Games journalism is a broken business

There’s been a huge, intricate, messy, interesting conversation on Twitter over the last few days among games writers. It’s been sparked in part* by Maddy Myers’ superb excoriation of the games journalism industry, and the place that freelancers and those peripheral to the few big outlets now occupy, especially minority writers.

I have no idea how anybody else survives in games journalism. Well, actually, I do know now. It’s that other people just get day jobs. They do what I’ve done. If they’re lucky enough to find one that they can do in addition to journalism without wanting to die all the time. Maybe they just give up and get a full-time job that has nothing to do with journalism at all.

It’s a great piece. Go read it. And then go read Jenn Frank, talking about why she writes:

I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.

These are brilliant women, writing about how writing has become impossible for them because it does not sustain them as a career. The conversations on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere are all about the money: there’s not enough to go around. Publishers don’t pay enough for writers to actually do the work, especially for freelancers; staff jobs tend to go to the people who can produce a lot of words for very little cash consistently, and those people don’t tend to be established games critics. They certainly don’t tend to be minority critics whose public work intersects with social justice issues.

Most of these people don’t believe, on any level, that they’re owed work. But they do believe – with justification - that they’re owed a fair price for the value of their work, which is specialised and difficult and time-consuming. They don’t need to pitch more, they need to be paid properly for the pitches they land. They don’t need bootstraps, they need a fair system.

There isn’t enough money. But that construction elides the fact that publishers aren’t making enough money, which elides the fact that journalism’s business model on the internet is completely broken and games outlets are struggling just as hard as everyone else when it comes to actually making money from the online economy.

It’s hard, as a business, to admit that your commercial team isn’t operating well with the realities of the internet. But for many journalism businesses it’s the truth: newspapers and magazines alike are struggling, and specialist and enthusiast subject publishing as much as generalist. It’s not just that print revenues are falling, for those businesses with a print arm; it’s also that the link between increased online readership and increased revenue is incredibly tenuous if you’re relying on traditional banner ads, particularly if they’re all served through Google.

It’s possible to make money online, even in the middle of all this disruption. But the sad fact is that most games publishers are not very good at it, and they pass on their commercial failures to their writers, because that’s the part of the business that can be squeezed the most without squealing.

There isn’t a simple solution, because it’s a systemic problem, and because if there was a simple solution then the problem would already be solved. The low pay and precarious situations of games freelancers mirrors freelance journalists in most consumer-driven niches, all trying to tackle the biggest upheaval in publishing since publishing became a thing. No one in publishing has the answers, here. Games journalism doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate the problem: the race to the bottom for writers is driven by lack of revenue and lack of innovative commercial approaches, at least as much as it’s driven by writers willing to write for free.

One truth remains: if you can’t afford to pay writers what they’re worth, then you’re not making enough money; that problem lies with you, not with the writers.

* Edit: @RowanKaiser points out on Twitter that @KrisLigman’s tweets and his own blog post announcing his Patreon came ahead of @samusclone’s piece, saying “I think what happened was that several simmering pots boiled over concurrently”.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

The New York Times package mapper

From Nieman Lab, an interesting look at how the NYT maps traffic between stories, and analyses why and how things are providing onward traffic or causing people to click away from the site.

000000;">One example has been in our coverage of big news events, which we tend to blanket with all of the tools at our disposal: articles (both newsy and analytical) as well as a flurry of liveblogs, slideshows, interactive features, and video. But we can’t assume that readers will actually consume everything we produce. In fact, when we looked at how many readers actually visited more than a single page of related content during breaking news the numbers were much lower than we’d anticipated. Most visitors read only one thing.

This tool’s been used to make some decisions and change stories, individually, to improve performance in real time. That’s the acid test of tools like this – do they actually get used?

But the team that uses it is the data team, not the editorial team – yet. Getting editors to use it regularly is, it seems, about changing these data-heavy visualisations into something editors are already used to seeing as part of their workflow:

we’re thinking about better ways to automatically communicate these insights and recommendations in contexts that editors are already familiar with, such as email alerts, instant messenger chat bots, or perhaps something built directly into our CMS.

