When the math doesn’t work

Illustration by Sonia Pulido

I landed my first full-time journalism job in early 2016, when I was 26. It was a business reporter gig at the Greenwich Time, a small daily newspaper in southwestern Connecticut. For years, I had tried to break into the industry. With zero experience—I couldn’t afford unpaid internships—my (probably) ill-conceived pitches got me nowhere, and rejection emails flooded my inbox. I eventually convinced an online news site, MediaShift, to take a chance on me, at least on a part-time basis. The pay was meager, the hours minimal. But it was a start.

When I got the Greenwich Time offer, I felt an unexpected mix of excitement—and dread. The salary was $35,000. To pay my bills, I had to keep my part-time job as an associate editor with MediaShift, and moonlight as a freelance graphic designer, one of the many hats I’ve worn as I’ve tried to make a living through creative pursuits.

For those months when I essentially worked three jobs, most days started at 5:15am to draft the MediaShift newsletter, schedule tweets and Facebook posts, and occasionally edit some freelance copy. Then around 8:30, I’d head to the newsroom in Greenwich, a 15-minute drive away, where I’d report and write until 6:30. At night, over frozen dinners, I’d look over more drafts for MediaShift, and then spend hours in Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign to meet deadlines for my design clients. 

My health started to deteriorate. I gained 20 pounds in three months. I developed insomnia. I went back on antidepressants. Taking a step forward professionally meant several steps backward in every other part of my life.

 

The craft of journalism is invaluable. Those who practice it are not. In a profession that was once working class, those who are lucky enough to not depend on their meager paychecks tend to be from more privileged upbringings—and that transition has had a serious impact on coverage.

 

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Of course, my experience isn’t unique: A second job (or a third) is becoming a necessity for many young journalists, especially those just starting out. Ours is a generation that knows, going in, we’re unlikely to make enough money in one full-time job alone to make ends meet. Reporters who entered the industry before the Great Recession—or the Digital Reckoning, or however you want to classify the past decade—have witnessed the gradual withering of their livelihoods, as salaries have flatlined and jobs disappeared. Many of those journalists have been forced to find other sources of income. 

But my generation has always known the math doesn’t add up. For me, and many unseasoned journalists, our careers are now a calculation of the pluses and minuses of doing the work. 

 

Meg Fair takes home more money at a pizza shop than she does writing at her alt-weekly. Her salary averages to $15 an hour at the Pittsburgh City Paper, where she has been a music writer since 2016. Since she moved to Pittsburgh for the job, she’s been pulling in extra cash in the restaurant industry—first at a church turned hot-dog shop called Franktuary and then at Spak Brothers Pizza. With tips, she estimates she makes between $16 and $20 per hour. 

Fair works shifts the entire weekend to complete a seven-day workweek. By the time she closes the shop Sunday night, she is exhausted: “That’s when I feel it the most,” she says. “I’m mopping, and my whole body hurts.” Between the two jobs, Fair clocks about 65 hours of work per week.

She’s still young, in her early 20s, but the lifestyle is already wearing on her: “My body is definitely older than 22 years old,” she tells me. Working nonstop means less time, or no time, socializing with friends. Her lifestyle breeds a certain loneliness, an unhelpful counterpart to chronic depression, which she’s suffered from much of her life. “There are definitely moments when I’m actively dissociating at my desk,” she says, “and then I feel guilty.” Twice now, she’s answered her office phone with a friendly, “Spak Brothers, what can I get for you?” 

I spoke with Kat Lonsdorf, a producer at NPR’s All Things Considered, as she was walking to her second job—as a server at The Pub & The People in Washington, DC—on a recent Sunday morning. The 30-year-old spent most of her 20s tending bar and waiting tables in Los Angeles, having graduated college during the recession. When she decided to make a career transition to journalism, she applied to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, graduating with a master’s degree in 2016. Lonsdorf then landed her dream internship at NPR, but with the burden of student debt and a minimum-wage salary, it was untenable to live in the nation’s capital without a second gig. 

