Interview with James Compton



Ernest Hoffman

James Compton is one of Canada’s foremost scholars on issues surrounding journalistic labour in the digital age.  An Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), Compton is the author of The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance, and co-editor of Converging Media, Diverging Politics, a collection of essays on corporate convergence and its implications for journalism and democracy.  His research has been published in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, and Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, among others.  He is also a long-time member of the Union for Democratic Communications.

Ernest Hoffman:  You’re the primary investigator on a major SSHRC-funded research project, The Future of Organized Labour in the Digital Media Workplace – can you tell me a little bit about it?

James Compton:  Well, it’s a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant, where you pitch a collaborative research project to work with other organizations. What we did was successfully pitch a research project involving the Canadian Media Guild, which is one of the primary unionized representatives of journalists in the country, they represent workers of Canadian Press, and CBC and elsewhere, the Writer’s Guild of Canada, and also ACTRA, three streams.  So we have our labour group here at FIMS, with several faculty members working on that, and we’ve worked with our partners to come up with research ideas of interest to them.

Hoffman:  So this is dynamic – you’re putting this together with the major representatives of the workers, and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of what their concerns are, because they’re going to be coming right at you.  What’s your sense of the members’ relationships with the big players in the industry?

Compton:  I think the general point you can make here is, people are worried.  They’re really worried about the future of work, and in particular about people being compensated for work.  There’s a lot of anxiety around that – all three of our union partners represent people who are struggling with that

The digital workplaces have become complex places, and they’ve changed in a lot of ways.  And not simply because of digitization, it’s not a reductive starting point at all.  We’re looking at issues of job setting, and the implications and challenges to quality in the digital newsroom.  That’s of particular concern to people at the CMG.  But also for both ACTRA and the Writer’s Guild, they are under a lot of pressure with regards to new business revenue streams from digital platforms, and how their performers or writers are remunerated, or not, often not.  Digital content is migrating across these digital platforms, and there is an attempt to extract value from these things, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  There’s a lot of playing things out.

“It’s all about exposure and promotion, but when do people actually get paid?  A lot of people are waiting for that day.”

Hoffman:  And a lot of experimentation on the part of the industry, saying ‘okay, we have this, now how do we repurpose this five times?’  Obviously, that’s a very good idea as a business, but downstream you at some point have to decide who owns it, and who makes money on it.

Compton:  Yes, there’s a phrase that being touted these days in the literature called ‘hope labour’, and I think it captures a lot.  Many people, students too, are being promised ‘oh, work for free, and you’ll get great exposure!’  It’s all about exposure and promotion, but when do people actually get paid?  A lot of people are waiting for that day.  So it’s put a lot of stress on people.

One of the things I want to investigate further is that there are so many digital workers who are unemployed or underemployed, that there are two things that I think might be happening: first, value being extracted out of them with their free labour, or hope labour, where they’re basically working for free.

But also as consumers!  There has been some research done, and in different media sectors, but particularly in news organizations, they’re looking for new revenue streams, and one new way they’re looking to get paid that has higher margins is conferences.  So they have conferences on things, and they have their named, branded journalists that attract people, and people pay money to go to these conferences, and these become forms of spectacular circulation of value.

So the same people who are underemployed feel compelled, particularly in the world of acting etc., they go to these conferences because these poor artists need to go there to try to network and build their brand and get work.  Beyond this hope labour, they have to pay!  So not only are people being asked to work for free, or for very little, but then they’re also being used as consumers.

Hoffman:  That’s amazing, and that mirrors what’s happening with sessional professors, where people graduate with say, a PhD in history, and they have to pay a fortune to go to the annual history conferences, which are always in very expensive cities, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, in the hopes that they’ll meet someone, and there’s a handful of positions being hired, but they have to pay in the hopes that they’ll maybe land themselves even a sessional job, never mind a tenure-track position.

