Does the South African Media Industry Have a Toxic ‘Hustle Culture’?

Earlier this year someone told me that I was not “hungry enough to make it in the media industry,” and if I was, I would be sacrificing a lot of sleep and downtime to do so. My life would basically be work and very little else. This individual was not aware that I was already doing just that. Sacrificing sleep and downtime, to complete the freelance work for various creative platforms and publications. Most of which I was not even getting paid for just to nurture my craft and expand my portfolio. 

The comment upset me and after having a conversation with a close friend it dawned on me. This industry may have a ‘hustle culture’ and I, like many others, may fall victim to its toxicity. 

An article written in the New York Times defines ‘hustle culture’ as the obsession with striving, defining your self-worth by what you accomplish in the workplace and completely abandoning a healthy work-life balance. Marcella Jalbert puts it nicely in her podcast ‘Creator’s Block’: “Hustle culture does not sleep. Hustle culture does not take lunch breaks. It’s waking up every Saturday morning and making spreadsheets instead of pancakes. Hustle culture doesn’t take into account what your goals in life really are.”

I haven’t been in the media industry for long. Presenting, reading news and doing traffic at the campus radio station of my Alma mater was my first taste of what the media industry has to offer and where my love for the industry grew. I went on to pursue my honours degree in Journalism where I learned various skills, leading up to an internship at a well-known digital publication and TV channel, and various freelance writing opportunities. 

Before entering this field I told myself that I would have to hustle hard on the side to keep myself afloat financially and build my brand. Many of my role models in the industry did so, so I decided to follow their lead. 

So far, this method has worked for me. I’ve had many opportunities to learn and grow, and I have built a network along the way. However, a common theme I’ve experienced on this journey, is having to stretch yourself thin in order to reach your goals. Plus, people telling you that because you’re young you shouldn’t be sleeping, but rather be taking on as many jobs as you possibly can. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in working hard and pushing yourself to achieve your goals and dreams. However, I’m also a firm believer in securing your overall well-being – be it physical, emotional, spiritual and mental. Pushing yourself beyond your limits and having too much on your plate is not always a good thing. We all have different thresholds. And we alone know how much we can take on, before hitting burnout. 

Instead of only sharing my experiences and opinions on this topic, I thought I would have a few young media professionals share theirs too. They share whether they believe there is a ‘hustle culture’ in the media industry, and if so whether they think it is toxic or not. 

Smile FM presenter, JM Henning (28) believes that the media industry does have a ‘hustle culture’, adding that the nature of employment contracts in the industry play a big role in it becoming toxic. 

“Permanent employment contracts aren’t the norm, with large amounts of professionals operating as freelancers or independent contractors. While this does free up creatives to pursue multiple projects, it comes at the cost of job security—something not everyone is willing to gamble with,” says Henning. 

This is the reason why many media professionals take on as many extra jobs as they can. 

Digital content creator at YOU magazine, Cher Petersen (26) feels indifferent. She believes that the ‘hustle culture’ isn’t necessarily toxic, but that “the industry creates an unhealthy narrative that if you want something you have to work yourself to the limit without getting paid for your efforts.”

“I think it’s imperative people explore all the avenues they feel passionate about, but the industry sets impossible standards for those in it to keep up with. Which isn’t always what their consumers want nor what inspires creatives, and the reason why many branch out into their own things and have side hustles,” says Petersen.

Lesley Piet (29), radio personality at OFM agrees with Petersen about the hustle culture in the media industry not being toxic.

“Hustling itself is not toxic. There are people who are toxic that are hustling. And they are the ones creating a bad name for those who are trying to plow the seeds and do their things to get to the top,” says Piet.   

Lee Davidse, a sports journalist at SuperSport says location is a big determinant of hustle culture toxicity in the media industry. He narrows it down to Cape Town and Johannesburg, the main media hubs in South Africa. 

“While from a very early stage in my career in media and entertainment I learned that Cape Town is slightly more toxic and a lot less accommodating. Now, later in my career, I see that Joburg is the opposite.

“There is a great chance that this has to do with the number of opportunities available in these two locations. Where there are maybe five commercial radio stations in Cape Town, Joburg has at least 10 for example. Either it is that or people are just generally more friendly in Joburg,” says Davidse.

GroundUp social media manager and journalist, Marecia Damons (22) and Paarl Post journalist, Ross Michaels (24) both feel strongly about the presence of a ‘hustle culture’ in the media industry and agree that it tends to become toxic.

“I can only speak from a broadcasting perspective, because that’s the area in the media industry I’ve worked in the longest. While working as a radio presenter, I saw how the people around me got burnt out from trying to get a foot in the door. I witnessed how they allowed their health to deteriorate all in the name of ‘making it’,” says Damons.

She adds that she firmly believes in working hard, but not at the risk of your health. 

“I mean, what’s the point of eventually ending up where you’ve hustled to get to, but not being able to fully enjoy it because of all the damage you’ve caused to your body and mind to get there?” asks Damons.

Michaels stresses that the media industry pushes this narrative that the more hours you put in at the office, the ‘hungrier’ you are to ‘make it’ in the industry. 

“Working long hours doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive. Sometimes you can get all of your work done in a short amount of time. We all have different times of the day where we are more productive, and that determines whether you’d have to put in extra hours or not,” says Michaels.

There are clearly mixed feelings when it comes to the presence of a ‘toxic hustle culture’ in the media industry, with majority of the media professionals agreeing to its presence, but only half believing it to be toxic.

I guess it’s simply a personal thing. I, like Lesley, believe its toxicity is based on the way you’re “hustling”. 

Are you sacrificing your well-being, bad-mouthing your peers, and only focusing on your connections to get ahead? Well, then your hustling is most probably toxic, and you should find a healthier alternative. Like Marecia Damons said: “What’s the point of hustling when you can’t enjoy the outcome after you’ve sacrificed your health and relationships to get there?”

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Lucian is a quirky multimedia journalist who loves everything media related, having done a stint in campus radio at Stellenbosch University and currently trying to find his way through the ghetto called ‘adulthood’. He loves everything geek related, and secretly wished he worked for Rotten Tomatoes, so he could have a valid excuse for binge watching series.

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