Issue 3

So Much for Personal Brands

Building power in an industry that’s falling apart

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In January 2015, the Washington Post set out to explain “Why Internet journalists don’t organize.” The answer, reporter Lydia DePillis argued, was twofold: on the one hand, there were more young writers and journalists than there were jobs, thus depriving organizing drives of necessary leverage; on the other, those young writers and journalists, with little connection organized labor, had “built personal brands that they can transfer to other media companies.” Young media professionals had come to see themselves not as workers but as entrepreneurs, the conventional wisdom went, leveraging their own readerships or audiences into higher salaries and better benefits. “Web publications are seen as springboards to something better, so writers are willing to put in long hours for low pay until they’re poached by some other place, which is the only way to get a raise, anyway,” DePillis wrote. Three months later, workers at Gawker Media announced that they were forming a union, quickly winning recognition from management and setting off a wave of unionization across the industry that continues to this day. So much for personal brands.

Now, that wave of unionization has spilled over the edges of venture capital-backed digital media start-ups into massive legacy publishing companies like Hearst and Conde Nast, and from New York-based glossy magazines with an international reach to smaller, regional newspapers like the Casper Star-Tribune and the Roanoke Times. Each vote for a new union represents another worker taking a step towards recognizing themselves him or herself as such—that is to say, as a member of the working class, rather than as an enlightened seer standing apart from the struggles of everyday people. And each new union that is formed becomes a new tool for media workers to use to improve their lives, to expand their imaginations and their understandings, and most importantly to guard against the ravages of capitalism.

I have been deeply involved in this movement almost from its inception: I was working part-time at Gawker when the organizing drive was announced, and thus could only express my support for the union even though my position was not eligible for representation. Eventually, I would be hired to a full-time staff writer position—only to see the website shut down months later, the result of cartoon capitalist Peter Thiel’s years-long clandestine legal war, waged through his proxy Hulk Hogan. Gawker Media declared bankruptcy and was acquired by Univision. It became Gizmodo Media and the Gawker writers and editors were reassigned throughout the company. I threw myself into internal organizing, eventually serving as co-chair of the unit. I would leave that job (and the union) two years later, following a grueling organizing battle against budget cuts imposed by the private equity-owned Univision. Now, I am an active member of the National Writers Union, which represents freelance media workers. As I wrote this, NWU members were organizing to support the now-averted strike at the New Yorker.

What I have learned in my years in media labor organizing is this: that unions can transform people’s lives and their way of seeing the world; that collective action can win concessions from bosses, from management, from shadowy capitalist institutions that otherwise would have been impossible to even imagine; that workers acting together can find answers to problems that the bosses would never think to suggest. But what I have also learned is that unions in the media industry are serving an almost entirely defensive role. In other words, that they keep things from being as bad as they might be, but that it is very, very difficult to use the union to change the fundamental facts of history, of industry, of political economy that shape the conditions of media workers’ exploitation. This is a somewhat vexing conclusion.

While the media and entertainment industries have been swept with organizing waves before—especially in the period of the Popular Front, which Michael Denning describes in his magisterial history The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century—our present conjuncture strikes me as very different in some important ways. With the rise of Fordism and modernism, the 1920s and 1930s saw the development of a “cultural apparatus” built on the bifurcation of mental and manual labor—whole industries and sectors for which new layers of the working masses supplied both a labor force and a consumer base. This cultural apparatus, as described by C. Wright Mills in 1959, “contains an elaborate set of institutions” that produce and distribute all art and science, entertainment and information, information and propaganda: “schools and theaters, newspapers and census bureaus, studios, laboratories, museums, little magazines, radio networks. It contains truly fabulous agencies of exact information and of trivial distractions, exciting objects, lazy escapes, strident advice.”

The invention of moving pictures, sound recording, and radio broadcasting in the late 19th century opened the possibility for a new kind of culture industry—and a new commercial culture marketed to the working masses—brought into being in the early 20th century as it became cost-effective to mass produce film, records, and radio. “The growing advertising industry was the backbone of the new culture industries, attracting the investments of other industrial sectors in culture and entertainment,” Denning writes. “As a result, the cultural apparatus became a contested terrain between the Popular Front and the Advertising Front, as working-class styles, stars, and characters emerged alongside the sales plug.”