Compton:  Well, it’s a similar logic…  In the case of news organizations and entertainment companies, it’s a for-profit business structure. News organizations are actually launching conferences as a new revenue stream, that’s the intent of this, as opposed to the academic world, where people still feel compelled to go and spend money in order to get a job.

But in this case, there’s a dual exploitation that’s being developed right now.  This large pool of highly-skilled underemployed labour is being used in multiple ways.   The fact is that there’s a few winners, and many, many losers.  The few winners get held up as examples, and you’ll see profiles of some of them, the business pages are full of it, and also in journalism trade publications.  There’s an online version of it called Media Shift, and I get their daily digest.  I don’t read all of it, but I like to keep abreast of the Zeitgeist.

So what’s the Zeitgeist?  Well, people are being told that they must become entrepreneurial, and must build their brand, and it’s all up to them.

I would argue that this is part of the neoliberal ideology – that all the responsibility is on the individual’s shoulders.  It’s not the broader system that has disenfranchised a lot of people.  No, it’s your responsibility!  You need to work harder!  You need to find an entrepreneurial outlet!  You need to build your brand!  And then they’ll have examples of people that are doing it, and it’s usually selling that promise back to people who are precariously employed.  That’s the cycle.  It’s kind of depressing, looking at it.

Then you see journalism programs – like in New York, Jeff Jarvis is running an ‘entrepreneurial journalism’ program, which strikes me as an oxymoron.  He’s one of the most famous of what I would call the moral entrepreneurs for selling this ideology, and they sell their own success.  He’s very successful, he’s a very clever guy, he’s a very good writer, but I think he’s also selling a lie.  He’s selling the lie that it’s all up to you.  But it’s impossible!

“So what’s the Zeitgeist?  Well, people are being told that they must become entrepreneurial, and must build their brand, and it’s all up to them.” 

Hoffman:  Yes, he also started from a position of strength.  He didn’t just ‘build up his brand’!

Compton:  That’s right – he started from a very strong position.

Hoffman:  It’s like that old joke, how do you make $1 million in the stock market? Start with $1 billion!  It’s not necessarily an improvement even for him, much less anybody else!

Compton:  Yes, but he’s not alone in selling this, and it’s attached to what some people are calling the California ideology, this kind of libertarian mixture of California freedom and entrepreneurial ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’.

Hoffman:  And the messianic role of technology, that technology will somehow empower these individuals, who are going to turn around and become millionaires through their own brilliance and hard work.

Compton:  That’s precisely it, right.  It’s attached to this fetishized notion of technology as inherently liberating and democratizing. Well, it can be, it could be, there’s always the promise, right?  So you get Henry Blodget writing one much-circulated piece suggesting that we live in the golden age of journalism…  That’s such a bunch of bunk!

I would argue that it’s patently not.  I mean, can you say ‘weapons of mass destruction’ five times fast?  The biggest, most important stories of the last 10 years, the lies put forward by the Bush administration that were, without any questions, just holus-bolus adopted by much of the US media, and used to justify arguably an illegal war that is still costing many, many lives.  And also the financial collapse of 2008, where the business press were simply a bunch of cheerleaders for a deeply corrupt system. Journalism has failed miserably on arguably the two most important stories of our lifetime.

You can’t tell me that we’re living in a golden age of journalism, when thousands and thousands of people have been laid off, even just since 2000, and the trend was even worse before that.  You’ve got gutted newsrooms, and they’re turning to more celebrity, more spectacular kinds of coverage that’s easy to produce.

There are exceptions… A lot of people would say that Glenn Greenwald is the most important reporter going right now, and I might agree.  But then people say ‘ah, he’s a blogger, and this shows…’  I’ve seen people try to reproduce the California ideology touting him…

Hoffman:  No, he’s an employed journalist for a major news organization that has a very unique financial structure!  This is an exceptional newspaper, it’s owned by a foundation… it’s a very unusual thing!

