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–).


Patricia Pisters / University of Amsterdam

Frontberichten allows those who work on the front lines to broadcast their messages to the Netherlands and the world
#Frontberichten allows those who work on the front lines to broadcast their messages to the Netherlands and the world.

A striking effect of the COVID-19 crisis that first began in 2020 is an increase of both interpersonal social media and mass media such as national broadcasting. In The Netherlands the news and talk shows on public television have had many more viewers than before the crisis. At the same time new hybrid forms have emerged. While television crews are barely or not allowed into the ‘war zones’ of the COVID-19 crisis, where the battles take place, nurses, doctors, and other people on the front lines are invited to send their own video blogs about the situation. Public broadcaster BNN/VARA has created an interface to upload personal clips from those whose work is crucial in these extraordinary times. #FrontlineMessages (#Frontberichten) is then broadcast every night and offers unique documents of and insights into the crisis. While the streets are empty and the world seems to stay on hold for COVID-19, these video blogs show this invisible fiend’s impact from the perspective of the ‘soldiers’.

A lung specialist in Leeuwarden appears in multiple episodes.
A lung specialist in Leeuwarden appears in multiple episodes.

Violinist Esther Apituley performs for healthcare workers in an April 10th episode
Violinist Esther Apituley performs for healthcare workers in an April 10th episode.

Messages arrive from everywhere in the country and the diversity of people on the front lines who report is startling. Ranging from lung specialists, general physicians, ICU surgeons and ER nurses to hospital cleaners, ambulance and trauma helicopter personal, ex-patients, pharmacists and undertakers to people in other ‘battalions’: teachers in empty classes, military medics and logistic operators, home care assistants, supermarket personnel, distribution center managers, police, and politicians – they all have a perceptive, gripping story and a pervasive message to share. We hear about the loneliness of patients who die alone, their hand held by a compassionate but unknown masked caretaker who talks about this with dignity and sadness at the end of a shift; a shiver may run down the viewer’s spine. The worried faces of a teacher who has lost track of some of his pupils, fearing for those children who have lost their safe space from an abusive home situation; his face speaks volumes. During a nightshift a general physician has to fill out one death certificate after the other. An exhausted anesthetist catches a ray of sun during a break and smiles; she offers a ray of hope. A violinist has traded the concert hall for the entrance hall of a hospital and plays for doctors and nurses who keep their pace and listen to the moving sounds of gratitude and consolation. A pulmonologist on the rooftop of his hospital shows the abandoned airport and the quiet motorway in the distance. He invites us to think about the causes of the epidemic and the possible connection between the rapid spread of the virus and patients’ increased vulnerability related to pollution. He reminds us that we will have to change in order to reduce the likelihood of similar pandemics occurring in the future. When #FrontlineMessages ends at some point in the future, we in the Netherlands and elsewhere will probably all have coronavirus tracking apps in our pockets that also deserve critical reflection and adaptation before implementation.

One of the Corona ward cleaners in Manon from the April 8th episode
One of the Corona ward cleaners in Manon from the April 8th episode.

Image Credits:

  1. #Frontberichten allows those who work on the front lines to broadcast their messages to the Netherlands and the world.
  2. A lung specialist in Leeuwarden appears in multiple episodes. (author’s screengrab)
  3. Violinist Esther Apituley performs for healthcare workers in an April 10th episode. (author’s screengrab)
  4. One of the Corona ward cleaners in Manon from the April 8th episode. (author’s screengrab)

Saving New Sounds: Podcasts and Preservation
Jeremy Wade Morris / University of Wisconsin-Madison


Jeremy Wade Morris considers some of the oddities/challenges that podcasts present as digital objects

To the dismay of many radio and podcast scholars (or maybe just me?), the 2014 release of Serial – the investigative, true-crime, narrative non-fiction podcast produced by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and This American Life – stands as a watershed moment in podcasting’s history. Despite over a decade’s worth of interesting and engaging web audio experiments taking place for most of the 2000s, many pop press narratives around podcasting suggest it wasn’t until the slickly produced and undeniably captivating reexamination of the case of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed that podcasts had finally arrived as a media form worthy of attention. Thanks to Serial, podcasts officially became water cooler talk [ ((See Berry’s (2015) recap of the press coverage.))] ; every bit as worthy of everyday conversation as an episode of The Office, The Bachelorette or the latest superhero franchise film.

While I may personally quibble with the outsized attention Serial gets in the much longer history of digital audio and podcasting, as someone interested in preserving and tracing podcasting’s history, there’s no doubt the moment Serial represents is a notable one, precisely because of the cultural traction with certain audiences that the show was able to achieve. [ ((Berry, Richard. 2015. “A Golden Age of Podcasting? Evaluating Serial in the Context of Podcast Histories” Journal of Radio & Audio Media 22 (2):170-178. doi: 10.1080/19376529.2015.1083363

Given this significance, it would have seemed odd *not* to include a copy of the show when we began building PodcastRE, so it was one of the first shows we added to the database. But the show, like so many others in the database, highlights some of the difficulties podcasts represent as digital objects, and as sonic artifacts we’d like to preserve.

