Please let me log off

The post covid-19 media landscape is going to be way worse and more online

As I’m writing this, friends and former colleagues in the online media industry have faced the shocking announcements that they will be laid off, furloughed (with the understanding that they will eventually be fully laid off) or pushed to looser, unprotected freelance contracts. Media organisations attribute this to the economic impacts of covid-19, citing a loss of advertiser revenue, the flow of capital, and generally, the increased costs and risks of operations. For journalists and content creators, though, the past couple of weeks indicates a much darker –– though possibly, inevitable–– truth. That even the remnants of a more progressive, optimistic age of free online media is gone.

When digital media layoffs are announced, it usually plays out on Twitter as follows: Those who get laid off announce how much they loved working at the organisation, because their colleagues were akin to family. Their colleagues –the ones who survived– will quote tweet with supportive terms, urging anyone who has a job going to “make their loss your gain”. The small number of media unions will make statements about how, at a time when “democracy is in crisis, we need journalists now, more than ever”. And, of course, a loose array of right-leaning troll accounts, a lot of whom have a fascination with the n word, for free speech reasons will tweet “learn to code” variations at them, largely for the purposes of being retweeted into their own circles/telegram groups. Later, this will be recycled into the content machine, usually in the form of “reaction videos”, that, in choosing to ignore the very obvious effects of over leveraged, vulture funded tech undermining the flow of information through its continued obsession with capitalisation, opt to feed the only side show in town, the “culture war”. One where it’s not hyper-capitalism that undermines creativity, conversation and expression on the internet, but too much coverage of Transgender rights and non-white representation.

I’ve struggled to finish writing this, largely because it feels unfathomable, and uncomfortable, to be writing something for my own sake. Something that doesn’t need to be polished, where there isn’t a definitive white hot take about how this particular moment in time requires unionisation drives more than ever, or that the decimation of online media shows “how vital journalism is than ever before”.

Maybe it’s because I no longer believe that’s really true. I’ve also been thinking about how complicit I’ve been in pumping energy and content into a system that is largely powerless at this stage of history. An industry that is more beholden to capital than ever before, and, despite attempts to open up and diversity, still fosters a media culture that’s insular by design. The latter point might be one reason the industry is in this state.

On the day that I received news that I’d been listed for the Orwell Prize –one of the UK’s most prestigious journalism awards – I felt apathetic largely apathetic. This was a dream that I’d entertained since my early twenties, when I had the standard Woodward and Bernstein newsroom fantasies like everyone who starts out in the industry does. But, oddly enough, at the time of the announcement, I was far more concerned with hitting my daily deadline, and, hopefully, finally pleasing my editors in the hope of getting a thumbs up or something in the company slack.

This need for gratification isn’t just limited to my bosses either. In general, I’ve caught myself feeling more concerned with what people on Twitter, especially those in the industry who spend all their time on Twitter, thought about my work, and whether they would simply like it, or go as far as retweeting. This is largely a thankless thought experience, but the pattern will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s worked in online newsrooms and news desks since 2014. And they will know that the key to attaining this gratification often comes through producing a particular genre of #content which involves an “event” that happens online, causes a minor storm, results in some memes, and by extension, results in traffic when its condensed in a post that contains some irreverent lines, a small piece of original reportage, or a take that impresses other media people. At an old media job, these kinds of pieces were considered “impactful”. They were the ones that were given shoutouts in morning meetings. They would receive that strange rainbow dancing emoji in Slack. In some cases, colleagues even made an entire name and brand for themselves based on a #content post with a catchy headline, that would be amplified by other blue check media people and accounts with 30k followers (when, as we know, the real engagement stats hit). 

The irony isn’t lost on me. I’m aware that my large online following has far less to do with my actual reporting, and even my book of lengthy reportage, than by shitposts that have gotten the attention of the media class, and as a result, created a veneer of pseudo-celebrity, that, much like online media itself, has little if any material value, but has often been one of, if not the most important thing in my life. It almost feels like an organic achievement. At a time when my generation have less access to the milestones of personal development, where ownership is a luxury, and where even markers of progress, like high salaries and senior positions, are contentious, there are few things more reassuring than numbers. The numbers on our Twitter accounts and Instagram pictures. The line going upward on Twitch streams and monthly podcast downloads. Sometimes those numbers can result in actual numbers we can use to boost Amazon or Netflix’s numbers too, and, if you’re really good at Patreon or Onlyfans, you can help buttress the national GDP numbers. And so, the line goes back up.

There’s a small but sizeable consensus among media people, and something whispered in media conferences, that what the layoffs, the cuts to VC funding, and tech companies turning their media properties into tech companies actually signals something more natural. Just as media outlets had to adapt to mobile technology and Twitter, thwarting off doomsday predictions to build a more digitally orientated news economy, Media outlets will also get out of this slump. That, within the next decade, we might lose digital culture reporter jobs, but we’ll gain investigative journalists who can use TikTok in quirky ways, so it’ll all be okay. More, the prediction that sites like Patreon, and its equivalents, will pave the way for a renaissance in independent journalism, where the fans, the viewers, and the people most invested in the real objective truth, can directly support a creator, rather than an institution with corporate backing, or propped up by offshore trusts filled with Old Money.

I’m less interested in what new media will look like, than what a shift to this model might represent about the nature of work and labor, post pandemic. In a recent Elle piece about Onlyfans, the journalist Claire Downs describes the appeal of the platform to some sex workers, who have been shirked, and quite often, abused by Tube Sites that offer free porn, and provide little by way of compensation to performers in their premium service. Downs talks about Onlyfans giving more agency to performers by cutting out the corporate middleman, but she also describes how the platform –– like many in the adult industry–– often leads the way to adaptation. “OnlyFans, she says, is “the farmer’s market of porn. The creator is selling directly to the consumer,” Dawson writes. “OnlyFans is just another logical extension of how creators are monetizing and personalizing their labor”. Ultimately, it’s a system that does very little if anything to challenge the existing structures and power relations that have shaped the industry, and if anything, it further capitulates to the tech platforms who still expect you to be grateful in the first place.

I think this is probably the most obvious way to imagine not just media, but the post covid-19 economy, heading toward. We can already see the starting points. Tech companies (that already hire significant % of their staff as contractors) allowing everyone to work from home forever, Furlough schemes that are quickly descending into a choice between working with a high risk of death or staying at home as a freelancer. It’s also not difficult to imagine the notion of another global pandemic rendering the economic position of a “contractor” (with at least some basic rights and obligations due to them by a company) obsolete, and instead becoming a permalencer.

This already happens in much of the media industry, and it’s justified on the basis that bosses “are letting you work for whoever you want with no set hours, and you should be grateful!”. Take that, and add the faux-concern about “looking after your health and safety”, and what we’re likely to find is a media business that accelerates the very worst of the industry itself, folded into the very worst of the modern labour market. More still, the normalisation of home working is likely to thwart the good work of young media industry unions, who already face hostility, and who now lack the space to both organise and mobilise against their bosses. In the meantime, being reminded that the only way to keep safe is to keep getting those #numbers, and that the real benefit of working in this business is the reward of getting more of your own #numbers.

Of course, I could be wrong (as I often am). But while my time in the media business has been relatively short, it’s felt like I’ve been in this for decades, so at the very least, I’m able to notice some patterns.

 Maybe it’s just because I’m exhausted, desperate for my line to go down and to finally log off.