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Bottom-up revolt: How media’s ‘super-empowered individuals’ will drive change

Back in 2002, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an otherwise forgettable book about the impact of globalization called “Longitudes & Latitudes.” Friedman gets a lot of deserved grief for his columns based off of a conversation with a Cairo taxi driver, but he was early onto the impact to society of the effects of hyper-connected world, bound through technology and where borders were all but disappearing. The backlash would come, he warned.

Friedman wrote about “super-empowered individuals,” people who use the tools of technology and networks in order to have outsized impact on the world, for good and bad.

“Some of these super-empowered individuals are quite angry, some of them quite wonderful – but all of them are now able to act much more directly and much more powerfully on the world stage,” Friedman wrote.

The rise of super-empowered individuals is more pronounced in younger generations, from Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg. Such super-empowered individuals, in the midst of no less than three intertwined crises — health (coronavirus), economic (worst downturn in generations) and social (systemic injustice) — are rising within media organizations. And they will likely change them for good — and for the better.

What I’ve seen in the past three months is groups of people fleeing to opposite poles. There are the V-shaped recovery types who see coronavirus fading, positive signs on the economy and the understanding that for all the unrest, we tend to muddle through unchanged. And there are those who see this time as a defining moment of pain, unnecessary death and dislocation that cannot go for waste in going back to how things were. These people, often but not always young, are not impatient, they’re mad. They don’t believe in leadership to fix these issues that have gone ignored for some time. And yes, they bring their “full selves” to work.

This is happening across media companies right now — and it is overdue. Staff revolts are spreading. The New York Times’ rank and file rose up to force the resignation of James Bennet for publishing an opinion piece from Sen. Tom Cotton calling for a militarized response to protests and disorder. At Conde Nast, Bon Appetit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rappaport quit after a photo of him in brownface at a costume party circulated Twitter and staffers detailed systematic inequality in how people of color and white talent are compensated. What was remarkable is Rappaport didn’t last a day. Refinery29 editor Christine Barberich resigned after former employees came forward with examples of racial discrimination. Super-empowered individuals are even taking on the copy desk. At the Los Angeles Times, staff led the pressure to change house style from lowercasing black to uppercase to recognize Black as a distinct ethnic group with shared experiences and identity.

These staff revolts are likely to continue. Younger employees are simply not going to wait patiently for change. They’re going to force change on  management they often feel are out of touch. Look at the NFL. For years, management refused to listen to players and embrace their peaceful protests of police brutality. Finally, in the wake of the Floyd protest, Bryndon Minter, a video producer, took it upon himself to organize a powerful video from players demanding change. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell largely acceded to those demands with his own video plainly stating “black lives matter.” (Goodell did fail to apologize to Colin Kaepernick, or explicitly endorse the right to kneel during the national anthem.)

The role of unions in digital media is a hot-button topic. Most executives I speak to are horrified by the notion, rolling their eyes at the idea of yet another layer slowing down needed business changes. But the unionization that’s swept through digital media is a symptom. The root cause of this organization is a lack of trust from rank and file that leadership will make the right choices. For a while, I thought this influx of the super-empowered individuals would fade once the unemployment rate ticked up. I was being cynical. I saw a tight labor market giving more leverage to the employee side of the equation. Well, the unemployment rate is over 15% now, with layoffs sweeping media organizations left and right, but the bottom-up demands for change have not gone away. In fact, they’ve grown louder.

Overall, I see this as a positive, if messy, change. The truth is, in the midst of George Floyd’s killing spotlighting systemic inequality, media has come up distressingly short in putting actions to their words around equality and opportunity. This week, I did a podcast with Lindsay People’s Wagner, a 29-year-old Black woman who is the editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue. She grew up in Wisconsin, attended a small school in Indiana and worked her way up from an internship while juggling jobs on the side, including one dressing mannequins at DKNY. She readily admits her path is not for everyone — or should be.

The bottom-up revolt happening now is going to hold media organizations accountable for backing up their Instagram images and declarations of support with real action in remaking their own houses. Change starts from within. And executives would be wise to listen to — and act on — the super-empowered individuals in their organizations. Many may want things to snap back to “normal,” but the rank-and-file aren’t going to let that happen.

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