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In the Holiday Echo Chamber

It was not sad to work through the holidays. But it was a little annoying, and a primer on the mechanics of holidays in the working world.

Both of my parents work in academia, so growing up I took for granted the generous wingspan of the holidays, which I believe naturally lasted from early December to sometime near Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was pretty recently (embarrassingly recently) that I got schooled on the structure of the holiday season from inside the rhythms of the workplace: the world might slow a bit, but it absolutely keeps turning. Because someone has to read the weather, even on Christmas.

Each of us volunteers worked a little bit on Christmas day—but very little. My only job that day was to go in at 4:00pm and record the regional weather, which took about 30 minutes all together. Hardly onerous. But it was the days buffering Christmas that bore the weight of a chore. Working under the nebulous scheduling regime of “flex hours,” I was nominally free to leave once my tasks for the day were all done. Knock out news stories or gather them from other outlets, read them over the air, tend to weather duties, get out of the station in time to enjoy a piece of that sweet four hours of direct sunlight. Easy.

The problems with that were two-fold. Firstly, I have trouble segmenting or limiting tasks, and flex-week enabled me to become my own little temporal tyrant, digging into documents and scanning court records more generously than I would have on a regular, presumably inflexible work schedule. The second problem is that news operations are not islands, but archipelagoes: stories and content move between a system of autonomous operations, getting shared, culled, stolen, borrowed, and followed up. One TV reporter’s story on a chemical spill leads a print journalist to interview an EPA official, giving a radio reporter a time-peg for a look at administrative cuts to state regulatory bodies. And on and on. It’s often called an echo-chamber, but a more persnickety paradigm is several games of Telephone all getting shouted at once, sentences and syntax morphing a little with each utterance. And when it comes to the holidays, newsrooms slow to a crawl as many staff-members head elsewhere. To compensate for lessened capacity but keep up officious appearances, most news outlets continue putting out a regular amount of content that is of a lesser quality, praying that a preoccupied audience will be too busy to care. Though I have no way of proving it, I’m fairly confident the perennial glut of “holiday travel horror stories” unnecessarily plumping up seasonal newscasts come up just because there are annoyed reporters waiting for their flights home who call in to their bosses and deliver “on the ground” reports. “I’m being told by officials one flight to St. Louis could be delayed up to three hours,” says—I hypothesize—an agitated reporter who just spoke with someone at the ticket counter about her trip home to St. Louis.

In media, the holidays mean you go into work and do your job the best you can, but with one hand tied behind your back. People don’t answer phone calls or emails because they are away, making it hard to get real stories done. Investigative or critical pieces feel out of place and unnecessarily dark set in between “Jingle Bells” beds. Everyone repeats the same scraps of news events getting worked out by the handful of journalists stuck in the echoing archipelago for the holidays.

This is/was all new(s) to me this past week. I got a glimpse at Thanksgiving, but it pales in comparison. And I had a difficult time accepting when my work was “good enough for the holidays” because the standards made it feel like unfinished homework being handed in. When I wasn’t at work I felt like I should be. I spent too much time trying to decide whether to leave voice-mails (useless), clicking refresh on other news sites hoping for consequential events (counter-productive), and stuck inside hollow thought loops writing my broadcast copy: “Why am I stressing about word choice? Nobody is listening!” “But if nobody is listening then why bother at all?” “But if I have to bother then why not bother correctly and find the right word?!” Over and over, until it was time to do weather.

Working at/on/through/around the holidays this year taught me that it’s useless to pretend anything is business as usual around the holidays. You can go to the office, but it ought to be treated as special/exemplary/unusual, because any attempt to just carry on when a fraction of the staff is there is rigidly ridiculous. Sitting down, as I did, to make calls following leads when nobody is on the other end to pick up is the adult-world version of my studious, foolish trips to the library the first week of classes in college. I’d be the only one in reading rooms, leafing through readings like it was catechism, oblivious to the more generous reality that nobody does their homework the first day of class. This year’s takeaway was that some people have to go to work on Christmas. There are essential functions, tasks that are so backlogged they need the undivided attention, weather reports to read. And it’s sort of cool going in, because it feels like glimpsing behind a curtain to see that the seasonal laxity is a product of permission, not preordination: we let our worlds slow in order to celebrate family and kindly rituals, but that break doesn’t happen on its own. Still, I wish I could have learned the lesson earlier on that it’s no use trying to squeeze blood from the news-stone near Christmas. Better to have dipped away and gotten presents wrapped on time, rather than hunch and hover over a muted echo-chamber weakly spitting out the barest shards of real news.