Everything I Learned About Hustle Culture, I Learned From Journalism Internships

Guess when I started believing working all the time was a good thing?

logo

Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 05 2021

11 mins read

0

Caption

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I used to tell my friends—with a completely straight face, mind you—that if I won the lottery, nothing would change. I mean, I’d buy fancier clothes and better coffee, and I’d definitely live in a chic townhouse on a beautiful tree-lined street in Toronto, but I’d still be a magazine editor. I loved my job too much to stop. I loved working too much.

 

And I wasn’t just saying that. Just like I used to love school, I really did—do, if we’re being honest—love work. I loved brainstorming ideas, collaborating with the art department, teasing out what wasn’t working with a story and coming up with a solution. I loved that my job seemed really cool and impressive to others, and as women’s magazines became more overtly political, I loved amplifying stories that felt meaningful and important. I even secretly loved working late during production weeks, when we’d send the next issue of the magazine to the printer. Yes, we’d be at the office until 10 or 11 p.m., but we’d also eat dinner together and come up with ridiculous in-jokes that were only funny because we were tired. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, to the point that my job became an important part of my identity. I made shockingly little money, and between my full-time role and freelancing I didn’t always have time for hobbies or socializing, but it was okay because I was hustling in pursuit of my big, ambitious dreams.

 

At the time, I didn't realize there was a dark side to feeling this way about work. But now, almost a decade and a half later and in the midst of yet another conversation about journalism internships, I'm grappling with how I felt back then, how I feel now and why it's so much more complicated than the job itself.

 

Sure, let’s talk about unpaid internships *yet again*

 

When I graduated from university in 2007, I already had one unpaid internship under my belt. Like so many of my peers, I paid my school for the privilege of being placed at a publication for my final semester of university. And I loved it; I interned at This Magazine, a tiny, left-wing political publication that had a staff of four and a charming office in a former industrial building in downtown Toronto. I learned how to fact-check by calling one of our editors as she stood on the pavement below, smoking while I stumbled through my list of questions. I got my first bylines, sat in on my first editorial meetings and learned that I found the process of putting magazines together deeply satisfying.

 

After I graduated, I thought I’d be able to get a job with all that editorial experience (listen, I was young, okay?), but instead, I found myself doing three more internships at Style at Home, Toronto Life and Chatelaine, which were instrumental in building my career. When I began freelancing, my clients were mostly editors I’d worked with as an intern. When Chatelaine called in 2009 because they needed a part-time editorial assistant, it was because my soon-to-be boss remembered me from my internship the year before. Was I interested? Considering this was a dream come true and my immigrant parents were wondering when I would be able to stop deferring my OSAP payments, the answer was obviously yes. Even after I landed that first gig, internships helped shape my career. I’d guess that most, if not all, the opportunities I received in the first five years of my career could be directly traced back to one of those four placements.

Caption

 

That’s a privilege for all the reasons people have been laying out for years. My post-grad internships were technically paid, though barely—my hourly rate worked out to between $3 and $5 per hour; for comparison, minimum wage in Ontario was $8.75/hour at the time. I did other work to make up the rest of the money I’d need to live, but truly, the only reason I could afford to take these positions was because I lived at home. It was a far cry from the interns I’d hear about whose parents paid their rent and funded their cool-girl lifestyles, but still, how many brilliant writers and editors couldn’t pursue careers in journalism because they didn’t have even that basic amount of support?

 

But there’s another problem that I don’t think we are talking about enough: the way unpaid or low-paying internships have taught us to think about work. This week, when the internship discourse reared its head again, I thought about my 23-year-old self, who worried she was unprofessional for leaving her internships at 5 p.m., but who had to get back to the suburbs to make tutoring gigs so she could afford the train fare to get to those internships in the first place. I also realized for the first time how those internships shaped my idea of what a career should be like, and in a way, primed me to absorb the hustle culture propaganda that would soon become pervasive in women's magazines and on social media.

 

If I never see the word “hustle” again, it will be too soon

Earlier this week, American sports reporter Jane Slater posted a tweet complaining that Twitter users had criticized her for what she saw as simply signal-boosting an opportunity. “I posted an opportunity for an unpaid internship and I’m amazed the comments I get. It’s not even for me. It’s for someone else and I would have jumped at it in college. I had 3 unpaid internships in school, double majored and had a job. SMH,” she tweeted. A few minutes later, she quote-tweeted that post to add “one other layer.” “[F]or future journalists...your first few years feel unpaid,” she said. “I made 16.5k my first two years and worked harder than I’ve ever worked. There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business. I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind ✌🏻”

 

Slater is the granddaughter of Wolf Brand Chili president Ray Shockley, who bankrolled her education, so working for an annual salary of $16,500 was not the same for her as it would have been for, say, me. But can we also talk about the idea of “not understanding the grind”? That’s just a more condescending way to describe hustle culture, the idea that we must be working at maximum capacity, not just to succeed, but also as a way to give our lives meaning.

