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Media Work: 'Everyone's Job Is on the Line'



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In their own words


Mark Deuze: In Media Work, 'Everyone's Job Is on the Line'
The dynamics of working in the media are changing as audiences produce their own media, says the author of the new book "Media Work." Media workers in all areas are asking: "Will my job still be there tomorrow?"


By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 08/28/07


Shortly after the U.S. Labor Day holiday comes the publication of "Media Work," a new book exploring the changing nature of work for professionals in advertising, journalism, film and television production, and game development.

Author Mark Deuze is a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., and journalism and new media at Leiden University in The Netherlands, his native country. He also maintains a personal blog on issues related to new media and digital culture.

In "Media Work," Deuze researches the "work histories" of professionals employed in all kinds of media, in countries from Australia to South Africa to the United States. The goal of the book, he says, is to provide a better understanding of the contemporary realities of working in the media and help prepare the next generation for a career in this "exciting yet uncertain industry."



I Want Media: Why write a book about working in media?

Mark Deuze: The short answer? Because it is fun. Media people are wonderful to hang out with and observe. They're dynamic, creative, full of ideas, often a little crazy and extremely self-aware. They make for great interviewees.

The long and more scholarly answer? First, the research as reported in "Media Work" aims to help to inform students in media, journalism and related schools exactly what media work means, and hopefully help them to understand how to survive in a complex and chaotic world.

Understanding media work contributes to critical debates about and within the media professions in general and journalism in particular. On perhaps the most abstract level, researching media work is relevant to a critical understanding of the role that media play in our everyday lives.

IWM: Do media workers tend to be different from professionals in other industries?

Deuze: People who make media tend to care more about their work than about salaries or job security. They see their employer or company more as a vehicle for their creative self-expression than anything else.

They are also among the workers most likely to accept exploitative labor practices in order to get to do what they love to do. And yet they still sell their uncertain predicament to themselves and their friends as incredibly cool.

IWM: How is the work world changing for people who are employed in media?

Deuze: What is changing is an acceleration of things that have been happening for a while -- media convergence and integration coupled with disintegration, disruptive technological change, continuous market fragmentation.

This is being brought about by one fundamental and massive change: the entrance of a new generation of consumers who at times refuse to behave like an audience and instead prefer to act as producers themselves.

Consumers are creating video game modifications that have become commercial hits, viral advertising campaigns that are televised during the Super Bowl, and citizen journalism sites that are powerful enough to upend the careers of established newsmen like Dan Rather.

IWM: How does the shift toward a more participatory media culture impact media workers?

Deuze: It challenges a fundamental element of their professional identity, which generally is built on the very notion that there is an attentive audience somewhere.

Once there is no more audience -- or just "people formerly known as the audience," as NYU professor Jay Rosen puts it -- that puts a pretty big dent into your sense of purpose. I don't think that many professionals in the industry have truly dealt with this shift.

IWM: Is the media worker of today different from the media worker of, say, 10 years ago?

Deuze: Most people across the media are now contingently employed, as part-timers, temporary workers, freelancers, subcontracted on a per-project basis. Furthermore, a lot of work gets outsourced locally, nationally, even internationally.

Even if professionals are hired on permanent fulltime contracts, in my interviews they still tend to express doubts about their future careers, about whether or not they would still be doing the same thing at the same company two or three years from now. So, in a way, that's different from, say, 20 to 30 years ago. And all of this seems to speeding up, especially now that the media economy has become truly global and networked.

IWM: How will media workers be different in 10 years from now?

Deuze: Globalization will only increase. This includes runaway production in film and TV, outsourcing in digital games and advertising, and subcontracting newswork in journalism. It will most definitely open up the labor marketplace for regions all over the world to compete with established media industries in, for example, the U.S., India and the U.K.

It will also mean that everyone's job will be on the line constantly, as media corporations can shift their entire production workflow to another part of the world if the local conditions or tax incentives are better there.

IWM: Which media field -- journalism, advertising, television production -- faces the most upheaval?

Deuze: They all experience some kind of upheaval uniquely.

The games industry has been tremendously successful in harnessing the creativity of consumers, but faces the challenge of opening up its products to mass audiences that may not be all that interested in yet another macho, first-person shooter.

Advertising excels in appealing to everyone, but has yet to find a compelling answer to the demise of the 30-second TV commercial or the magazine spread. The financial base under TV and film is eroding fast, as the traditional power of Hollywood is disappearing in an online "long tail" model.

Journalism, well, that is a profession that held on the longest of all to traditional methods of doing things, so they are most dramatically experiencing all the challenges of the digital and global age. They really have to start exploring outside of their comfort zones to regain some of their lost audiences -- especially among young citizens who are more likely to blog than to ever read a newspaper.

IWM: What do media bosses need to know about managing media workers?

Deuze: One thing that came across in my research quite clearly was that professionals in all media industries consistently complain about management.

