Seize the Media

Kim Kelly

It’s time for journalists to really make the news.

The current state of digital media in the US is, in a word, tumultuous. It’s never been what anyone would call stable, really, and has always been as exploitative as one might expect from an industry beholden to both capitalism and the whims of billionaires—but for a while there, it looked as though the Vices and Buzzfeeds of the world would at least be lucrative. Digital media was going to revolutionize the news, they said; it was going to change everything. And it did, for some people—the bosses, CEOs, and founders. Unfortunately for them (and far more unfortunately for all the people they’d been underpaying and overworking from the jump), a genuinely sustainable business model remains digital media’s Moby Dick. Chasing ad dollars through a maze of Facebook boosts and Google ad buys became too difficult, so when older media capitalists like Rupert Murdoch and Disney came calling, the top brass betrayed their millennial image by actually picking up the phone.

Journalism’s great shining hope begat an influx of venture capital begat “pivots to video” and mass layoffs begat more mass layoffs in a perpetually unspooling drama of near-Biblical proportions. As workers finally revolted in 2015 and started to organize, they flocked to unions like the Writers Guild of America, East and the News Guild. This pivot to unionizing enabled them to publicly challenge their treatment, and to bargain and win contracts that forced their employers to improve their working conditions. Things got a little better down in the blog mines, but, unbeknownst to the workers themselves, the investor cash had started drying up; C-suite leeches across the mediaplex recoiled—and restructured.

The industry itself is broken, but those responsible for its decline are doing just fine. I mean the bosses, of course: the rogue’s gallery of aging hipsters, #Resistance hacks, and self-styled “progressives” running the shitshow are all still flying high even as the industry they’ve captained sinks. They’re still rich, for one, waltzing on the deck of the Titanic as the lifeboats capsize below. Even the ones with bruised egos and tweaked job titles can console themselves with the piles of material wealth, social capital, and cultural cachet they’ve accumulated thanks to their employees’ sweat, blood, and misery. Make no mistake: a temporarily embarrassed millionaire (or billionaire, in some cases) is still a deadly predator, and the next crop of eager young media workers are their intended prey.

None of this is new, mind you. It’s not exactly revolutionary to bring up the fact that capitalism is killing us and that those who profit off of it are bad people. We could apply this simple (but accurate!) analysis to any number of industries, but for now, let’s turn our attention inward. Right now, you’re reading an article that was written by a freelancer. It was commissioned by an editor, who will pay me for said article at the agreed-upon rate, and then we’ll go our separate ways until the next time I’ve got a story idea to run by them. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than having to defer to some jagoff with a lackluster resume and a lifetime membership to the company boys’ club. Up until recently, I was on staff at a digital media company, and spent nearly half a decade there observing and digesting the meaning of its inner workings. Like many, many other digital media workers, I was laid off earlier this year; my employer decided to Marie Kondo the company’s “global structure” to the tune of several hundred workers’ livelihoods, so now I’m navigating digital media’s chummy, shark-infested waters as an independent contractor. This has given me some time to think about the current state of digital media, and moreover, to come up with the kernel of a plan on how to get us out of this mess.

The problem is, of course, money (or rather, the real problem is capitalism, but let’s stay focused for the sake of this paragraph). No one has figured out how to profit off of digital journalism yet, and the window for making such a discovery is shrinking at a rapid rate. Some companies thought that venture capital was the answer—your Buzzfeeds, your Mics, your VICEs. The late 2010s were flush with cash for the right hip, young, edgy media websites. They were punished for this eventually, as those oh-so-kindly capitalists soon came to collect their pound of flesh, and found that it was wanting. The rate of returns was too low, and the investment numbers started to dwindle; all of a sudden, foreboding articles appeared in the trade mags. Exposés about toxic company culture and sexual harassment started popping up, and everyone started to get real, real nervous.

Still more companies fell under the spell of Facebook’s algorithmic siren song and lapped up the Zuck’s insistence that the future of journalism lay not in deeply researched, long-form stories or investigative reporting, but in short, heavily-produced videos—lots of them, sprinkled across your racist uncle’s news feed like confetti. We saw what happened there, too. By the time media kingmakers realized that news of short-form video’s popularity had been greatly exaggerated, it was too late—freshly hired video teams were left swinging in the wind alongside the editorial staff they’d been hired to replace.

Others have doubled down on the subscription model, tucking their premium content behind ironclad paywalls like precious gems, or peppering their articles with pleas for reader support. This was understandable; from its inception, the American newspaper industry was predicated on the straightforward idea that papers would collect, interpret, and print the news, and that people would then buy access to them so that they did not have to perform these tasks themselves. It’s a model that has worked for a very, very long time—and, lest we forget, still does, at least in terms of legacy print publications and some local newspapers. All that was completely upended by the advent of digital media. To paraphrase my grandmother, why buy the paper when you can get the stories for free?