For example, here’s the opening 35 seconds of the first episode of Serial, taken from the version that is stored on our database’s servers, which log files tell me we captured on 2016-08-04 at 17:02:08.

Brought to you by RocketMortgage? Wait? Where’s the iconic MailChimp ad? The one that was the source of so much online review, discussion and memeing? The one that was as much part of the show as any of Koenig’s cell phone calls or Best Buy parking lot maps? The simple answer to the “where’s mailchimp” question is that after its initial run, Serial took on a number of other sponsors beyond MailChimp so the RocketMortgage ad is there thanks to a process called dynamic insertion (or dynamic advertising), where new ads are put into old episodes in order to satisfy current advertising partnerships and contracts. The more difficult answer is that technologies like dynamic insertion show how modular and variable digital artifacts are, and how saving anything digital entails difficult questions about what to save and how to do so in a systematic way. Media archivists of all kinds face similar questions, to be sure: TV scholars, for example, might debate whether or not we should be saving the show or the flow. But given how integral and integrated host-read and other inventive advertisements are in the podcasting format, it’s often difficult to distinguish between text and paratext. Podcast ads seem in some ways closer to product placement in a film than to a 30 second commercial.

I also have access to the original MailChimp ad, thanks to a file I had downloaded for a class I was teaching back in 2014, during the original launch of the show.

But to complicate things a little further, here’s what you’ll get if you visit the Serial episode 1 record in PodcastRE today, which streams live from whatever is on Serial’s current website.

Screenshot from the Serial episode 1 record.

Author screenshot of the record in PodcastRE for Serial, S01E01

In the first minute, you’ll hear an update from Koenig about their newer S-Town podcast along with the same RocketMortgage ad from our downloaded version. You can also see from the transcript – provided through a partnership with the kind folks at the now defunct AudioSear.ch – that their transcription was based on a version of the file where Squarespace was the sponsor (and that their automated transcription bot had a hard time distinguishing between cereal and serial).

I share these various versions to show that podcasts, like so many artifacts of digital culture, are unstable objects. As downloadable files, podcasts can be moved, copied and played and so they seem stable enough to save easily. In fact, for the first decade or so of podcasting’s existence (and for many non-ad-supported podcasts still), they were largely static and unchanging. But as the podcasting industry grows up and experiments with new forms of, and technologies for, advertising and monetization, the coherence of the audio file is more in question now than it ever has been. Should a database account for these multiple versions?

Beyond the audio, there’s also multiple versions of metadata for the show. The RSS feed for the podcast delivers a series of details about the episode (run time, author, title, genre, sample rate, etc.), but so too does the ID3 tag embedded in the audio file of the show. For many of the shows in our database, it’s clear the two different sets of metadata don’t always match, and even the metadata within the RSS feed for the same podcast can differ depending on which platform it’s hosted on (e.g. iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, etc.). Early data from podcastRE’s MySQL tables serve as keen reminders there are no true standards for encoding files or feeds with metadata.

description of image

Author screenshot of 3 versions of metadata for Episode 32 of the Aca-Media podcast (on the left, ID3 tag data from the iTunes version of the file. In the center, the same ID3 tag data from the version of the file available on the Aca-media site, with a different genre and fewer overall categories. On the right, metadata from the RSS feed at the show and episode level)

I could make several arguments, some silly and some serious, about why the MailChimp ad is a crucial part of the show and one that media historians should be concerned about preserving (e.g. it resonated with thousands of the show’s listeners, it was a palpable demonstration of attempts to monetize podcasting, it’s an oddly, audibly engaging and perhaps culturally troubling ad, etc.). The key point though is less about the specific ad, or even this particular show. Rather, it’s about the challenge that saving digital sounds of all kinds entails. How do we address objects that are at once sonic, but also subject to filetypes and formats that change according industrial, economic, or technical demands? How do we prioritize which metadata to save or use in building search tools given how highly variable and unstandardized podcast metadata is?

So we can quibble about whether or not Serial really was as watershed a moment for podcasting as it is often presented. But before we even get to the larger, more culturally pressing questions of *which* podcasts are notable or significant or worth preserving, there’s a whole slew of more technical and mundane questions about *how* to save these new sounds that need to be addressed.

Image Credits:

1. Photo credit: www.nicolassolop.com
2. PodcastRE record for Serial, S01E01 (author’s screen grab)
3. 3 versions of metadata for Episode 32 of the Aca-Media podcast. On the left, ID3 tag data from the iTunes version of the file. In the center, the same ID3 tag data from the version of the file available on the Aca-media site, with a different genre and fewer overall categories. On the right, metadata from the RSS feed at the show and episode level. (author’s screen grab)

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