Mark Deuze on Media Work

On: May 17, 2008
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here

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Mark Deuze, professor of Journalism and New Media at Leiden University and assistant professor at Indiana University, was the latest speaker in the ongoing New Media Research Lecture Series here at the University of Amsterdam, and spent the afternoon discussing his latest book, Media Work. The book is an exploration of the changing nature of media work – from journalism to entertainment production – in an age of convergence, and Deuze used this talk to introduce some of its main themes.

Convergence culture, a term coined by Henry Jenkins, refers to the changing media landscape, where ‘old’ and ‘new’ interact in complex ways and consumers increasingly become content producers. The media industry is changing shape, with large companies focusing on distribution and much smaller companies (or consumers) providing content. Many of these smaller companies employ just a handful of people.

For Deuze, the question is how all of this affects the nature of media work. Researching the book, he and his students interviewed around 700 media professionals to understand what it is like to create content today. Here, he focused on two aspects – first on new strategies for producing content, and second, on the effects on the individual media professional.

Media Strategies and Convergence

Drawing on Jenkins’ work as well as his own research, Deuze discussed three strategies that reflect major changes in media production.

The first is cross media, epitomized by the Star Wars franchise. Here, the point is to create multiple contact points for a single story. In addition to the films, Star Wars fans can get the toys, video games, books, TV spinoffs, special edition Trivial Pursuit games, and even make their own films, as long as these reproduce (rather than alter) the larger Star Wars narrative.

The second is transmedia. Here, the point is less to have fans returning for more of the same, but to have the narrative spread out among multiple media. The Animatrix, for example, was not a way of franchising the same narrative, but a crucial part of the larger storyline. In contrast to Star Wars strategy, Matrix fan turn to the comic books and games to pick up more pieces of the larger puzzle. For transmedia, the question is not how to fit the story into a new medium, but how each medium can push the story in new directions. Another example would be alternate reality games.

Third is participatory media, where stories are told by consumers, not professionals. On the one hand, this points to new platforms like blogs and online social networks, as well as YouTube. But the ‘old’ industry is hardly ignoring the potential of having consumers switch roles, and Deuze gives the examples of Pepsi offering fans the chance to write a script for its Superbowl commercial, as well as the strangely attractive Subservient Chicken ad campaign. Additionally, a mix of amateur and professional production can be found in the regional newspaper Bluffton Today, where journalists and unpaid bloggers compete to have their stories appear in the print edition.

Passionate Production

In his previous research on Journalism and the Games industry, Deuze has encountered a great deal of anxiety among media producers faced with the new situation. The same questions were on the minds of professionals he interviewed for Media Work: What effect is the Internet having on my job? Will i become obsolete? Will I be able to keep telling the stories I want to tell?

Media professionals are finding it harder to get a steady job. The number of media industry jobs is falling rapidly, but the number of people working in media is up. The explanation? More and more work is project-based and carried out by freelancers. The screenplay writer’s model – for me, one embodied by Syd Field’s how-to book – where authors first do all the work and then go looking for a buyer, seems to be taking hold across media work. Outsourcing, normally associated with industrial production, is also an issue for creative work, with jobs being sent away from the U.S. and Europe to China, Brazil and other countries where costs are lower.

But Deuze says the problem is larger than financial worries, and what many of those interviewed expressed was concern about how to survive creatively. First, there’s what I would call the jPod problem. What Deuze describes as the frustration media workers feel after being promised a revolution and given a content management system, reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s novel, where fresh, 20-something game designers are reduced to a daily grind, one hardly alleviated by their inane office pranks. Second, media professionals must come to terms with the fact that unpaid amateurs are encroaching on their field of expertise. The average Journalism or New Media student is out to tell her own story, rather than to become a media-enabler, and this will lead to disappointment when they enter an industry quickly realizing the financial benefits of various ‘crowdsourcing’ models. These problems persist, and a large majority of the ‘older’ media workers (35+) that Deuze interviewed said they were looking for a way out of the industry. Many of those who do drop out look for a slower pace in smaller towns, or return to academia.

How can companies counter these trends? Deuze says the key is enabling a kind of ‘passionate production’. This is certainly possible, if one looks at the open source model or the thousands of ‘amateur’ media producers doing excellent work on the Web for free. And such passion is not lacking in the next generation of media professionals, but the challenge for companies is to create an environment that sustains it.

Q&A

After the lecture, Deuze answered questions about the attention economy, as well as on his choice of cover for the book. The latter brought up a nice anecdote about Deuze’s experience of the divide between American Optimism and European Cynicism – caught between a rock and a hard place, he says he gets criticized in the U.S. for being pessimistic, while here the same lectures are considered not critical enough. This seems appropriate enough for a professor working on both sides of the ocean.

But the burning question, for me, had to wait until later: You were on stage with Barack Obama!?

(Thanks to Paulien and Tjerk for their help with this post!)

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