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How a group of USC student journalists went from online punching bag to reshaping newsroom culture

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Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
The staff at The Daily Gamecock uses traffic light-inspired icons in the group chat to let everyone know how they're doing – good, passable, not well, or, as the pineapple conveys, in need of a little time to regroup. It's one of the many ways the paper has reshaped its newsroom culture as one open to discussing the mental health of its journalists, without stigma.

‘We’re not OK.’

Last October, that was the opening salvo in the college newspaper editorial read ’round the world.

That’s not hyperbole. All the major state newspapers covered it. So did we. So did CNN.

Press clubs weighed in. Social media ran it through its fangs ….

All talking about what a group of journalism students decided they needed to do to reset their mental and emotional states.

“We’re not OK” answered the main question suggested by the editorial’s headline: ‘Why We’re Going Dark.’ It was an utterly unheard-of decision by the editorial staff of The Daily Gamecock – the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper. They shut the whole operation down amid mounting pandemic/social upheaval/student death-related stress. They would not publish for one whole week, citing mental health and the need to be more than the sum of their work.

It went over about like you imagine. The students were both embraced for their no-apologies decision to take control of their mental healthcare and blasted for being privileged snowflakes – the latter coming mainly from middle-aged men (judging by the comments and social media profiles from which they lashed), and plenty of those were working journalism professionals offended by how a group of college kids were about to sully a profession so sacred it’s spelled out in the First Amendment.

OK, that part was hyperbole, but its essence is true. Working journalists over 40 or so tended to have the strongest reactions against what’s become known around The Daily Gamecock’s newsroom as “Dark Week.” Most generally stated, they didn’t think it was very professional of these students to take a week off from the news, because that’s not how it works in the real world.

Since we’re in territory too taboo for typical journalism, indulge me while I weigh in with a personal thought. I’ll admit, my first reaction to hearing the paper was shuttering for a week was, “Oh, come on!” After I gave it a few hours, though, I thought, “Well … how is that different from me taking a vacation?”

Since last October, the social media maw has moved onto who-knows-how-many other things to chew on, but the after-effects of The Daily Gamecock’s editorial decision to take five have blossomed into something newsrooms have never been – compassionate.

Most of us rattling around in this profession over the past 10 or 20 years know the unforgiving scowls of managers when you say the stress is getting to you. (Note: That doesn’t happen where I work now, but it has in other places I've worked.)

But the times have been especially edgy this past couple years or so, and somewhere along the line, the staff of The Daily Gamecock had an epiphany: abnormal times call for abnormal actions.

So they did the unthinkable. They just stopped, caught their breath, and then got back to work.

One year on, the editors and senior staff members at The Daily Gamecock say their newsroom has changed for the better. There is now a language that put mental health squarely on the table for all to see and, most importantly, for all to openly discuss.

Despite what some online posts suggested, there’s been little if any sign of laziness or unwillingness to work coming from the paper’s staff these last 12 months. Something that got lost in the initial backlash was that The Daily Gamecock didn’t cease publication indefinitely, it just paused.

What staff members, current and former, say that pause has done is what any vacation is supposed to do – it refreshed everyone. They found they didn’t need to quit journalism (a very real and very common occurrence at old-school, high-stress news outlets where reporters and editors and news managers and producers don’t feel they can ask for a break), they just needed to regroup.

Conversations starting with “I need a break” are welcome at The Daily Gamecock now; staff members even communicate their emotional states through a traffic light-inspired set of emojis on their group chat pages – green means things are OK, yellow means they’ve been better, red means they’re pretty rough, and a pineapple means someone needs a little time to shake out the stress.

And while there was a fair share of angry feedback about the decision, particularly in the immediate wake of the editorial publishing, the staff got a hefty amount of positive feedback too. They also have seen their decision validated across the country, as other student newsrooms in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Boston, for starters, have taken measures similar to USC’s.

A TV news station in Oregon also recently took an entire day off from reporting and broadcasting to address mental health and job stress with its staff.

Dark Week also taught USC’s student journalists an unexpected lesson in being able to spot the kinds of newsrooms they don’t ever want to work for. Their faculty advisor, Michelle LaRoche, says the students have learned to understand the key difference between work stress and unhealthy pressure; the students say they have learned to spot the key difference between being a person who works hard and a person who gets entirely wrapped in the job.

Not all of the students want to work in journalism after college; those who don’t say the reactions to Dark Week had little to nothing to do with it, they just have other interests to pursue. The one who do want to work in journalism say they want to work in newsrooms in which saying you’re stressed gets you more than a dirty look.

To hear from current and former Daily Gamecock staffers listen to the audio version of this story.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.