The pain and joy of the side hustle

The job that helps you stay on the job

Illustration by Sonia Pulido

Michael Thomsen, 40, works as an editor for Condé Nast’s special editions and reports stories for Slate, The Outline, and The Washington Post. He earns more now, but five years ago, his finances were in shambles. Despite regular gigs writing near-daily columns for Complex, Forbes, and the videogame site IGN, Thomsen made barely enough to pay the $850 rent for his room in a three-bedroom apartment in Chelsea. Thomsen had been a full-time freelancer since 2009, when he quit his job as an associate editor at IGN Entertainment in San Francisco and moved to New York, and the grind, paired with a large amount of credit card debt from freelancing, was affecting the quality of his work—and his mental health. “I was stressed out and claustrophobic working as a writer full time. It’s a lot of time to spend in your head,” he recalls. “Doing something physical where I could listen to podcasts or language courses seemed like a good way to supplement writing financially.”

On a friend’s recommendation, Thomsen applied to be a house cleaner through an agency in 2012, and for the next two years, he spent a large part of his waking hours dusting, scrubbing, and cleaning. “My average check was maybe $1,400 a month for like 30 hours a week,” he says. That check, in turn, afforded him enough to keep publishing stories; eventually, he found a full-time editing job. When he was interviewing at Condé Nast, he spotted a familiar face: an editor who used to work in an office he used to clean.

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Thomsen’s stint as a cleaner speaks to a worrisome trend. A quarter of respondents in a 2015 survey by the American Press Institute said they’d taken freelance PR or marketing gigs outside their primary jobs, another 12 percent taught at a school or university, and one-fifth took on additional work in the news business as freelancers.

The primary motivation for these endeavors was money—not entirely surprising given that 12 percent of respondents said they had suffered pay cuts and layoffs, 8 percent were furloughed, and one-third did not expect to be working in journalism in five years’ time.

If landing a job at a newspaper in 1830 “generally seemed to require only ‘brain faculties,’ not the kind of training, connections, or nest egg that setting up as a lawyer or doctor or banker did,” as historian Andie Tucher puts it, the miserable pay, long hours, and “independent and adventurous work” made it appeal mostly to the disreputable sorts unlikely to want or be able to have a family and a stable home. Today, the low pay and long hours remain, but they lend journalism the trappings of a cloistered, exclusive, white-collar profession.  Even for those who do prevail, cultural capital doesn’t translate to, well, capital.

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Still, it’s not that journalists are exactly poor. The median wage for reporters and correspondents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is around $19 per hour, or squarely within the national average. But $19 an hour isn’t necessarily enough for anyone living with debt or a family or any extra expenses in an already expensive city. The picture was a little better for editors, with a median hourly wage at $28.25 per hour, but those mid-level jobs tend to be the first targets for layoffs and buyouts. What’s more, wages for American workers across the board haven’t kept up with inflation, which means reporters today make less than they did in the 1970s in relative terms. (As an editor at Esquire in 1975, Nora Ephron paid a freelance writer $1,250 for a feature—a not unheard of price for feature work today.) The situation is the same for new college grads and accomplished authors, part-timers and staff writers, video producers and essayists.

For freelancers in particular, journalism can feel less like a job than a vocation masquerading as a profession and compensated like an art. The essayist Michael Greenberg describes writing as “a mockery of the basic relationship between money and labor” in Beg, Borrow, Steal, his 2009 collection of essays about life as a writer in New York City. Perpetually short on cash while writing novels and reviews, Greenberg turns to the side hustle over and over again to support his young family. “In the early 1980s, cured by my first novel of any illusions I’d had about the glories of self-expression, I decided to approach writing as just another part-time venture, like selling cosmetics or driving a cab,” he writes.

Greenberg describes the array of gigs he took as a young father to stay afloat, from menial labor to speculating on stocks. In the process, he navigates the class dynamics of the downwardly mobile, “unglamorous poor” young man for whom being broke is, in some way, a choice—Greenberg never went to college and decided to become a writer against the wishes of his father, “a solid member of the middle class.” He doesn’t glamorize brokeness so much as make an uneasy peace with it. It’s a privileged choice that Greenberg was able to make, a choice Thomsen was able to make as well—that survival was something you could do on the side.

Because while journalism these days is very much a profession, says Liz Skewes, chair of the journalism department at University of Colorado-Boulder, it doesn’t always look much like a job. “I don’t mean it’s not professional,” she adds. “But I think you have to do it because you love it and you think it matters. And maybe you can make a little money. Just don’t count the hours.”

