There are, I believe, two key reasons why the study of labor within media industries is so important now. First, I argue that media industries are currently at the forefront of economic and technological changes that we are only beginning to understand, such as what the Internet means for the news business. Increasingly, media workers are asked to bear the brunt of the risks of these changes, becoming more entrepreneurial, flexible, and adaptable to economic and technological change. At the same time, the economy is increasingly, I argue, “communicative,” that is, economic value is based on communication products and services that are aesthetic, symbolic and experiential. So-called “creative industries” workers who produce these sorts of intangible goods and services have long faced an uncertain demand for their work—being to some extent, as an old Hollywood adage puts it, only as good as their last picture or project. Because many people working in communications– and media-related jobs rely on audience reception for their work, many contemporary media workers to have “portfolio-based careers,” in which they piece together projects judged for their potential creative impact (Neff, Wissinger & Zukin 2005). I believe that understanding how media workers produce symbolic, informational, and aesthetic goods and services can help scholars understand how economic value more generally is communicatively constituted and mediated, as more industries begin to rely on this aspect of value.
My first article in this stream in 2001 helped me to define what I called the “risk relations” of work in new media, in which media labor willingly takes on riskier work in exchange for potential financial or creative benefit. In the article, I began to describe how and under what conditions employees take on the entrepreneurial risk of the companies where they work, in part because of a combination of larger cultural shifts and organizational values that celebrate and romanticize entrepreneurship as a way to assert control over their careers. Published in a special issue of a labor studies journal, this article led to a collaboration that resulted in Surviving the New Economy (Paradigm Publishers, 2007), which I co-edited. This collection is one of the first to address the impact of new communication technologies on work, organizations, and workers in what has been called “the new economy.” As a whole, the chapters make the argument that the emerging responses to these changes are traditional union organizing, new modes of organizing by both unions and non-union employees alike, and new conceptions of work and collectivism. My co-editors were so-called “old” media union organizers, which helped us to think through the ways that media are changing and what lessons new media workers learn from the labor history of older media industries. For this book, I invited four of the academic authors (Andrew Ross, Simon Head, Chris Benner, and Sean O’Riain), and I edited every author’s contribution, giving substantial feedback and helping contributors shape their arguments. My co-editors and I wrote a substantive introduction and conclusion in which we argue that the new economy requires new kinds of workplace-based support and organizing in addition to labor unions and we contextualize new economy changes within U.S. labor history. I took the lead in securing and working with our academic publisher and was in charge of the book’s editing, layout, bibliography, proofing, and indexing. Our collection was positively reviewed in two top labor studies journals and in an influential online review of new media studies. The reviewer in Working USA called the book “prescient,” saying that it provides “significant insights into the transformations affecting work, workers, and organization in our troubled ‘new economy.’” In Labor Studies Journal the reviewer wrote that the collection “makes several important contributions to the field of labor studies,” and “is particularly useful in that it places the current collective action agenda within an historic framework, allowing readers to understand connections between previous transformations in the economy and labor’s response.”
Building on the idea of risky work that I developed in Surviving the New Economy, I led a comparison of the entrepreneurial practices in the careers of cultural workers by comparing my data on New York’s new media workers with data on the careers of fashion models (Neff, Wissinger & Zukin 2005). At first, these two types of workers seem quite different, and yet both must deal with the uncertainty of audience reception for media products. In that article, my co-authors and I show that media industries deal with the problem of how to stimulate creativity and innovation in the face of organizational and industrial uncertainty through continually changing workplace norms. We trace how entrepreneurial labor becomes intertwined with work identities in cultural industries both on and off the job, through workers’ self-investments in their careers and their attraction to the autonomy, creativity and excitement that jobs in these industries promise. We argue that the cultural image of “hot” industries with “cool” jobs normalize and glamorize the economic risks involved in working in media industries while the entrepreneurial investment workers make in these careers make it hard for them to exit during difficult times. Diffused through media images, the normalization of risk in media industries models for other workers how to behave under flexible employment conditions. For this article, I collected half of the data, worked collaboratively on multiple iterations of the paper, and then took the lead as first author during the article submission and revision process. This article helped me to build the foundation for thinking of media work in the new economy as important for symbolizing within the economy and representing the challenges of working through technological changes.
