vehicle cameras blazing and confront the man. He did just that. The man started with a “No Habla ingles!” and the reporter proceeded to speak to him in Spanish.

It was a great story.

But when do YOU turn it off?

My button is stuck to “on”, to my own detriment most likely, but I really try to find a balance.

If it’s a Saturday and my team is short-staffed (and aren’t weekends always short-staffed?) and I’m at an event, am I really working to send back some video and sound from the event? Yes, I guess I am, but it’s also something I’m already doing.

If I see a car crash, I’m going to get some pics of it and send them back. If I am at the nail salon, my respite from a hard week of work, and I hear someone talking about a topic that would be a good story idea, I have to stop myself from butting in and getting contact info. Thing is, I rarely actually stop myself.

When you work in news, your radar is always on, and it’s leading to burnout, not just for what we do that people see, but what people don’t see. Researching, watching the news, going down a rabbit hole of information after seeing a little thing that piqued our interest. We got out with colleagues and talk about work, at least a little, and we stir up wounds of the past week.

This past Sunday, I was getting ready for a birthday party, when I saw a Facebook post about a local farm giving away free strawberries from 11 am – 3 pm with donations accepted for the Food Bank. It was 10 am at the time. My gut said, “Go get video and sound before the birthday party”, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to be late for the party. I know Sundays can be hard for my team to get content, so I reached out to the reporter on duty and said “Do you need fresh content today? There’s this thing happening”, and sent a screenshot. The reporter said “Cool! I’ll go get video!” So was I working when I did that? I don’t think so, but some of you might disagree. And that’s okay.

Another incredible reporter I worked with made some of the best cookies you can ever imagine. They were insatiable, and they were always for her “sources”. Not the regular PIO’s and such, but actual sources she had cultivated and worked over years in her market. She had a love of baking, but was she working when she made those cookies in her “off-the-clock time?”

On the flip side, I’ve had people call me during my own workday and say, “there’s a really bad accident/fire/flood near Main & 1st Street” and I emphatically say, “SEND US PICTURES OR VIDEO!” and they say, “I’m off today” or “I drove by it but I’m past it now.” I always am baffled by this, first for someone in news not getting content on news but baffled as to how someone has such a great life balance they aren’t going to go “on the clock” when they are on the way to a birthday party or soccer game.

You don’t have to do as I do, but it’s a good thing to think about – where are your boundaries for working and not working?”

As I work on my own boundaries, here’s my advice:

–       When the safety of the public is at risk, get something. Even a quick pic. It just takes a few seconds to send a pic and call the newsroom or text someone on the clock. Things happen so quickly we might be 45 minutes from getting to that fire, which will be out when we get there.

–       When it’s a good story, but not time-sensitive, I just put down a note in my phone and flag it to update when I am “on the clock” or in the office.

–       If you are at an event and you feel something is worth recording, maybe it’s a band, or a cool demo, or a large group of people when there shouldn’t be a large group of people (#ThanksCOVID), why not send it to the newsroom? We always need new content, and you might be on the receiving end of generosity. You don’t have to go out of your way on personal time to write a package, but if you are recording it anyway why not share?

–       You can also ask someone near you to send the content. “Hey! This is a fun event, I see you’ve been recording a lot! Can you send that to We love to see viewer content and we’ll give you full credit.”

–       Earbuds. Beats buds. Podcasts. If you plug something in your ears you can’t hear something that you might feel puts you “on the clock”.

Recently I was on another “free time” fun event that I call – raging at Target. There was a portable bathroom outside. The inside bathrooms were closed. A little odd. “But it’s probably a water break, focus on Target and all the things you didn’t know you needed”, I said to myself.

The next Target run, same bathrooms. And the next. And the next. I reminded myself to ask at checkout why the bathrooms were closed for so long, but in a Target-induced high with my new unicorn head photo and toilet paper, I forget.

Fast forward another week and in an editorial meeting someone said, “There was an attack at a bathroom at Target in Grand Island”

I said, “OH! That reminds me! Super Target has portable bathrooms outside.”

“Really?”, someone said. “I was just there and didn’t notice them.”

I thought maybe they were gone. How silly of me to bring up a water leak as a story idea.

“Interesting”, said the Assistant News Director. “These attacks happened at an external bathroom too.” Only thing was, that Target was miles away from MY Target.

But it bugged me because I knew they were there. So, I went to Super Target (hard task, eh?) and saw the bathrooms. They were only by one door, so my colleague must’ve gone in the other door.

I walked in determined to get to the bottom of that and got distracted in the beauty section (DAMN YOU TARGET!), but when I checked out with my new mascara and Epsom salts, I asked the checkout lady (FINALLY!).

She told me they were re-doing the bathrooms to make them more high-tech, less touch, and more COVID friendly. It was a pretty big project, she said. Before I could think “Great, Target is making the bathrooms more Target-y and now I’m never going to leave this place”, I tweeted at Target to see if this was a companywide thing. If Target was adding showers, I was going to move in with my dog.

It’s no Watergate Scandal, but it was a good little nugget of news.

Now, where in that was I actually “on the clock” or “working”? I was going somewhere I wanted to go, and “bumped” into something.

You will find your own balance for items like this. There is no good answer. I’ve worn myself down too often by being like this, but I’ve also broken some good stories doing this and felt a sense of purpose.

Know your own boundaries, but also don’t let a good story go by. Keep the radar on, but maybe lower the volume on your personal scanner.

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