1. 21. 2022
Click to Collectivize!
Trending Ways to Reclaim Your Labour Power from Digital Media (Dis)Content!
Christine H. Tran
On December 1, 2021, as media workers at the product recommendation website Wirecutter were about to settle their first union contract with The New York Times Company, I sat down with a group of journalists and scholars in Toronto to discuss the challenges of organizing media workers in the digital age. I was moderating this panel at Massey College, in conversation with discussants Nicole Cohen, a communications scholar; Nasr Ahmed, labour organizer for the Canadian branch of the Communication Workers of America (CWA Canada); and Wency Leung, a Globe and Mail health reporter and Massey College journalism fellow. The panel drew its name from Cultural Workers Organize (CWO), a research collective co-founded by Cohen and communications theorist Greig de Peuter to investigate collective responses to precarity in the media industry, and to educate the industry’s workers about them. Like CWO, the panel explored how various kinds of workers (journalists, graphic artists, museum staff) are enlisted to perform the work of making culture – and how those workers, particularly those employed in digital media, can collectivize and win better working conditions today.
Popular among digital journalism formats, articles structured as lists (“listicles”) suggest what kinds of information get valued in digital capitalism: quantified “truths,” scrollable content, fast consumption over deep contextualization. So here, arranged in a list but digging deeper than most listicles, are reflections on three key soundbites from that conversation in December. May this not-a-listicle help you reimagine what labour organizing can be.
1. “We’re seeing more content than ever and more perspectives with greater access, but we also see more precarity than ever. It looks like a booming economy, but isn’t.”
– Nicole Cohen
More than 133 newsrooms have unionized since 2015, Dr. Cohen tells us. That is more than 7000 news workers who have won a little more protection and determination over their work conditions. Even newish web publications BuzzFeed, Vice, and Canadaland have successfully unionized in the past year, reinforcing the relevance of unions to digital work. Yet unionization responses to media precarity are the beginning, not the end, of a struggle against capital for autonomy in our lives. For example, as I write this article, staff at pop culture website The A.V. Club are regrouping after they were told to relocate from Chicago to Los Angeles on short notice or lose their jobs – a stressful situation that arose despite the fact that they’re unionized with the Writers Guild of America East. Media employment is a gaslighting game that not only underplays how many chairs are available at the table, claiming job scarcity to protect established hierarchies, but also abruptly moves those chairs around.
The pandemic has reinforced the need for a well-resourced, accessible information infrastructure bridging policymakers and the public. We live in a society of local news deserts, where information on your own municipality can be hard to access. Corporate media outlets paywall articles on critical health information. Media bosses justify such conditions with the narrative that the industry’s resources are naturally limited. But none of this is natural. This is your media on artificial scarcity.
A highlight of Cohen’s 2016 book Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age is her discussion of how (and why) we name different types of media production, and how this naming performs rhetorical work on our understanding of media labour. Take “freelancer,” a word that, as Cohen points out, originally referred to Medieval mercenary work: swords for hire who swore fealty to no feudal lord, but rather worked for gold on their own terms. Cohen doesn’t believe these origins need to predestine freelancers to always be in exploitative employment relationships (bloody or not). Yet the way we organize freelance work does a disservice to freelancers and the news writing they produce: most likely, a great bulk of the news journalism you read was written by someone with no formal employment agreement or benefits. Paths to unionization and its protections exist for freelancers, but their entry points are often unclear.
“Content” is another word that functions to obscure the specifics of the knowledge work involved in making digital media. In her book The People’s Platform, the documentary filmmaker and political organizer Astra Taylor argues that “content” is a “horrible, flattening” term that transforms our relationships into commodities. After all, what is content but information designed to be de- and re-contextualized as many times as possible, for the sake of digital sharing. What we would once call news articles or stories (or games or music or simply shitposts) are all subsumed by the word “content.”
The rise of labour organizing among digital media workers is related to recent social movements that have had prominent digital elements, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. An important part of organizing news workers today, for example, is reckoning with the racial homogeneity of most North American newsrooms, in which the journalistic value of “objectivity” will be attributed to white journalists more readily than to their BIPOC coworkers. To suggest that digital media organizing rides the waves of “hashtag movements” is not to reduce our moment’s rising labour consciousness to a byproduct of technology or online cultures. But it does reinforce that the digital discourse spaces of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are key sites of struggle (and extraction) that media workers have to consider in their organizing.
2. “People’s jobs in journalism now include [cultivating] an online presence… When you see content creators, they have tons of followers. Who’s their boss? The algorithm.”
