What Is “Good” Digital Media Work, Anyway?
Austin Morris / University of Wisconsin, Madison

Cameron staring at a monitor
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).

In the opening manifesto for the new cooperatively owned, subscription website venture Defector, editor-in-chief Tom Ley declares that the site’s staff “aren’t here to gratify ourselves or churn out ‘content,’ a word wholly devoid of ideas and values, but to create good work that will earn your loyal readership.”[ (( Tom Ley (2020) “How We Got Here,” Defector. Defector. 8 September 2020. Last accessed 9 October 2020. https://defector.com/how-we-got-here/. ))] As Ley goes on to elaborate in a later section of the manifesto, the website must promise this value proposition because: “Everything’s fucked now. Newspapers have been destroyed by raiding private equity firms, alt-weeklies and blogs are financially unsustainable relics, and Google and Facebook have spent the last decade or so hollowing out the digital ad market. What survives among all this wreckage are websites and publications that are mostly bad.”[ (( Ibid. ))]

Defector was born from the ashes of Deadspin, a G/O Media website that imploded when its staff—now the staff of Defector—rebelled against its new management, appointed by G/O Media’s new private equity owners, Great Hill Partners.[ (( For more on the rise of private equity ownership in the media industries, read Matthew Crain (2009) “The Rise of Private Equity Media Ownership in the United States: A Public Interest Perspective.” International Journal of Communication 3, 208-239. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/381/307. ))] To the Deadspin staff, new editor “[Jim] Spanfeller and Great Hill weren’t really interested in preserving what we had spent the last decade building. Maybe a few components would remain to keep up appearances, but Deadspin’s demolition was coming, and we couldn’t stop it. What we could do was refuse to participate in its destruction.”[ (( In addition to complaints that Spanfeller installed his friends at key positions within G/O Media, passing over qualified women within the company in the process, Deadspin staffers found his mandate to “stick to sports” content untenable. While Deadspin had originated as a sports website within the Gawker Media umbrella, it had since undergone multiple iterations into a wide-ranging website that antagonized established sports brands like ESPN and SBNation, ridiculed other upstart brands like Barstool, and frequently exposed the racialized political economy of the sports media industrial complex. It also contained lifestyle content, like a dedicated cooking column, and wide-ranging cultural criticism, including one of the best assessments of the Gamergate controversy published contemporaneous to those events. ))]

But the promise to do “good work” as opposed to “churn[ing] out content” is not a simple one. In Ley’s framing, it consists of rejecting the logic of social media or search-driven traffic and gross ad sales in favor of the slower work of growing a loyal audience, and likely exploring new and innovative—which is to say, old-fashioned—business models like direct subscription. It is also, according to Ley, a labor project: a commitment to paying reporters to work on beats and training new hires, paying salaries and benefits, and preventing ownership from cashing out on the business even as its workforce faces dramatic pay cuts.[ (( Ley (2020). ))]

Ley’s first argument is consistent with political economic critiques of the platformized web from scholars[ (( For instance, Mark Andrejevic (2007) iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press; Victor Pickard (2020) Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society. New York: Oxford University Press; Philip M. Napoli and Robyn Caplan (2017) “Why Media Companies Insist They’re Not Media Companies, Why They’re Wrong, and Why That Matters.” First Monday 22:5, https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i5.7051. ))] and industry trade press[ (( For instance, Gilad Edelman (2020) “Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?” Wired. Condé Nast. 22 March 2020. Accessed 12 October 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/why-dont-we-just-ban-targeted-advertising/. ))] alike. For content producers, the economy of the commercial web is largely dependent on pulling traffic to their website, against which they can sell direct or indirect advertising. However, Google and Facebook have made themselves the arbiters of the vast majority of web traffic.[ (( On October 13, 2020, Alexa.com ranked Google and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, the first and second most trafficked sites on the web. Facebook was ranked sixth, ahead of Yahoo and Amazon but behind several Chinese sites. ))] Because these companies own and operate integrated user-facing content delivery interfaces, back-end advertising sale and delivery systems, user data aggregation business, and content production arms, changes to the ways these companies operate their businesses necessarily change the way content producers operate.[ (( Ben Thompson (2015) “Aggregation Theory.” Stratechery. Ben Thompson. 21 July 21 2015. Last accessed 13 October 2020. https://stratechery.com/2015/aggregation-theory/. ))] Facebook was sued for inflating viewership metrics for their video player product from 2015-2016 by a group of advertisers, a lawsuit the company settled for $40 million last year. Content publishers chasing those advertising dollars made pivots to video, cutting editorial staff in favor of smaller video teams hired on different, less stable contracts.

Carrie looking down at her laptop with her arm over her head
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).

