Exploitation, instability, low wage: dream job

Media Work
November 23, 2007

This is a book of two halves. The first half tells a sorry tale. Using interviews with media professionals in the US, New Zealand, South Africa and the Netherlands, Mark Deuze describes what it is like to work in four key media industries: advertising, journalism, film and television production and digital games. We are told that working in the media industries means constant networking if you want to get on; that creativity is constrained by the dictates of the market and that workers suffer the tyranny of flexible working with longer and longer hours for less and less pay on ever-shorter contracts.

The life of the individual worker is brought into relief through a discussion of organisational dynamics and the macro context of globalisation and technological change. Drawing heavily on the work of Zygmunt Bauman and the notion of liquid life, Deuze reveals the precariousness of work - the individualisation of societies; the globalisation of production through, for example, outsourcing - all in relation to the media industries.

Then Deuze makes a conceptual leap. The book's second half relates the triumph of creative workers through adversity. Borrowing from Henry Jenkins, the notion of "convergence culture" is applied to media work. New media change the working practices of creative industries, blurring the line between production and consumption - so anyone with a mobile phone and access to a computer can write a news story, affording new opportunities for "citizen journalists". What is more, in the fragmented, insecure, exploitative world of media work, people actually like what they do. Through case studies we discover that structure (market) and agency (informal networks) coexist in organisations; that production includes commercial ends and creative means; that it is too simplistic to pitch creativity against commerce or flexibility against stability. These are valid reminders of the complexity of the world of work, but they leave us wanting and skirt around the critical question of power - where it resides, how it is manifest, who wields it and with what consequences.

It is one thing to say "the daily interaction of creativity, commerce, content and connectivity" gives meaning to the work of media practitioners and their professional identity, quite another to explain why media workers willingly accept low wages, few employment rights and little job security.

As the book shows, we cannot ignore that we live in deeply unequal capitalist societies, driven by profit and competition operating on a global scale. Neither should we deny that media workers hold many different ideas and identities at any one time. But we need to understand the former to appreciate the latter. It is vital to grasp the relation between individual autonomy, freedom and rational action on the one hand and the social construction of identity and behaviour on the other.

It is here that Deuze falls short. There may be competing discourses at play, but it is far from being a free-for-all. Ultimately, this book cannot tell us about the relationship between organisational economic imperatives and the fight for survival in a global marketplace and what this means for the worker; how national and transnational attempts to liberate commerce through deregulation function alongside national cultural policy initiatives to protect the nation-state and how these affect the experience of creative work in a post-industrial world. As the blurb on the back of the book says, this is a "critical primer" on how media workers survive - and at this level it works. But if survival is all we are interested in, then I think I will abandon ship.

Natalie Fenton is co-director, Goldsmiths Media Research Group, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Media Work

Author - Mark Deuze
Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 200
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9780745639246

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