Compton:  You’ve jumped in and you made my point…

Hoffman:  Right sorry, sorry…

Compton:  It’s okay.  But yes, it’s patent nonsense!  I mean, there are some instances of great reporting, there always are.  You can point to Greenwald, for sure.  A couple of years ago, the New York Times, which has a lot of blood on its hands for its role with the Iraq war, but credit where credit’s due, did some fine reporting about how Apple iPhones are made, and won a Pulitzer for it.  You have some examples, of course, but overall the quality is dropping.

It’s about reporting, and there’s an elision that’s made – I like to focus on the labor of reporting as the standard, not these things about ‘journalism’.  There’s this really pointless discussion that continues to go on, that I try my best to avoid, between professionals and amateurs.  It really goes nowhere, in my view.  You get into these things where people say old-school/new school.  ‘Oh, you’re just part of an old industrial model!  You need to get with the new times!’ – this kind of nonsense.

Reporting requires resources.  Reporting stories like the deep corruption that led to the financial meltdown requires a lot of time and effort, and to do that kind of reporting, news organizations must invest in it.  You can’t do that kind of thing if you’re precariously employed.  Sorry, it’s not possible.  It’s not a knock on an individual.  It’s just that the labor required to produce a particular kind of public good that we associate as a necessary precondition for a healthy liberal democracy is not being supported, and I’m seeing fewer and fewer resources.  The Guardian is one example of an organization that is investing, but they’re also at risk of running out of money.

Hoffman:  And I guess it’s not only a financial measure – an individual doesn’t have a team of lawyers on retainer to deal with the consequences of doing this hard-hitting investigative journalism, right?

Compton:  Well, that’s precisely it.  You need resources to back you up, multiple kinds of resources, legal and so on.   The new model, in which we extract value out of a precarious labour force, and then celebrate them as citizen journalism and free ranging entrepreneurs, while people like Arianna Huffington get rich, and others get paid pennies for writing short stories that are constructed based on algorithms that are linked to what product vendors will put ads beside – this is horrible!

This is where we’re at.  This is the reality behind the shiny patina of the California ideology.

We’ve conducted a survey of Canadian journalists, we wanted to get a sense of what people are experiencing and then link them back to this broader context in which people are being told that they’re brands.  Reporters at newspapers are being held responsible now for getting more ads sold.

“Every newsroom in the country looks at the Globe every morning to see what they’ve got, and what they’ve got is a very skewed view of what matters in Canada.”

Hoffman:  Yes, they’re being told directly how many views and how much revenue their story brought in, as if they’re in the advertising department!

Compton:  I was a reporter at the Canadian Press in the 1990s, and even five or seven years ago, these kinds of discussions would have been laughed out of the newsroom.  What’s really interesting is how normalized this has become.  There used to be a separation between money and the craft of reporting.  It was flawed, but now you don’t even have that.  Now it’s just considered that that’s all from the industrial era, now you need to get on with the new way of doing journalism.  Or committing acts of journalism, whatever the hell that means.

People are actually using this language, and this has developed, I would argue, because of the extreme stress that journalists labour under, and that their employers and their former employers are under. And it has completely changed how we discuss the craft.  Now it’s all about how you monetize, it’s this language, monetizing content, you read it all the time – is anyone talking about reporting anymore?  Build your brand!  What’s the impact of that kind of commodification itself on journalistic labor, and the kinds of stories that will be told as a result?  I think they’re enormous.

Hoffman:  I guess if you’re fundamentally changing the goals of the working journalists, and the measures that you’re using to judge their work, then of course you’re changing the output enormously, and you’re changing what being a journalist is.

Compton:  Yes.  The professional culture, the set of norms and standards that, flawed as they may be, used to be attached to a sense of public service, have been eroded in an environment where people are being compelled to merge with the logic of exchange value. News value, the public use of reporting, is being redefined as whatever can be monetized.  If it can’t be monetized, it’s of no use any more.

Well, there are fundamental repercussions here – you need that labour to have a democracy.  It strikes me as unacceptable to say ‘well, you know, they need to make money.’  If companies are not willing to make money while providing a certain level of reportage that is necessary for liberal democracy, then maybe we’d better find another way, because that’s the implication.  It means you can’t have a functioning liberal democracy.  I think it’s that serious.

