An unprecedented global pandemic continued to swirl around them, one of their classmates was just found dead in a quarry, midterm exams pressed down on them, and they had news to gather day after day. And classes to attend. And jobs to work. And sleep _ no, very little sleep.
The staff of The Daily Gamecock, the University of South Carolina's flagship student journalism organization, was, in their own words, "not OK." And this week, they announced an unheard-of decision to take an intentional break from reporting the news, as the never-ending news cycle continues to rush forward, for the sake of the journalists' mental health.
Their announcement in a widely read editorial published Monday drew both support and criticism, generating a widespread conversation about work and health under the pressures of 2020.
"We are the ones that want to cover the news. We've made a commitment to that," said Erin Slowey, The Daily Gamecock's 22-year-old editor-in-chief, a senior studying business. "But ... we realized we were not OK, and the only solution we felt like we could offer our staff in an attempt to help them was to go dark."
As of this semester, the 112-year-old, editorially independent Daily Gamecock has shifted to entirely online news production, breaking away from decades of daily and, more recently, weekly print newspaper production. With a staff of about two dozen, the journalists publish content almost exclusively online, with the exception of limited special print editions, and curate daily and weekly newsletters that are emailed to students and university staff.
For several weeks, Slowey said, Gamecock staff members individually had been asking to take breaks from their work to recharge. But just over a week ago, on a Sunday, the staff's conversations about burnout came to a head.
"When we all acknowledged together that, as a group, we're not doing OK, the relief that we felt was overwhelming," Slowey said.
The newspaper's leadership brainstormed what could be done to give the staff the rest they all were seeking. It was their faculty adviser, journalism professor Michelle LaRoche, who suggested The Daily Gamecock "go dark" _ completely shut down _ for a week.
And Slowey, who hadn't had a break from her work since January, initially resisted.
"What some people may not understand or may not see is that, for us, this was not an easy decision at all," she said. "I am super ambitious. I am very career-driven. The news is the news, and I live and breathe it."
An aspiring business journalist, Slowey said she became convinced the shutdown was the only way "to give (staff members) a break without putting that burden on someone else."
For this week, Gamecock staff members will not report or produce any news content. Beginning next Monday, journalists will resume some reporting and intend to return to normal production on Nov. 2, Slowey said.
Along with announcing their one-week shutdown, several Gamecock staff members published columns sharing their personal mental health struggles through the constant grind of this semester.
"Being the sole editor of the opinion section at The Daily Gamecock, having a part-time job teaching at the gym and taking 17 credit hours of coursework have been stressful, to say the least," wrote Stephanie Allen. "I'm not going to pretend that I've had a healthy sleep schedule throughout my college career, but this semester has hit harder. On multiple occasions I've found myself going to bed at 4, 5 or 6 a.m. Ungodly hours. I've just been trying to stay afloat. ...
"I just haven't figured out how to stop."
For LaRoche, the prospect of not putting daily news online was far less important than the health of the students.
"We have this machismo mentality about it at times, that we need to push through and ignore our feelings and we can't take the time to process and take care of ourselves," said LaRoche, who is the Baldwin Endowed Chair in Business and Financial Journalism at USC's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "This is why you see so many journalists who are one story away from a heart attack or a divorce. ... It's time to have a conversation about how we can do this job sustainably."
Reactions to the student journalists' decision have varied from empathy and support to stern criticism, particularly from current and former professional journalists.
In online posts, some have questioned whether The Daily Gamecock was shirking its responsibility to inform the public, whether the students are cut out to work under real-world pressures and whether there was another route they could have taken to solve their burnout.
But there wasn't, Slowey and LaRoche insist.
"No other option was good," LaRoche said. "It gives them a chance to regroup and reprioritize, put themselves first and put everything back in order so they could then find the room to come back in the newsroom and do it in a way that's not harmful for them."
Slowey said she's noticed supportive reactions from other student journalism organizations around the country, including journalists at Arizona State University, Cornell and Yale.
With around 36,000 students, USC is the flagship of South Carolina's higher education system and a cultural and political anchor in the capital city. Tragedies, controversies and uncertainties have struck USCstudents in near-constant succession in recent months, from the delayed start of the semester and shift to mostly virtual classes due to the coronavirus pandemic; to the sudden death of 19-year-old student Samuel Laundon, who was found dead in a quarry near campus just over a week ago; to ongoing criticism of student behavior and university administration's response amid the pandemic.
Slowey said she and her staff are committed to their mission of reporting the news that's relevant to the USC community.
But, she said, "We want to make sure we're putting out fair and accurate news, and to do that, we need to make sure we're healthy. ... It would be counterproductive to continue working in that toxic mindset.
"For the longevity of news, this is what's important."
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