[iDC] The People Formerly Known as the Employers

Mark Deuze mdeuze at indiana.edu
Sat Oct 25 20:09:11 UTC 2008

(this is a slightly modified version of the original essay, that also  
includes links to sources and acknowledgment to the inspiration of  
this piece - a long brainstorm session with Leopoldina Fortunati,  
here: http://deuze.blogspot.com/2008/10/people-formerly-known-as-employers.html)

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 - such as in a recent survey among media  
workers at Fairfax in Australia - that they are just assets that cost  


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  


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, India 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 analyses 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.


Mark Deuze
Department of Telecommunications
Indiana University, USA
Professor of Journalism and New Media
Leiden University, Netherlands
mail: mdeuze at indiana.edu
web: deuze.blogspot.com
phone: 18126069742

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