Meanwhile, the labor justice argument voiced by the Defector staff is consistent with renewed efforts across the digital media industries to unionize.[ (( Digital media workers have unionized and are currently struggling to negotiate contracts at (among other companies) The Ringer, Huffington Post, and various individual Condé Nast companies. Hearst Magazines recently ratified a unionization vote. G/O Media successfully unionized in 2019, alongside the staffs of New York Magazine and Vox Media, shortly before the former was acquired by Vox. ))] It also moves the argument against “content” considerably beyond its traditional dimensions, which have emphasized labor only insofar as it relates to the work of autonomous creative individuals being mistreated by consumers,[ (( This is essentially the complaint of Doc Searls, one of the authors of the influential early web book The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000), who said the following in an interview around the time of the book’s original publication, “The plain truth is that ‘content’ insults the nature of what it labels… like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks.” ))] and into a more necessary—and necessarily structural—critique of the digital media industries in the platform era. How does one do “good work” in the digital content industries when contingent employment relations and traffic-chasing work assignments are the norm?

Jughead sitting in a restaurant booth with a laptop open to a blank word document
Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).

This is one of the questions I’m trying to answer in my dissertation research, which has involved interviewing queer workers at various levels and in various parts of the digital content industries—writers, editors, advertising creatives, programmers, digital strategists, and influencers. I want to answer the key question—“what does good digital media work look like?”—by answering it with an eye toward labor justice. In a 2010 article, David Hesmondhalgh performed a prescient, critical re-reading of debates within cultural studies literature between Marxian and post-structuralist theory about the nature of good work.[ (( David Hesmondhalgh (2010) “Normativity and Social Justice in the Analysis of Creative Labour.” Journal for Cultural Research 14:3, 231-249. ))] While these theorists debated whether autonomy and self-realization were the core components of good work in the creative industries, Hesmondhalgh observes that the debates tended to reject normative frameworks for evaluating creative labor in favor of bickering about whether working subjects did or did not really experience autonomy and self-realization in their working lives.[ (( For the record, here’s Hesmondhalgh’s verdict (2010: 247-8): “Post-structuralist studies of management and organisations, and cultural studies critiques of creative labour, raise the important possibility that autonomy and self-realisation might be used as techniques for control, by making negative features of work bearable and even (on balance) desirable for workers. Yet autonomy and self-realisation should not be abandoned as normative criteria for evaluating work because of this danger.” ))] In response, with aid from theorists in political philosophy, Hesmondhalgh offers two normative frameworks. First, “Those concerned with equality and social justice need to consider ways in which access to the means of cultural production might be broadened in order to make these forms of pleasure and self-esteem more widely available to other population groups” than the typical profile, which remains “highly educated and… from middle class backgrounds.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 246). ))] Second, Hesmondhalgh argues for “a shift in social conventions so that it may be considered a matter of social shame to leave a mess for the less privileged to tidy up” in creative workplaces, with “cleaning here stand[ing in for] a whole set of routine tasks that are generally granted little esteem in modern societies.”[ (( Hesmondhalgh (2010: 247). ))] Following a summer of very public accusations (with receipts!) of structural racist and sexist operations at major media companies, the first norm is now a common refrain across the digital content industries. This reckoning itself was informed by years of industrial self-reflection about the role of unpaid internships in keeping the media industries white and upper-middle class.[ (( See, for instance, Thomas F. Corrigan (2015) “Media and Cultural Studies Internships: A Thematic Review and Digital Labour Parallels.” tripleC 13:2, 336-350. ))] And now, after six months of homebound work due to coronavirus outbreaks, a consideration of all the other contingent laborers supporting the work of digital content producers—especially restaurants—seems warranted.

I am interested in Defector’s manifesto for the same reason I am interested in talking with queer workers and queer workers of color in the trenches of the digital content industries. I want to know how we could build a media industry that wants “good work” as a norm, not as an anomaly. For the queer media ecosystem, I think good work is a significant struggle. For one, working at queer media brands seems not to be a very sustainable career. Workers at queer media companies have found themselves let go as those properties dissolve or restructure. Gay dating app Grindr launched an online magazine, Into, only to shut it down after 17 months of existence. Long-running lesbian website AfterEllen shut down in 2016. Publications remaining independent, like lesbian website Autostraddle, increasingly depend on direct funding from their audience. The struggle of these websites to maintain a profitable business may be indicative of the pressures of the digital content business generally, or a particular problem with the way advertisers and media companies regard the value of queer content. How queer content is defined, located, circulated, valued, and evaluated as such by all stakeholders within the digital content industries in the platform era thus has real material effects, not just on the continued viability of queer content, but also on the lives of queer and queer of color workers in the content industries.[ (( I am inspired in this line of inquiry by Charlton McIlwain (2017) “Racial Formation, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Web Traffic.” Information, Communication and Society 20:7, 1073-1089. ))] Enabling good work necessarily entails building a sustainable industry that supports its workers in doing that good work, but industrial motives at major social network and advertising technology platforms will likely need to change significantly to make that happen. 

Image Credits:

  1. Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014–2017).
  2. Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004).
  3. Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale (The CW, 2017–).