– Nasr Ahmed
Where does the journalist end and the influencer begin? Nieman Labs, a project at Harvard University that explores new models of journalism, predicts that journalists might increasingly need to become more like influencers to engage Generation Z, an audience that tends to demand “authenticity” from its information purveyors. “Journalists who’ve found success with young audiences show their personality outside of the newsroom,” Nieman Labs’ Julia Munslow writes. Being a cultural worker involves much of this unpaid overtime: the labour of performing as yourself online.
The centrality of digital platforms to news work today has intensified that trend for journalists in particular. Subscription platforms like Substack and Patreon do allow freelance journalists to gain a little more individual control of their income streams. Readers can support a journalist directly for the work they do, rather than the writer relying on a news company for a salary. “This shift has revolutionized solo entrepreneurship,” media reporter Mark Stenberg says, “because subscriptions unleash the individual creator.” This model reinforces an idea of the journalist as just another genre of “content creator”: a professional defined vaguely, and primarily by their ability to turn out a commodified product.
Yet Stenberg also stresses that this “independent creator” model reproduces many of the structural problems found in more traditional corners of the media industry. “It’s bad because many of the journalists finding success as creators are the same kinds of people who were finding success before: mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent or well-connected. It’s good because the standard methods of gatekeeping no longer apply; as long as anyone can make a profit all by themselves, everyone can make a profit all by themselves.” The live streaming platform Twitch uses a similar payment model, allowing creators to sell subscriptions to their channels – as long as Amazon can take a cut.
Social media platforms also play a big part in labour organizing by media workers and others. The 2021 Wirecutter strike, which took place from American Thanksgiving through to Cyber Monday, included calls on social media for allies not to visit the Wirecutter website. Digital streaming platforms like Twitch have been used by media organizations to hold town halls and promote awareness of labour actions, and by Bernie Sanders to support striking Amazon warehouse workers. Even the picket line can be live-tweeted.
While social media platforms market themselves as great equalizers of the voices in society, more work needs to be done to identify how these platforms can be used most strategically for labour organizing. Digital media workers, some of them organized through the Industrial Workers of the World’s Freelance Journalists Union and the Communication Workers of America, are well-equipped to take up that task.
3. “One of the myths is that ‘we’re so lucky to be journalists.’ […] When you feel lucky to even just be working, that can cause some problems in terms of labour.”
– Wency Leung
Wasn’t writing supposed to be fun? Journalism is one of those jobs that we’re often told to accept will be underpaid to unpaid. To be (operative verb here is “to be;” not “work as”) a journalist, the story goes, is a lofty cultural “calling” that hovers above petty concerns like “compensation” and “benefits.” Working journalists know, however, that callings don’t pay the bills in a settler society that has seen healthcare, housing, and food commodified and made artificially scarce.
As art historian and Jacobin editor Miya Tokumitsu reminds us, the pressure to romanticize our jobs as “passions” or “callings” can do more social harm than good. Mantras like “Do What You Love” atomize workers by framing work as a relationship with one’s self. As many researchers have pointed out, such an ethos obscures the labour done by other workers who enable the individual to pursue her passion – from spouses taking on household labour to the freelancers whose contributions support a newsroom’s permanent staff. If we were to acknowledge all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.
The attitude that “love is enough” is pervasive throughout competitive media industries, and frequently an obstacle to organizing workers in them. Gaming journalists and organizers might remember the infamous “EA Spouse” LiveJournal, a blog that changed the way we think about video game development labour by highlighting the toll that the hyper-exploitation of games industry workers takes on their families. Behind every well-known media worker who has “made it” is a village of caretakers and other supporters – a dynamic that has only recently begun to be considered at the bargaining table. Parental rights, for example, are still just barely part of formal negotiations and wider conversations about who gets to be a media worker.
Not only is love not enough, but the Do What You Love framework can also obscure the gendered, classed, and racialized barriers that make some individuals – and types of labour – more lovable than others in the eyes of capitalism. A self-centered “love” approach to the work of news offers few resources for tackling those inequities, or for the relational work of collective bargaining, which demands engagement with the needs of the collective over those of the individual.
Perhaps the answer is for media workers to develop a collective love. Is there a way we can love news work more ethically, acknowledging the material conditions we share with each other? Where does love for your profession, for example, make room for others who love it just as much as you but do not have a formal employment relationship?
I would never advise anyone to quash the love they have for their work, or dampen the jouissance that can get them through the day. But if we don’t want socially privileged journalists to monopolize news employment, our visions of love and work in media need a radical transformation: an end to commercialized creator culture and the beginning of creative ways to collectivize.
Christine H. Tran (they/she) writes articles, poetry, and performance art about digital technology. Their work has appeared in The Puritan, alt.theatre, and scholarly journals. Christine is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information and a Junior Fellow at Massey College.