The People Formerly Known as the Employers


In 2006, NYU professor Jay Rosen penned an astute observation about the changing power relationships in the media industries - and more specifically, the world of journalism - regarding the impact of internet. His analysis had the catchy title "The People Formerly Known as the Audience", and pointed towards a shift in access to reporting tools (news gathering, editing, and publishing) to what used to be imagined by newsworkers as the audience. Importantly, it is not just the tools of reporting now being available to "We the Media" (such as blogging, podcasting, vodcasting, and other forms of social or "our" media), but also emerging forms of legal protection (Creative Commons licensing), and increasing uses of users by professional media organizations, thereby giving the former audience the semi-official status as competitor-colleagues.

Examples of deliberately turning the media consumer into (co-) producer across different creative industries are viral and word-of-mouth (or: "social") marketing, interactive advertising, computer and videogame modification SDKs (Software Development Kits such as the Source SDK of Valve), and citizen journalism, where news organizations indeed call upon their audiences to reconstitute themselves as journalists - such as Yo Periodista at Spanish newspaper El Pais, iReport at American broadcaster CNN, and so on.

Flat Hierarchies

At the heart of this argument is the recognition of a new or modified power relationship between news users and producers, between amateur and professional journalists. It can be heralded as a democratization of media access, as an opening up of the conversation society has with itself, as a way to get more voices heard in an otherwise rather hierarchical and exclusive public sphere. In this scenario, some of the traditional and generally uncontested social power of journalists now flows towards publics, and potentially makes for a flatter hierarchy in the publication and dissemination of news and information.

By all means, this is an important intervention on the audience side. But what industry observers like Rosen tend to omit, underreport, or dismiss is another equally if not more powerful redistribution of power taking place in the contemporary media ecosystem: a sapping of economic and cultural power away from professional journalists by what I like to call The People Formerly known as the Employers. Employers in the media industries increasingly tend to withdraw from labor, that is, from taking responsibility for their creative workforce - instead giving them the feeling that they are just assets that cost money.

Primarily I owe this insight to my friend and brilliant colleague Professor Leopoldina Fortunati of the University of Udine, Italy (who visited us at Indiana University this week).

[update 27.10.08] Some more or less recent concrete examples of TPFKATE and power sapping away from reporters and other professionals in the creative industries, such as a survey in Summer 2008 among media workers at Fairfax (link to PDF) in Australia. The Fairfax study, similar to a survey last year among members of the US Newsguild, shows how media workers among other things report feel unappreciated, see their colleagues (1 out of 3 in the US) lose their jobs for no apparent reason, and experience early retirements without jobs being replaced (other than by temporary staffers, stringers, and freelance correspondents). One of the most crucial and foreboding remarks in the Fairfax report reads: "[...] younger journalists, in particular, [have] become demoralised. There is no sense that the company values its staff."

Recent news signaling powerdrain also comes from plans for mass layoffs at especially newspapers but also in broadcasting, such as in the American news market, and the media industry generally (see IWantMedia's archive from 2000-2006), as overall one in six jobs in the media has dissappeared over the last couple of years.


Employers in the news industry traditionally offered most of their workers permanent contracts, included healthcare and other benefits (at the end of the 20th century sometimes even including maternal leave), pension plans, and in most cases even provisions sponsoring reporters to retrain themselves, participate in workshops, and serve on boards that gave them a formal voice in future planning and strategies of the firm. Today, most if not all of that has disappeared - especially when we consider the youngest journalists at work.

Today, the international news industry is contractually governed by what the International Federation of Journalists euphemistically describes as "atypical work", which means all kinds of freelance, casualized, informal, and otherwise contingent labor arrangements that effectively individualize each and every workers' rights or claims regarding any of the services offered by employers in the traditional sense as mentioned. This, in effect, has workers compete for (projectized, one-off, per-story) jobs rather than employers compete for (the best, brightest, most talented) employees.

Furthermore, newswork in particularly English, Spanish, and German-speaking countries gets increasingly outsourced: to subcontracted temporary workers or even offshored to other countries, where the People Formerly Known as the Employers practice what has been called "Remote Control Journalism." Journalists today have to fight with their employers to keep the little protections they still have, and do so in a cultural context of declining trust and credibility in the eyes of audiences (the few "audiences" that still exist given the Rosen formula), a battle for hearts and minds that they have to wage without support from those who they traditionally relied on: their employers.


So what we see happening in the context of todays new media ecology and the emerging global creative economy is power slowly but surely slipping away from those who we rely on for our entertainment (ex.: the recent writers' and actor's labor disputes in Canada and the US), our advertising (ex.: the widely reported power shift occuring in agencies from creative towards account managers, media planners, and digital consultants), and - perhaps most disturbingly, our news.

For all the brilliance of those advocating a more democrative media system, there is generally nothing in their analysis that acknowledges this erosion of power, this wholesale redistribution of agency away from those who tend to crave only one thing: creative and editorial autonomy. No matter how excited I can get about user-generated content and the collective intelligence of cyberspace, this power shift erodes the very foundation of the way we know (and thus interact with) the world, and our ability to truly function in it autonomously, and on our own terms.

Perhaps we should take this analysis even further: the only way we can live in the world as this power shift continues, is to rely exclusively on our own terms. This in turn inevitably leads to mass solipsism and paranoia - as the only truth we can still believe in has to be strictly our own, and nothing or nobody can (or should) still be trusted. It is the perfect storm.

Paraphrasing Zygmunt Bauman: I am writing this down in the hope of preventing an inevitable disaster.