Yes, Lonsdorf was sleep-deprived and overworked, but her biggest concern was the craft itself: How was her balancing act disrupting the time and effort she could dedicate to her profession, the one she spent thousands (upon thousands) of dollars getting a degree in? “I would hide in the liquor closet at the bar and be responding to emails while working my shift at the pub,” she says. “I remember crying one time because I was so tired and so stressed out after getting an email about rescheduling something, and was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” 

Dan Q. Dao, 24, a full-time journalist and part-time bartender in New York City, says he’s always understood that being a journalist comes with a balancing act: “If you weren’t willing to do whatever it took to stay in this industry,” he says, “you shouldn’t have gotten into it in the first place.” Dao spends his days writing and editing on a freelance basis, with previous full-time stints at Time Out New York and Saveur. At night, he heads to a speakeasy in the Murray Hill neighborhood, Middle Branch, and slings cocktails to supplement his income. 

 

The craft of journalism is invaluable. Those who practice it are not. In a profession that was once working-class, those who are lucky enough to not depend on their meager paychecks tend to be from more privileged upbringings—and that transition has had a serious impact on the coverage of different socioeconomic strata. 

Fair, like me, was raised in a family for which meeting ends didn’t come easy. “I’m always prepared or expecting to do more work than average,” she says. As a first-generation college student from working-class roots, she sees the future of journalism, and the role of people like her in it, as grim. 

“The more newsrooms are diverse class-wise, the more fruitful and intersectional coverage will be. If you don’t have a single person in your newsroom who comes from a blue-collar background, or knows what it’s like to wipe down tables at the end of night, they’ll never be able to empathize when they’re writing stories about things like workers’ movements, or communities displaced by gentrification,” Fair says. “If you don’t have that experience, or at least [a connection] to someone that does, it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the multidimensional struggles people have.”

There was a moment, two months into my beleaguered balancing act, when I broke. It was in the bathroom stall of a concert venue in Worcester, Massachusetts. My then-boyfriend, two pals, and I had packed into a car for the two-hour drive up, to see the final performance of a hardcore punk band, Bane. 

Maybe it was the stench of caked urine. Or the guttural wails from the stage, shrieking through my body. Or the weeks of working without pause. My heart thumped, my limbs wobbled, my head whirled as my stomach went hot. I spent maybe 15 minutes in the stall, but my experience of time suffered one of the defining talents of panic attacks. Time became a vacuum. 

 

Between the financial insecurity and the sleep deprivation, I had to ask myself, Is it worth it?

 

When I walked out of that stall—in my mind hours later, perhaps days—I was torn, but awakened. In the days that followed, I obsessed over my decision to take the reporting job, or to even pursue a career as a journalist. The stall (the dual meanings of that word feel poignant to me now) was a reset. In the moment, too concerned with keeping myself upright and alive, I didn’t understand its real weight. But removed from those urine-splattered walls, I understood the attack as an incarnation of the toll from my jobs. Between the financial insecurity, the weight gain, and the sleep deprivation, I had to ask myself, Is it worth it? 

A month later, I quit the job at the Greenwich Time I had so coveted. I had applied to journalism school earlier that year—at the time, I viewed it in the short term, as an escape from my present distress and as a way to hopefully push my journalism career into hyperdrive (the jury is still out on that one). I was lucky enough to land a more stable, better-paying fellowship (at CJR) when I graduated from Columbia last year. But my mountain of debt, coupled with the insane cost of living in New York City, hasn’t changed my situation much. Like many journalists, I’ve had to take on a few teaching and freelance gigs to get by. And sometimes that isn’t even enough. There were times, this past winter, when I found myself selling old clothes almost every weekend to afford my weekly MetroCard. I’m still debating whether to donate my eggs to pay off the credit card debt I acquired in graduate school. 

The ticket stub from that mosh pit of a night is still in my wallet. Every so often, I pull it out, look at it, and check in—Is it worth it? So far, the answer has been yes. But someday that yes may look more like a no.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.