There's plenty of money in media – just not for you.
The industry is constantly downsizing. And yet...
Reading this edition of VFD will make you cool, hip, and on-trend!
In the tech world, engineers make a lot of money. It’s kind of the point. Yes, we’re at some apex of building and growing and money that doesn’t necessarily need to make sense, but it’s Boom Town to be an engineer, and it has been for decades.
The thing about this boom is that it goes both ways: companies like Amazon and Facebook and Google make billions of dollars and their engineers are paid well to make that happen. Sometimes they get equity and sometimes that equity is even worth it. But engineers are also bolstered and made comfortable by the fact that their skillset is in high demand (turns out a lot of companies want to make billions of dollars) and so the negotiating weight is in their favour a lot of time.
Don’t want to pay me what I want? Turning the cold brew taps off? Not letting me work remotely 300 days of the year? Well, I’ll find some place that will meet all those requirements. It probably won’t even be all that hard. Which is a nice place to be. And they’re allowed this comfortable place because they make the thing that makes the money (I’m aware I’m skipping some steps here).
Which is why, whenever I’m in a media environment, I have a constant Civil War Level vibe throttling through the shadows of my brain around the balance of power (and pay) between the two sides of most media businesses. In digital media, brands are regularly split between editorial and advertorial. We are told the split is necessary: editorial writers shouldn’t be beholden to what the advertisement team wants. That’s a good thing. And yet this same divide creates a lack of perspective, particularly for the editorial side, who usually have a hazy if not Complete Zero understanding of what, exactly, the other side of the wall does. Other than make money, that is.
Where engineers make the thing that make the money in the tech industry, so do writers and journalists and, I’ll say it, Content Creators in the media industry. But ask any writer working today – either hemisphere – whether they think the money they make is worth it and whether they think there’s another gig should they ever leave their employment and most would say “no” and the rest would say “maybe”.
There is a complete lack of understanding (and much of this is trained from university days) in the mediaworker’s skillset and where that skillset can be applied, and this lack of understanding leads to less aggression in the jobs market and a “happy to be here” attitude that many carry because they’re told they should be Thankful To Have A Job in These Times (for my entire career in media we have, apparently, been in “these times”). Redundancy is always around the corner (this bit is true) and there are plenty of people who want your job (also true), so you better shut-up, take your cheque at the end of the month, and make things work. This is media we’re talking about, buddy. Ain’t no money here. Don’t pay attention to the other side of the wall – the sales people, the partnerships people, the C-Suite business brains, and, yes, the tech people too. You should believe the media prophets when they tell you there just isn’t enough money to go around.
What they actually mean by this is that there isn’t enough money to go around to you. You are disposable because some other poor kid who has also been conditioned to work for the minimum will take your slot. That ain’t happening as much in the tech world. Those people know their worth. Even when it does, it’s still far more expensive. Never mind that you are creating the thing that makes all of this work. Without content, without journalism, without video, there ain’t nothing to sell.
A lot of the last decade has been about the eruption of influencers and the creator economy, which are both just terms to describe a phenomenon we’ll call “People figuring out their worth.” If you make the thing and you also sell the thing then a lot of that money goes straight to you. And a lot of people – particularly young people – are figuring out that isn’t all that much more work. Of course, this realisation has also hit a decent swathe of Agencies and former Public Relations workers who have become “talent agents” for young people with more than 1000 followers on Instagram. Now that is a grift to get in on.
Perhaps the most significant difference between younger millennials and Gen Z kids I have noticed is just how many Gen Z kids have agents now. I could write a whole other thing on that mess, so we’ll save that for later. But yes, even in the creator economy, there are people trying to get a chunk of the creator’s worth.
Back to the point. Civil War and all that.
Eventually, on a corporate scale, mediaworkers are going to work things out. There will be a lot of ugly moments. They will ask: where is my commission? Where is my cut of the pie? When do I get to go to lunch? The same people with the same skillsets that allow a select few to become influencers will realise: hey, we’re turning the wheel here. And when that day comes it will be a mess.
I want to be clear: this isn’t just the editorial vs. advertorial divide. Media has money in all sorts of holes. We’re talking about an industry that has existed for 100+ years, has rode out recession after recession, and yet somehow every five years needs to downsize. Ya-huh.
There is a lot of money in media – just not for you.
So why are we even in this mess?
The best thing that ever happened to me, professionally, was the two years I spent working outside of the industry. Not because of the new skills or the new friends or the money (though all of those things were nice), but because it made me realise that my media-trained skills were incredibly valuable and incredibly applicable in other jobs and with other companies.
I am sure I am not the only person to experience this, but my sole advice for any kid kicking rocks in media right now wondering why or what’s next is to realise their skills apply elsewhere. When you realise that, whatever power imbalance existed between you and the Media Brand you work for evaporates. You can leave and you will be fine.
You will realise that writing is actually very hard and a lot of people can’t do it. You will realise that however terrible you think media literacy is within the industry it’s far worse outside of it. More than a few journalists I work with have joked they should start a career where they just sit in on meetings with business and advertising execs to just say “no, terrible idea” again and again. Wait until you see what some of these companies pay people to write press releases; to send emails; to write very basic copy for their websites. You can do all of those things, too. Sure – it’s not as satisfying as seeing your name in big lights on NewYorker.com, but this is digital media we’re talking about. The byline is dead.
This is the next step of the creator economy: Not a massive wave of small creators or YouTubers, but a radical shift in the way creator talent is valued within media industries. There is probably a second stage in the middle there focused on building out niche and smaller media brands, and that’s fun and cool and fine, but most of those will fail and the ones that succeed will, in all likelihood, just get bought by The New York Times.
The boom of the influencer is dwindling because the game has been played too many times. There will always be new faces and new teenage names throttled to the top of whatever social platform has decided to put the levers in growth mode, but the chances of that being you is Not High, friendo. I’m sorry to break the news. Sure, everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes – but fame ain’t what it used to be.
Do I see any of this happening now or even soon? Probably not. People like to be comfortable – even when they’re uncomfortable. But eventually, maybe, it’ll happen. The ride will be fun.