This is a huge problem. Young people, and especially young women, have increasingly been targeted by marketing slogans for overwork disguised as inspirational quotes: rise and grind. Lean in. I’d rather hustle 24/7 than slave 9 to 5. Emblazoned on water bottles and reposted as Instagram quote cards, these pastel-coloured sayings glamorize struggle. They send the message that “good” people work constantly, that poverty is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, that exploitation is a necessary condition for success. And of course, they further perpetuate the notion that professional and monetary success is the only kind that matters.

Hustle culture affects young workers in every industry, of course, but it’s especially problematic in one like journalism, which has a long history of exploitative labour practices. At the beginning of my career, I was lucky to receive mentorship from many smart, talented, encouraging and supportive editors, almost all of them women… but those one-on-one interactions didn't, and honestly couldn’t, counteract the message that exploiting myself was the best way to reach financial security and professional success, which I'd internalized as an intern and wholly embraced by the time I was a junior editor. And no wonder; I was surrounded by real-life examples of women who, I assumed, had moved up the masthead by following the same path I was on. And I both created and consumed media that pushed the idea of #girlboss feminism. How many articles did I read, and sometimes write, about white, wealthy, privileged women who didn’t like the idea of work-life balance ("You know, work-life blend is so much more realistic!" 🙄) and the importance of giving 120%?

 

So, of course I came to see low- or unpaid internships, poverty wages, permalancing and the fact that senior leadership teams remained almost completely, persistently white as simultaneously a reality of journalism and a set of obstacles I’d be able to overcome through hard work—but not the institutional barriers to success that they actually were.

 

I still have complicated feelings about ambition, though

 

And it’s not just that you can’t actually hustle your way through systemic barriers, it’s that hustle culture is designed to obfuscate that fact. In a 2019 article on the rise of this trend, New York Times journalist Erin Griffith described it as “toil glamour,” and explained that it only really benefits a very small number of people, who coincidentally are never the ones expected to actually strive for next to no money. She quotes Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, who at the time was promoting his new book about creating healthy company cultures. “The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustle-mania are not the people doing the actual work. They’re the managers, financiers and owners,” he told her. The article went on to explain that, “despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies.”

 

That… certainly sounds familiar to me. When I was making $3 an hour (the equivalent of $5,000 per year) as an intern, media execs were easily clearing six figures. But here’s the thing: even though I’d already become disillusioned with hustle culture by the time Griffith wrote her piece, I’m still grappling with complicated feelings about ambition and success today. On one hand, I’ve finally realized that no amount of hustle could counteract my race, my gender, perceptions about my age or whatever other unchangeable characteristic has “held me back” on any particular day, and that I don’t want work to be the only thing I do. On the other hand, I work more now than I ever have (freelance is feast or famine, which makes it hard to say no to projects). The parts of my job that I loved earlier in my career are still things I love to do now. And I’m passionate about building Friday Things, a goal that has already required a lot of work, and will only require more.

 

Caption

I don’t know what the solution is, or even if there is a solution, tbh. But there has to be a way to work that allows for both ambition and rest, professional success and a full life.

 

I think Slater’s tweets bother me so much because they uphold this idea that young journalists should not just expect, but also want to grind. But even as older journalists continue to spread the lie that hustling is the only way "make it" in this industry (something that was never true for white, wealthy and/or well-connected people) they know there are fewer jobs to be had, and work ethic doesn't have nearly enough to do with who gets them.

Slater's not the old guard, but it's not a surprise that she's propagating that lie because anyone, regardless of seniority, can believe the fallacy that if they struggled, so should the next generation. That's the tragedy here, I think—there are just so many people who are invested in making sure the least powerful members of this industry equate exploitation with empowerment.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

This wild, four-part NYC mystery.

 

Writer Harriet Prior’s thoughtful take about what KimYe’s divorce means for people with mental illnesses.

 

A fascinating piece of TikTok cultural anthropology.

 

Lainey’s breakdown of the royal family-approved smear campaign against Meghan Markle.

 

Former Gimlet Media producer James T. Green’s reflections on his time at the company, and how (mostly racialized) contractors were treated compared to (mostly white) staffers.

 

 

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter

work
media
journalism