My first book, Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Media Industries (MIT Press, Forthcoming Spring 2012), extends this work by examining how the new media industry arose along with new cultures of risk-taking. I use participant observation, archival methods, and interviews to analyze the ways in which early media workers for the commercial internet framed their careers and choices. Young urban media workers made the first web pages, online advertisements, and streaming videos. In the process, I show how they encoded their cultural values into the content that they produced for the emerging medium, and had a lasting impact on shaping the structure and protocols of digital media as a whole. The book helped me to link theoretically my concerns with how workers adapt to new technologies and to the emerging roles of new media workers in the economy.
These web pioneers built the foundation for a new industry and established a new communication medium through their relatively ordinary, everyday personal choices. I analyze these individual-level choices and their passion for risk in the context of macro-structural economic changes from the point of view of people who, as active social agents, navigated and adapted to these changes. Why did people work for risky online media start-ups? The most obvious, common-sense answer is that such jobs often presented the possibility for enormous financial gains. However, I found the opposite in my data. Even though the term risk permeated their career discourses, young people framed the risks that they were taking in terms of creativity and career stability more often than in financial terms. People did not choose to work in the new internet industry because they felt it was a good, calculated risk with a potential financial windfall. In fact, almost two-thirds of the people I interviewed evaluated their risks using non-financial schemas, such as the desire for creative work.
In Venture Labor I argue that new media workers’ entrepreneurial behavior reflect cultural shifts in the American workplace and new attitudes towards job security. Employees are implicitly and explicitly encouraged to “buy-in” to their companies’ goals by investing time, energy, passion, and financial capital in their companies as if they were financial investors. Discourses within organizations and media messages alike make these economic risks seem natural, inevitable, and desirable. Building on the work of critical economic and social theorists such as Richard Sennett, Ulrich Beck, and Mark Deuze, I argue that, in effect, employees—not just financial investors—are now routinely exposed to the entrepreneurial risks of media firms. This is important because it reflects a fundamental change in how people work in media, what kinds of careers they can expect, and the organizational culture of media organizations. The nature of these risks could mean that only people willing and able to be more entrepreneurial will be represented in the mediascape, potentially limiting the diversity of voices in the media.
This stream of research leads me towards expanding how political economy of media industries is defined in U.S. communication scholarship. Building on European intellectual approaches to “cultural industries,” like the work of David Hesmondhalgh, I want to investigate how changing technologies shift the economic environment for the production of mediated culture more broadly, linking individual choice to economic and technological changes. For my future work in this stream, I want to continue the core intellectual work that I began with Venture Labor about the entrepreneurial investments young people make in their jobs within media industries. Specifically, I plan to write a book on the political economy of unpaid and low paid internships among American college students. Dot-commers and interns may seem to have little in common. Both, however, provide insight about transformative changes to the U.S. economy that have limited entry level positions, broken career ladders and the possibility of career stability within media companies, and weakened the social institutions that support workers. The notion that unpaid internships are an investment in potential future careers links to a larger discourse of what political scientist Jacob Hacker has called the “great risk shift” onto individuals and away from the institutions that once helped to provide economic and social security for the middle class. My first project in this area has received internal funding from the Department of Communication and I am in the process of applying for external funding for this work. I have collected over 500 narratives about the internship experience written by undergraduate communication students so that I can examine the pathways into media companies and the ways in which young workers frame the experience of risk as part of the implicit requirements for working in media. Over a six year period, I trained over three dozen undergraduate student interns in qualitative field work methods as they collected ethnographic data on their own internships, providing extended participant-observation data on a wide variety of companies and types of internship experiences. The result is a collection of richly detailed daily field notes kept by interns themselves, capturing the perspectives and observations of young workers in these settings, on their feelings about their work and career possibilities, how they experience and understand the organizations where they work, and how they make sense of their own position within the economy of media. My first paper out of these data was chosen as a top faculty paper by the Popular Communication Division at the 2011 International Communication Association conference. This work addresses some of the key issues facing scholars of media labor—how workers understand the changes within media industries, what types of workers are entering media jobs, and what kinds of strategies are they adopting to respond to technological and economic changes.
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