This is a question that digital publishers are still tripping over themselves to answer, and there’s no easy solution. There is a solution, however, and it’s something that the devils in the corner office would never have dreamed of allowing to happen (they got mad enough when we started unionizing everything). In my estimation, the only true way forward for digital media is to blow it all up, and start again.

It’s time for the fourth estate to seize the means of production.

The worker-owned collective model has been attempted before by individual publications, but not on the kind of sweeping, industrial scale we’d need if we want to enact lasting change. For that, we’d need numbers; a mass movement; a bloodless revolution in the way we create and approach and consume media. In order to avoid the pitfalls of the capitalist tire fires that dominate the current media landscape, we’d need to approach the project with a specific set of worker-centered, anti-capitalist imperatives. This self-contained, collective media platform (including writers, editors, illustrators, and others) would need to be a decentralized, nonhierarchical effort rooted in local communities and committed to offering a true balance between local and global issues. We’d need to establish a presence outside of New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. and commit to a leaderless structure organized around direct democracy and transparent exchange. We’d need to embrace the idea of truly working collectively, to deprogram ourselves of the bloodthirst that freelancing demands and to take an intersectional, intentional approach to inclusivity and equity. We’d need to burn it all down, and start anew.

It sounds like a tall order, of course, but consider this. In 2018, hundreds of digital media workers lost their jobs. Just four months into 2019, 2,400 more have been cut off at the knees by stupid rich people, and as sure as the sky is blue and the bosses are parasites, that number will increase as the clock ticks onward. The market has been flooded with hungry new freelancers, who join the legions of existing freelancers already scraping by on subsistence rations. Digital media outlets are dropping like flies or being consolidated into vanity projects for craven billionaires (who are pretending to be less clueless than the last wave of craven billionaires whose hubris and greed shipwrecked digital media). The fascist in the White House regularly incites violence against the press, when he’s not busy trying to stifle it himself.

The industry itself is broken, but those responsible for its decline are doing just fine.

There are thousands of seasoned, talented writers, editors, producers, and other digital media workers scrambling to find places to tell—and sell—their stories, all of whom have been thrown into competition with one another. Imagine what we could do if only a percentage of us came together and started something new? There must be something better than this, and if it doesn’t exist yet, we can start it. If several thousand of us decided to stop selling off our labor for peanuts to every blog with a $200 budget, and instead directed our efforts toward creating something that both serves the community and can generate a living wage, we’d have a real shot at success. My question then is: what the actual fuck are we waiting for?

We have the tools, the knowledge, and the resolve to remake media in the people’s image. We even have the technology, in a way (WordPress isn’t that expensive, and, as I think ruefully to myself multiple times each day, Twitter is free). What we don’t have is the capital, and therein lies the problem that has faced other digital publishers: how do you generate enough funds to pay people properly, cover costs, and turn a profit? Many publishers skirted that problem by grossly underpaying and overworking the people they brought in to do the actual labor. Do we seek funding from the state? Do we crowdfund? Do we cook up a subscription model, like Dutch publication The Correspondent and the Shaun King-backed The North Star have recently done (albeit with varying degrees of success), and hope that if we build it, they will come? At the risk of alienating everyone who’s read this far by quoting Lenin, I must ask: what is to be done?

As Herculean as this task may seem, we don’t have to go it alone. Depending on the location, there are resources for fledgling worker-owned cooperatives; in New York City, for example, the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives offers resources and training to those hoping to get their own worker-owned cooperative off the ground, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives caters to multiple other states. Jacobin recently published a piece arguing that workers of faltering media outlets should be given the option to purchase said publication and run it themselves, which is an extremely reasonable idea. Former Gawker employees tried this approach via crowdfunding back in 2017, and imagine how much better the current media landscape would be had they been set up to succeed (now, we’re stuck with whatever New Gawker is, which does . . . not seem promising).

In addition, the explosion in digital media organizing has radicalized thousands of workers who are now extremely well-versed in both the value of their labor and the necessity of solidarity with one another. With a couple thousand of them now unfettered from their former employers and battling it out on the freelance market, that class consciousness has only been strengthened—something we’ve already seen in new organizing projects from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who just announced the formation of the Freelance Journalists Union, and in other freelancer solidarity projects with ties to unions like the Writers Guild of America, East, the National Writers Union, and the Freelancers Union. People are hungry, and broke, and mad as hell—if you don’t think that’s an ideal breeding ground for revolutionary new ideas, the whole of human history would like a word.

The community is there; the groundwork has been laid. The fire has been lit. Initiating an industry-wide conversation about what this could and should look like is only a first step, but it’s an important one to take if we want to continue doing the work we love without being ground to dust beneath some useless parasite’s bespoke bootheel.