Creative destruction in the media industries: Adam Carr on the fall and rise of New York media

The New York Times‘ media writer, Adam Carr, has a great column in the Times about the “fall and rise” of Manhattan’s once-great media empires, like Conde Nast and the Times itself.

Beginning with a parable of the golden olden days of media work, he points out that the new landscape emerging is flatter, more diverse, riskier and more opportunistic:

Historically, young women and men who sought to thrive in publishing made their way to Manhattan. Once there, they were told, they would work in marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks and then one day, if they did all of that without whimper or complaint, they would magically be granted access to a gilded community, the large heaving engine of books, magazines and newspapers.

Beyond that, all it took to find a place to stand on a very crowded island, as E. B. White suggested, was a willingness to be lucky. Once inside that velvet rope, they would find the escalator that would take them through the various tiers of the business and eventually, they would be the ones deciding who would be allowed to come in.

As we all know, those times are over. Continue reading


Melissa Gregg on the travails of junior academics

Melissa Gregg, one of the better young researchers in the country, has done a lot of good work researching the precarious working lives of tech-savvy professionals.

Now she’s written a fine piece in New Matilda about the dire  state of the Australian higher education sector for junior academics:

s the system currently stands, junior scholars are asked to prove their worth to universities in ways that those hiring them never had to. The heads of search committees today didn’t even need a PhD to start their career, yet devise intricate formulae for assessing the accomplishments of those seeking to follow their example.

A book, multiple journal articles and a history of grant funding is now usually necessaryon top of a completed dissertation to make a shortlist after graduating. How it is possible to achieve any of these things, when handing in a thesis also means handing in any claim for library access, desk space or institutional support? The industry has divested the responsibility of training their smartest students to a level where they can gain access to sustainable long-term employment.

And of course, for those who do make it in the door, life isn’t exactly a picnic.

A recent survey of academics at one Sydney university showed a 100 per cent response rate when asked if they worked on weekends. My own research in the past few years has shown how tenured life involves a never-ending series of online administrative tasks that consume work and home life. All too rarely are these duties punctuated with face-to-face contact with colleagues and students — often the principal motivation for scholars to aspire to the job in the first place.

The situation Gregg describes is structural, owing to the sustained reduction in public funding per student since John Howard’s government took office in 1996.

But all is not lost. Other aspects of the higher education sector in Australia mean the long-term future for academics such as Gregg are relatively rosy. The Australian higher education workforce is ageing rapidly, and many senior staff will retire in the next 5-10 years. At that point, universities will have no choice but to embark on sustained hiring campaigns, simply in order to replace their current staff.

And let’s not forget that the lifetime income benefits accruing to those who gain higher degrees are very substantial. A robust literature has demonstrated that people who graduate with bachelors degrees earn significantly higher incomes across their lives than those who only complete high school.

Telecommunications: Australia’s unhappiest industry


Australian mobile phone complaints nearly doubled in the 2008-09 year

On Friday I attended the Communications Policy Research Forum at the University of Technology Sydney.

Speaking at the Forum, amongst many others, were  my old supervisor, Associate Professor Elaine Lally and my colleague at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Cultrual Research, Professor David  Rowe. Lally and Rowe were presenting the results of a research project about customer complaints for the Communications Alliance, the peak body for the telco industry in Australia.

The results were sobering. There were an astonishing 230,000 complaints to the national complaints body, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, in 2008-09, a rise of 54% over 2007-08 figures, according to TIO data. Horror stories like this one published by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan are common. So bad is the situation that a large proportion of complaints are actually about Telco complaints handling proceedures themselves. Complaints by mobile phone customers were up a staggering 78%.

Lally and Rowe’s talk detailed why. Training hours for call centre workers in the telecommunications industry are much l;ower than for industries like banking. In fact, an amazing 72% of telecommunications call centre workers leave the industry after less than a year. There’s also no prizes for guessing why there are so many complaints: maddeningly complex phone plans and byzantine corporate billing and service structures make it almost as hard for employees to understand customer issues as the customers themselves. The way phone and internet services are bundled and solved is structurally complex, to the point of being almost impenetrable.