 

Side hustles aren’t always a matter of survival; often, they’re the price we pay for seeking out more satisfying work. For Caitlin Hu, the geopolitics editor at Quartz, editing art and photography books on the side was a way to diversify the work she does. She says it can be “surprisingly lucrative” but also a welcome break from news, and a way to more creatively collaborate with artists and writers. She often gives the people she meets their own side hustles: “Being involved in those projects also lets me circulate work to other writers, like hiring former colleagues to fact-check, research,” says Hu.

Joe Flood is the author of The Fires, a book about New York City in the 1970s, and the CEO of the editorial services firm N2 Communications. Flood realized early in his journalism career that the stories he cared about—mostly Native American affairs and life on the reservation—would not be commercial hits.

“I was always a freelancer, and it was really hard to make a living, even living in South Dakota,” he says. “It seemed like knowing editors was as important as having good stories. I never understood the instinct [of] being a reporter. My sense of it was to live and see different things, and translate them to other audiences.”

Flood didn’t want to compromise his journalistic work, so he wound up doing corporate editing and research on the side to fund his writing. It went so well that he handed off some work to friends and, eventually, started N2 as a kind of clearinghouse for side hustles.

“Journalists are the most underpaid people in the knowledge economy, when you think about credentials and skills and people who can understand and analyze data, write stories, self-motivate, interview people, design,” Flood says. “For people from impressive colleges to be clawing at each other to get $50,000 staffer jobs is ridiculous,” especially when those jobs are primarily located in cities with a very high cost of living.

 

Side hustles all seem to have one thing in common: They often involve doing things for people wealthier than oneself.

 

Julie Zauzmer, 28, has a very different attitude toward her side hustle. By day, she’s a religion reporter for The Washington Post. On nights and weekends, she twists balloons. Zauzmer—a Harvard grad and trained clown who used to go by “Zippy”—says last year she made $12,000 performing at birthday parties. The money doesn’t hurt, but she insists that she does it out of love. “If I could choose which I liked better—reporting or balloon-twisting—then I’d do just one,” she says. Zauzmer wants to stay at the Post “for the rest of my life,” but she also sees balloons as a solid Plan B. “It gives me a sense of options,” she adds. “There are so many things I’m not going to do. But I really still could be a balloon twister.” The ethics of reporting carry over to her side hustle: She turned down a gig twisting balloons for Hillary Clinton “because that was such an obvious conflict.”

Reporting can bring about side hustles, too: While researching his book on Cuban boxing champions, the Canadian writer Brin-Jonathan Butler, 38, sparred with some of the most accomplished sportsmen in the world. When he came back to the US and found he couldn’t support himself in Manhattan writing for places like Harper’s Magazine and Salon, he began giving boxing lessons in Central Park. “This seemed like the most viable skill I had,” he says.

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Now, he says he makes anywhere between $10,000 and $14,000 a year teaching people to punch. And he’s at work on his second book. It’s about chess—which happens to be his own former side hustle: As a teenager,
Butler played games of speed chess against people for money.

“Would I prefer not to have a side hustle? Of course. But I don’t know how else to survive without cobbling together hustles. I’m never surprised; something’s always allowed me to get by,” Butler says.

“I don’t know if I’ll have one year where it won’t happen,” he adds. “It’s a stressful thing to confront.”

 

Side hustles all seem to have one thing in common: They often involve doing things for people wealthier than oneself, whether it’s cleaning their houses, watching or educating their kids, cooking their food, or helping them stay in shape. That’s the very nature of capitalism, of course, but when the interactions are direct, questions about class—as well as race and gender—become more apparent. 

In her memoir, Slutever, based on a blog of the same name, Vogue columnist and Vice host Karley Sciortino describes starting out as a sex writer in the mid-2000s in New York City. “On some days, I felt like my life and writing career were going pretty okay—Slutever’s readership was growing, I was writing cover stories for Dazed & Confused magazine, and I was making a satirical sex-ed Web series for Vice,” she writes. The problem? “None of those things paid me any real fucking money.”

Her blog “brought in literally zero dollars.” Vice “was still in a phase where they insisted the company was doing you a favor by giving you a platform and making you ‘cool.’ ” Her cover stories paid a pittance for a week’s worth of work. “Basically, the publishing industry was and is a fucking nightmare,” she says, “and despite working really hard, I was well below the poverty line and totally unable to support myself.”