This is partly due to the fact that a lot of managers in these industries aren't really managers, but former creatives or editors that just grew into managerial work. They tend to understand a couple of aspects of the job very well, but are not necessarily tuned in to the changing realities of the marketplace.

One of the dangers of this situation is that management gets handed over to corporate engineers -- the infamous "MBAs in the newsroom" -- who are also not very likely to understand what is going on. It remains baffling how little programs of study exist that deal specifically with the management of creativity.

IWM: What did you discover while working on this book that surprised you the most?

Deuze: A couple of things. I found it interesting that media workers in all areas are struggling with exactly the same questions: Where has the audience gone? Will my job still be there tomorrow? Where is the money in this Internet thing? How can I get my work noticed by competitors, colleagues, employers, or audiences?

Second, I am amazed by how media workers seem to just accept the at times horribly exploitative labor practices in their industries. And yet, they are extremely powerful -- because without them, there is no content.

IWM: How are some media workers being exploited?

Deuze: Many, many more people want to get into the industry than there are jobs -- and they are willing to do almost anything to gain a foothold, including working practically for free. This offers employers tremendous opportunities for control and, thus, exploitation.

In economic terms, it is possible to interpret the media industry's recent embrace of "user-generated content" as another way to outsource salaried work to the producing consumer. You do not have to be a business genius to understand the core reason behind corporate co-creative practices: reducing risk by having workers compete with audience for the chance to create content.

IWM: You say in your book that studies among media workers suggest that pay is one of the weakest predictors of job satisfaction. Where do media workers find the most satisfaction?

Deuze: Peer review, just like academics. Journalists often listen only to each other. Advertising creatives talk about "customer first" but really only care what the colleagues next door will say at the club on Friday afternoon. Game developers get a kick out of a nod at a conference from a fellow designer.

Number of copies sold, viewer ratings? I doubt if most media workers are really aware of that kind of information. Consider all the internal awards the industry has established: the Pulitzers, the Golden Lions, the Oscars, the Emmys It's all mass-advertised self-glorification.

Don't get me wrong. I do not think there is anything wrong with media workers patting each other on the back. I would like to see more public acknowledgment of the hard work and often astounding creativity of individual media workers, especially those in less visible positions.

IWM: You also say in your book that "journalism, as it is, is coming to an end." OK, once and for all, are newspapers dying?

Deuze: Actually, that is a bit of a lark. I start every chapter on a particular media industry -- advertising, journalism, film/TV production, games -- with a series of statements that such an industry is coming to an end only to denounce it later on. This is my way of explaining that such catastrophic concerns are an historical part of the drama and the theater that is media work.

Are newspapers dying? Probably not. My best guess is that in a few decades most countries will only have one or two expensive national daily newspapers, and every city or urbanized region will have many free newspapers, all supplemented with a wide array of on-demand, for-profit digital and networked news services.

In a way, this question is not very interesting. The newspaper has not really been an important medium since the 1970s - in other words, since television. The death of TV news should be the major source of concern, as that is the only medium that informs everyone regardless of class, age or gender.

IWM: Last year, nearly 18,000 media employees lost their jobs. Are jobs less secure for today's media worker?

Deuze: Yes, indeed. We should not forget that these job losses came at a time when the various media industries have started to outsource some of the creative work to consumers.

This managerial embrace of user-generated content correlates with the current industry trend to offshore work -- advertising firms moving creative accounts to China, international news agencies establishing bureaus in India, runaway production in film and TV now outpacing local production, and so on.

IWM: How can media workers best prepare themselves for the future media world?

Deuze: All media workers need to combine their romantic ideas of the industry with some grounded perspectives on the often harsh reality.

Yes, work is play in many parts of the industry. But that comes at a price, as it makes one turn a blind eye towards increasingly exploitative labor practices and the disruptive character of work in the media.

You need to cultivate your own individual creative talent with a good business sensibility. In a way, as a professor, I would say you need both a MFA and a MBA. Just one or the other makes you dependent on others, and today's industry is not set up to be very cooperative or understanding towards such dependencies.

IWM: As a university professor, what do you say to your students to prevent them from becoming discouraged by the apparent instability in the media world?

Deuze: I say: Do not take courses because you think they will land you a job -- you will inevitably be disappointed. Take courses that deal with topics and skills you deeply care about, taught by professors who you have to get to know, at universities that offer the widest variety of cultural and political experiences. Beyond this, I'd say if you combine creative coursework with some good business classes, and throw in a couple of nice media and communication credit hours, you have a solid foundation.

The problem is, as you suggest, the media world is much more unstable than college textbooks or patchwork curricula tend to suggest. So add courses on crazy topics taught by passionate professors, get yourself as many internships as you can, volunteer at the student media on your campus -- radio, TV, newspaper, whatever -- get involved in local independent or alternative media.

But, to be honest, most of my students tend to respond to my stories with a "yeah so?" attitude. They actually like the idea of structural uncertainty, of being always on the move, of constant change. A lot of media workers also claim this -- expressing that this gives them more control over their own lives and careers.



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