Today, digitization and the internet have completely changed the calculations of what is worth investing in and what is worth paying for; revenue generated by ad sales in newspapers and magazines and on blogs and websites has plummeted. The cultural apparatus—not only in media, but acutely so there—is in a state of simultaneous disintegration and consolidation. Between 2008 and 2019, about half of the newspaper jobs in the United States disappeared. Approximately 2,000 U.S.-based media jobs were lost in January 2019 alone. During the pandemic, something like 5,000 media jobs evaporated, from workers who run the printing presses to those selling advertising space to reporters and editors. Thanks to the greed and impatience of venture capitalists, the thriving digital media ecosystem of the early and mid-’10s has been followed by layoffs, cuts, and mergers. Future rounds of consolidation (and with it, inevitable job losses) loom on the horizon.

Following the most recent round of layoffs at Medium, Ev Williams wrote that the company was “redirecting editorial resources to finding and supporting independent writers, who were publishing on Medium outside of our pubs.” For years, companies like Medium have swung back and forth between the imperatives of being a publication (which incurs the costs of employing workers, to say nothing of possible legal liability for the things that those workers produce) and being a platform (which can be run on the cheap) but it seems clear to me the direction things are trending in: a rapid expansion of the pool of freelance media workers—always feeling the pressure to compete with each other for a slice of shrinking editorial budgets—complemented by a proliferation of forms that allow for media and entertainment to be produced quickly and cheaply, like podcasts, video streams, and newsletters, produced and consumed in almost total isolation.

To say that any individual media union is powerless to stop these changes is not to say that media unions are powerless, but to be realistic about where their power lies. It is one of the proudest achievements of my life to have helped lead a union that negotiated what would have been brutal budget cuts and layoffs into generous buyout offers with extended severance packages, which meant that no one who wanted to stay at the company would lose their job, and those who were ready to leave could do so without having to worry about making rent in New York City for a couple extra months.

Still, we are organizing against forces that extend beyond any single editor or boss or newsroom, on terrain that is being reshaped by tectonic powers: behemoths like Facebook and Google have scrambled the way that people consume media while Uber and Lyft and Amazon forge new ways of managing the labor of their workers. During the fight in California over Assembly Bill 5, which expanded protections for gig economy workers, and Proposition 22, which rolled those protections back, some media workers sided with the platform companies, defending the conditions of their own exploitation by dressing it up as “the system that has allowed us to live such creative and flexible lives.” But flexible is just another word for precarious, and the celebration of the so-called freedom for workers that platform capitalism allows obscures the fact that these shifts in the way that managers control labor will eventually come to every layer of the working class—brain and manual workers alike—some more directly and quickly than others.

Capital will always seek out ways to lower labor costs—in the media industry, by disintegrating the workplace (the newsroom) itself. Shop-floor organizing becomes impossible when there is no single shop-floor where workers encounter each other; instead, they are disaggregated. The experience of isolation and atomization that so many white-collar workers encountered after they were sent home from their offices during the Covid-19 pandemic was already the day-to-day reality for many freelance media workers.

An endeavor like the NWU’s Freelance Solidarity Project, then, which seeks to organize media workers of every discipline across the industry, is an attempt to adapt the lessons and experience of labor organizing in more traditional workplaces to the incipient world of platform capitalism. New organizational forms may be called for, as will in all likelihood more creative tactics and far-sighted strategies—all towards the question of how to build power for workers in an industry that feels like it is falling apart.

Sometimes I wonder why we bother, no more so, for example, than when wealthy and powerful members of one media union speak out against its ambitious organizing efforts. But I’ve also seen people changed by their participation in their unions, which I suspect has consequences for the way that they write about the world. In a speech to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress, literary theorist Kenneth Burke laid out his vision of the “complete propagandist,” which Denning describes as “the working model for the intellectual of the ‘cultural front.'” A media worker who is a member of a fighting union may be carried to a place where, as Burke put it, he might “take an interest in as many imaginative, aesthetic and speculative fields as he can handle—and into this breadth of his concerns he would interweave a general attitude of sympathy for the oppressed and antipathy towards our oppressive institutions.”

Maybe it is more accurate to say that I hope this is the case. The alternative is a turn away from the media industry altogether—to reject the processes of cultural production, to decommodify one’s own work and instead collaborate on fun and weird and provocative projects with friends and comrades without any concern or interest in being paid for that work, instead making money elsewhere. It is a tempting thought. But I think that to do so at this point would constitute a retreat. And I’m not ready to give up yet.

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