Hoffman:  Yes, if our system assumes that there are people whose job it is to report on the government to the public, and report the needs of the public at some level to the government between elections, then if there aren’t people who can afford to do that properly, then that system isn’t necessarily going to function.

Compton:  Look at a relatively well-off paper like the Globe and Mail, which has laid off a lot of people recently. They recently admitted that they only care about readers who make a hundred thousand dollars or more.  They don’t care about anyone else!  That’s a very small slice of the Canadian public!

The Globe and Mail is simply not interested in serving the broader Canadian population.  They have a target audience that’s very narrow, and very well-heeled.  You could say ‘well, that’s their right, it’s their money, it’s a private company.’  Fine, but don’t tell me they’re serving a broader audience!  It used to be that papers would still make an attempt, flawed as it might have been, but not anymore.

The Globe is the paper of record.  Every newsroom in the country looks at the Globe every morning to see what they’ve got, and what they’ve got is a very skewed view of what matters in Canada.

Hoffman:  How is the Canadian crisis-in-journalism conversation different from the American one?  You’re talking about the Californification, the entrepreneurial dream, but in Canada, of course, we have big players, but perhaps fewer– how is it different here?

Compton:  Well, I think it’s the same logic, it’s just that we’re playing catch-up.  One of the truths that’s lost in the California ideology, and the sense that the Internet creates this enormous plurality of ideas and voices, is that the research shows it’s actually more concentrated in media terms than it has been before, and those levels of concentration reproduce themselves online.  There’s a really great book by Matthew Hindman called The Myth of Digital Democracy.  They actually went and looked at the numbers, and looked at the ‘power law’ of search engines, and the data is actually being reproduced year over year over year, if you look at the Pew Center stuff.

So while it’s true that you can go on the Internet and find anything you want, what do most people do?  Most people, it turns out, go to established news sources.  And TV, contrary to common-sense discourse, remains the number one news source for most people.  They may say, ‘I get my news online.’  Well, TV remains number one and local TV is really, really important.  Now, these are US data, so I’m making an assumption that there are similar trends playing out in Canadian context, but nobody’s actually been able to do that type of data in Canada.

And it’s also really clear, if you go on blogs, and online news organizations, that they’re repurposing stuff from the mainstream media organizations, which have cut staff drastically.  People say, ‘well, I get my news from Twitter.’  Well, no you don’t!  You may have read something on Twitter, but where does the reporting come from?

“Journalism has failed miserably on arguably the two most important stories of our lifetime.”

Hoffman:  Right, who are you following on Twitter, and were they getting their information?

Compton:  What Hindman points out is that the concentrations that we see in the so-called legacy media reproduce themselves, and in fact become even more concentrated online, and when you ask the question ‘what do people do?’, not what might they do, or what could they do – what do people actually do?  It’s an important question, it actually matters, and that’s the part that usually gets lost in the celebratory discourse.

Hoffman:  What’s your sense of what’s happening in the journalism research environment – are you encouraged by that you’re seeing, and what do you think needs more attention?

Compton:  There are good people – from the political economy perspective, Dwayne Winseck has a nice online resource that just came out again this week on media concentration.  He’s got raw numbers, which hasn’t done before in detail, so that’s a great, great service.  People have done good work all over the place.  People are worried about a lot of the things that I’ve been talking about.

As for journalism schools, they’re kind of turning inward, I think, in some respects.  They’re under a lot of pressure, because enrolments are down, and the budget models require bums in the seats, so they’re under a lot of pressure to change, and get their numbers up.

Hoffman:  How do you mean, turning inward?

Compton:  Well, there’s discussion now about starting up the kinds of entrepreneurial notions of teaching journalism that are happening in United States, and bringing them to Canada – I know some schools are talking about that.

In Circulation thanks James Compton for this interview