One day, on a friend’s urging, Sciortino started working as a “sugar baby,” sleeping with wealthy men who preferred paying for sex under the pretense that they were helping young women out with their rent, their art, or their careers. “We get really stuck in our social scenes and only hang out with people like us—politically, ideologically, age-wise,” Sciortino says. “But I thought it was fun to live in this different world. Like, why am I at Jean Georges with a fat bond salesman? I like to have conversations with people different from me; as a writer that’s valuable.”

Peter C. Baker, a writer in Chicago who spent two years, on and off, running errands and preparing meals for well-off families, says he liked the work just fine, but the social dynamics struck him as odd. The work he did was a squarely “downstairs” occupation, but he believes he was hired largely because of his own background—educated, accomplished, and “small-town upper-middle-class.” (Baker’s father is a doctor).

“The main thing was to be a trustworthy person who had a car and car insurance, but they were into the fact that I had this other thing going on and that maybe they were kind of helping me with that,” he says.

Not unlike Sciortino’s experience with sugar daddies, it was his class and his ostensible professionalism that made Baker an attractive candidate for the gig. “A huge part of the job was cooking for them—they were rich foodie people. But they didn’t even audition me, and I’d never cooked for other people! Not that any of this was explicit, but my writing career was salient somehow.”

During his stint as a house cleaner, Thomsen says what struck him most was how manners masked class prejudice and deep, structural inequality—all realizations that inform his journalistic work.

“When I started, I was aware of leaving a demographic—or not leaving it, but not being fully part of it,” he says. At the same time, “a lot of people thought, initially, it’s safer to have a college-educated white guy come clean. We don’t have to worry he’ll steal the jewels in the bedroom, or [not] communicate in English.”

One moment in particular stayed with him. “I was cleaning in an ad agency one night and I found a pay stub. It was $16,000 for two weeks, after taxes. That’s more than I earned that year.”

 

There’s nothing that new or surprising about writers and journalists having jobs on the side. Jack London stole and sold oysters. Charles Dickens fixed boots. Even Graydon Carter—he of the high-six-figure salary!—owns restaurants. Nor has journalism ever been that lucrative. For a time, an impoverished Karl Marx wrote dispatches for the New-York Tribune. “If only this capitalist New York newspaper had treated him more kindly,” John F. Kennedy famously remarked. “I hope all you publishers will bear this lesson in mind the next time you receive a poverty-stricken appeal from abroad for a small increase in the expense account.” 

It’s hard to ignore the seeming ubiquity of the gig economy, and the tendency for an increasing number of jobs to take on a temporary, contingent quality, but government data doesn’t reflect the side-hustle trend; according to the BLS, between 1994 and 2014, multiple job holdings among the general population actually fell. Nevertheless, Etienne Lalé, an economist who crunched the numbers, says they might be missing a big part of the story: “What’s needed is a new category of workers,” he says. “Currently we have classes of work—a government worker; a private, salaried job; self-employed; incorporated; unincorporated; and so on. But it seems to me there’s a missing category: workers working for an internet platform like Airbnb without being an employee of it.”

In a 2016 essay for Quartz, Catherine Baab-Muguira turned the side hustle on its head. She didn’t keep a side hustle so she could write; journalism was her side hustle. “The side hustle offers something worth much more than money: A hedge against feeling stuck and dull and cheated by life,” she wrote. Working in marketing by day allowed her to afford not just a mortgage, but the luxury of occasionally doing work she loved.

Anecdotes like Baab-Muguira’s make journalism sound akin to knitting or gardening: closer to a hobby than a profession. And it’s hard not to see that attitude creeping into pay stubs, contracts, and the number of opportunities to make a living from it. Of course there are reporters who make good money doing it full time. And of course people with reporting, writing, and research skills can earn much more doing something else.

But increasingly, journalism looks like a profession for the young, the hungry, or the independently wealthy. Side hustles tell us that in financial terms, journalists just aren’t worth much at all.

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Correction: In the American Press Institute study of what journalists do outside of their primary jobs, CJR misinterpreted the 13.2 percent of respondents who answered “none of the above” as having only one job. In fact, those respondents did not choose from the options selected. The story has been updated accordingly.

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Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a senior editor at The Nation and the author of The Cosmopolites, an investigation into the global market for passports. Her reporting and criticism has appeared in The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Nation, the London Review of Books, and many other publications. She has worked as an opinion editor for Al Jazeera America and a business journalist for Reuters.