On MTV's policies, legacy, and the future of media as a whole.
In case you missed it – either because you live under a rock or you don’t follow media twitter – last month MTV laid off the majority of their News staff, specifically the writers, in order to prioritize video content. This “pivot to video”, as it is so commonly called, isn’t uncommon in the world of media right now. Countless other companies such as FOX Sports and Vocativ have done the same thing, firing incredibly talented writers and social media managers, among others.
While it is so unfortunate that so many people lost their jobs due to this shift, my problem lies primarily in the reasoning behind the shift to video. According to Variety, who released the exclusive on this change at MTV, “MTV News is being restructured with an eye toward creating more video and short-form content for a younger audience”, generally meaning people in their teen years and up to their mid-twenties.
At MTV, I was considered a contributor, which meant that I submitted content and released the full rights to reproduce said content in any capacity to MTV. This monthly content-submission was in conjunction with the MTV Founders platform, which lived under MTV News and was run by Taylor Trudon and Julie Zeilinger for the time that I was a contributor. MTV Founders was originally called MTV Voices but was changed to embrace the “Founders Generation” – the teens to twenty-somethings that MTV is trying to capture as their target demographic at this very moment. Founders was created to give us a voice; to show us that our voice was strong and valid and that our narratives and opinions deserved to be heard. I felt connected to MTV because rarely are platforms willing to wholeheartedly support younger peoples’ work and amplify their voices. I wasn’t the only person who felt this way – countless of my fellow contributors have spoken in support of the program, saying that they felt their stories and opinions were well-respected within the Founders community, especially by our editors.
The actual content-submission agreement that all contributors are held to posed more drastic problems for us as young people than we realized until the end of our time with MTV. I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with the terms of this agreement – a feeling exacerbated by the fact that we weren’t told about it as contributors, even though it ap2plied directly to our content. Founder contributor Kyler Sumter was particularly concerned about this agreement, as she recognized that there were countless ways “our pieces were used on the MTV Founders account, the MTV News account, on Facebook, on Twitter, and were redesigned and edited for Snapchat stories and yet we weren’t entitled to any compensation… Thinking about all the ways our words garnered MTV more popularity, traffic and views across several different social media platforms caused me to feel like we should’ve received something.”
In retrospect, with compensation now at the forefront of my mind, the promotion of this platform most likely had something, at least a little bit, to do with the fact that MTV couldn’t (and didn’t want to) pay staff writers or freelancers for the same content that they knew we would produce for free. The extortion of young creatives for free work is a serious problem within all creative industries; I do not intend to target MTV Founders with this statement. Many companies do this as well. It is a fact about the current state of contributors in the media.
Former MTV Campus Ambassador Kamrin Baker agrees, declaring “I think the MTV brand was very exploitive of us as young people who were not contractually given certain rights. Because we weren't getting paid (except for "exposure"), it almost seemed justified for them to be like "write about this personal experience," because it felt like it could leverage your career.” One of the problems that a few writers found – specifically Campus Ambassadors, who produced more content – was that we were seen as one-trick ponies. Each of us had a unique story or perspective that we were put in a box for, and that’s what we were expected to write about month after month. Many people, including Baker, saw this as exploiting our experiences as young people to garner more clicks.
Despite these issues, Founders was still crucially important to me and the countless young men and women I now consider my close friends. We were published on a respected platform, and many of us used that as a launching pad to bigger and better (and paid!) opportunities. Although it wasn’t intended in the creation of Founders, a strong network of young creators was formed, and now we all support each other through struggles and triumphs in both our personal and professional lives. In my opinion, this is incomparably the best thing that came out of Founders.
Since MTV had this network of young people – those they have acknowledged are their target audience moving forward – why did they not utilize it to see what we really want? Why did no one reach out to us and say, “Hey, what content do you guys want to see coming out of MTV? How do you feel about video? How do you feel about written articles, both short and long-form pieces?” If they didn’t attempt to access the segment of their audience that was easiest to contact, did they really even try to talk to young people at all?
My fear is that some middle-aged adult in a boardroom told a bunch of other middle-aged adults that according to studies X, Y, and Z, this is what teens want. The adults said, okay, let’s do that if it’s really what they want. The problem is that studies X, Y, and Z can never fully express the sentiments of the entire population, as well as real young people, could. Simple questions like “How many hours a day do you spend watching video content online?” and “How many hours a day do you spend reading written content online?” could never and will never be capable of expressing all our opinions on the subject of written versus video content in the online space.
If that middle-aged adult had walked into that boardroom with me at his side and the other adults asked me what they should do, I would’ve told them that MTV can’t put all other their eggs in one basket. I don’t care how few eggs they’re able to buy with an apparently dwindling budget, they still can’t throw the last few into one basket and just hope for the best. I would tell them that studies X, Y, and Z aren’t always the most accurate representations of behavior and desires in a market because what young people do in practice is not necessarily reflective of our preferences or desires. I would’ve explained how during the school year especially, I end up reading written content rather than watching any video content, because of the sheer time difference between watching a four-minute video and skimming an article for thirty seconds, both of which give me the same amount of information. I would tell those board members that I enjoy reading significantly more. I would say that during the weekends and during the summer and whenever I have some free time, I would peruse MTV and Medium and Femsplain and Tumblr blogs and the fbomband countless other sites to read personal narratives and opinion pieces. I read long-form, written content to learn. I will watch creative content when I have free time, as a way to unwind and relax; I rarely watch the news. And above all else, I want to read the work of my peers and role models, which is why I gravitate towards contributor platforms rather than the Op-Ed pieces from the David Brooks’ of the world. I would’ve told those board members that these opinions are mine and mine alone, but that I believe the sentiments expressed – the desire for personal stories, the desire for connection to our generation, and the desire to both read AND watch (because no one really wants only one or the other) – are common between myself and my peers. And then, as a young person tends to do, I would whip out my phone – you know, that thing studies X, Y and Z say I’m addicted to – and I would show them the opinions of the other MTV contributors I’ve befriended over the years.
Contributor Taylor Vidmar adds to the argument for written content, stating that “Logistically, getting all my news from videos is not possible. I'm not always in places where I can watch videos, sometimes videos don't even load on my phone, and a lot of times, I just don't want to watch anything. More importantly, they often don't give enough information… With written pieces, I get so much more (and that's what I want).”
Samaria Johnson, a former MTV Founders Contributor, would remind them that she “loves video, and it’s the future, but let’s not act like no one’s ever going to read a sentence again.” In fact, she goes on to point out an incredibly important concept – that despite how much content young people are producing, our content is quite often ignored and ridiculed by adults who then turn around and tell us what we want out of the content served to us. Johnson uses fan fiction as a prominent example since it “isn’t viewed as a legitimate form of writing because its creators are typically young and female”.
The issue here is the belief held by most adults that young people must be strictly binary in behavior and opinion and that we can constantly be lumped together as a group. Based on all the studies on our generation, we are either addicted to our phones or we want more separation from them. We can either be selfish or entirely selfless. We can either want serious relationships or be emotionally detached from the people we hook up with. We can either want to be sustainable and green or to be damaging to the environment. We can either want to party all the time or to be alone with Netflix 24/7. We can either want video content or want written content.
But what if we want both? What if we can be both, do both? What if we don’t fit into one box or the other?
We’ve grown up in a world where we work for what we want and that means that we – brace yourself here – actually have opinions on things. Next time, ask us what theyare before you fire people who represent our generation in the name of our preferences. Thanks.
And to that guy on Twitter who said no one reads articles over 1,000 words – bite me.