More fundamentally, the practice of making customers wait in long phone queues for information about their service or to make a complaint is inherently frustrating. In many cases, customers are being asked to spend significant amounts of time and do significant amounts of unpaid “work” merely in order to resolve a complaint for a service they’ve already paid for. It’s not surprising customers and call centre workers often end up adversarial, angry – even traumatised.

The result is Australia’s unhappiest industry – as the TIO data shows. No wonder the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is threatening to step in and introduce greater regulations for the sector. Consumers will be wondering why anyone expected anything else.

Where have all the artists gone?

Cultural employment in Australia, by occupation, 2001-2006. (Source: ABS 6273.0 Employment in Culture, Hans Hoegh-Guldberg). You can click on the image to get a bigger jpg.

Yesterday we looked at a detailed breakdown of cultural funding in Australia.

Today, I’m reprinting part of a recent Art Monthly Australia article by Peter Anderson about the surprising (alarming?) decline in artistic employment shown by the latest census figures. Anderson went through and crunched some of the ABS data on cultural employment. He also refers to Music Council of Australia research by the cultural economist Hans Hoegh-Guldberg. As Anderson writes in his Art Monthly Australia piece, in many sectors the figures are not pretty:

While the ABS Employment in Culture report only provides raw numbers for each arts occupation, Hoegh-Guldberg’s analysis converts the numbers into percentages, which clearly show the substantial nature of the issue. He notes that between 2001 and 2006 there was a 12.5% decline in music professionals, a 20% decline in actors, dancers and related professionals, an almost 6% decline in authors, and an 18% decline in visual arts and crafts professionals. Within the more tightly defined occupations in the visual arts and crafts, the declines are a little uneven, with painters falling by 13%, sculptors by 9% and potters and ceramic artists by a very significant 55%. There were also declines in the more general visual arts and craft occupations categories, such as Visual Arts and Craft Professional nec (not elsewhere classified). In fact, this latter category – which includes new media artist, ephemeral artist, multimedia artist and textile artist – fell to below the numbers of a decade earlier, after peaking in 2001. Potters and ceramic artists, on the other hand, have been in decline for a decade, falling from 2,155 in 1996 to just 652 in 2006 – a whopping 70% reduction. Continue reading

Kate Oakley reviews the literature on creative work

I’m spending this afternoon reading Kate Oakley‘s new review monograph, “Art Works” – cultural labour markets: a literature review.

It’s a major new addition to the field and I expect will prove an important teaching tool for many lecturers. Oakley surveys the last half-century of research in cultural labour markets, as well as the nature of creative work itself. You could say she examines art as a job, hobby, vocation  and calling, as well as from the sociological and cultural economic perspectives.

She then moves on to discuss the idea that work in the cultural sector is a template for all kinds of work in the future, the geography and organisation of cultural work, outlines the literature on creative work as  ‘precarious labour’ and looks at the implications of these studies for cultural policy and education.

Oakley is a significant figure in the field and so this review will end up defining the way much of the field is envisaged. It’s a thorough and highly readable account that I sincerely hope finds it way to policy-makers in Australia. It should enable them to better understand some of the implications of the nostrums and platitudes that so often litter government arts policies in this country.

One policy point that immediately comes to mind is the evidence this study furnishes for the value of emerging and fringe arts festivals and other infrastructure that supports early-career opportunities for artists. Oakley points out the literature repeatedly underlines the difficulty faced by artists transitioning from education and training to creative work:

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’ during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii). Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey 1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and negotiate (often multiple) work contracts.

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art
college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’
during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii).
Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a
finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey
1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time
post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and
negotiate (often multiple) work contrac

Andrew Ross’ No-Collar

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Andrew Ross’ No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs , his early 2000’s book exploring the working lives of the employees of New York web consultancy Razorfish.

As usual with Ross’ work, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Ross has an effortless prose style that is simultaneously nuanced and succint, placing him somewhere between intelligent long-form journalism and engaged ethnography, though of course that term itself is a loaded one in the academic context of the sociology of work.

The book is some years old now and I don’t propose to thoroughly review it, but a couple of features are salient.

First is Ross’ ambivalence and curiosity about the nature of what a “good job” might constitute. Given the very different working conditions of most white- and blue-collar workers (again, taking these general and somewhat outdated terms very advisably),  he is understandably fascinated at the promise of what a really enjoyable work culture might provide. Continue reading