It’s not just about finding the data. It’s also about finding ways to use it and getting it to the people best placed to do so in forms that they actually find useful.

Happy birthday, Guardian Australia

Tea, cake and champagne for the Guardian Australia launch.

About this time last year, I think someone had broken out the champagne. Not that that meant we stopped working, of course – it just joined the cups of tea and chocolate echidnas (echidnae?) that Penny bought to celebrate launch. We started very, very early and finished very, very late, and it was worth every minute.

Today is a year since Guardian Australia launched, and it has been an incredible year professionally (as well as all that boring personal stuff about finding a new home 10,000 miles away from home). My instinct when it comes to explaining why is to go to the stats – to turn to what we know about our new audiences, the people who found us on launch day and the people who’ve discovered us since. We can bring out commercial and editorial numbers that prove the impact we’ve had and the appetite for our work in Australia, which has completely eclipsed what I thought it might a year ago today. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story – they don’t cover the stories we’ve broken, the speed at which the office has grown, or the way our audience has formed a community around our journalism.

With tons of help from colleagues, I compiled a huge awards list for the anniversary, and it acts as a look back at some of the highs and lows of the year. It’s long, but there are probably at least twice as many things I could have included, if I had enough time to put it together (and thought people would still be interested at the end of it). As it is, it stands as a little marker of what we’ve managed to do in the last year – and my favourite part is, by far, the comment thread underneath. There’s our biggest achievement - that after a year, we have readers who’ll reply to our birthday celebrations to say: “Thank you for being here. Please stay.”

“Content” is contentious

Via Adam Tinworth (who seems to agree that I should be shorter), a note on content:

2b2b2b;">Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.

Generally, people don’t react well to the word content, especially people who are doing the work that makes that “content” valuable. Editors, journalists, reporters, writers, video producers and interactive developers don’t want to hear their work levelled in the way that “content” somehow manages to do. No one asks if it’s good content; they care if it’s a good story, a good video, good journalism. Content puts people’s backs up, because it devalues their creative efforts and reduces an article, a photo, a piece of hard work, to merely the fact of its existence. It’s about as insulting as calling it “URLs”.

Every day, at work, I write emails that require a collective term for text articles, image galleries, videos, interactives and perhaps a few other things too. I call them journalism, or pieces, or work, or news, or in extreme cases when I’ve exhausted every other synonym I list them as articles, images, videos and interactives. Every day, I deliberately avoid using the word “content”, because, as Greg Satell points out, it’s crap.

Being brief

Interesting from Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab on giving reporters the implicit permission to write briefly.

000000;">So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.

It’s something I’d like to do more of here – sharing interesting links with a paragraph or two’s analysis. Not everything needs to be short enough to be a tweet or long enough to be a full article. Aside from the issues about it taking all the useful “byproducts” of reporting, as Benton argues, Twitter is a terrible medium for archiving, and not a great one for conversation; if either of those things are important in how you share little things, there are far better options for doing so. Tumblr, for instance.

Conceptualising CMS shortcomings as a “lack of permission” is particularly interesting – reminds me of poetics conversations around line length and form being limited by the size of the notebook or the eventual printed page. Form and content are still married. You can see that too in how hard it is for many news organisations to put up a story that consists only of a single fact. How do you break a single-sentence story in a traditional CMS where headline, intro and article must all say something?

The homepage, and other undead creatures

One of the interesting sidelines to come out of the remarkably interesting leaked NYT innovation report in the last few days has been the fact that traffic to the NYT homepage has halved in two years. It’s an intriguing statistic, and more than one media outlet has taken it and run with it to create a beguiling narrative about how the homepage is dead, or at the very least dying, why, and what this means for news organisations.

But what’s true for the NYT is certainly not true for the whole of the rest of the industry. Other pages – articles and tag pages – are certainly becoming more important for news organisations, but that doesn’t mean the homepage no longer matters – or that losing traffic to it is a normal and accepted shift in this new digital age. Losing traffic proportionately makes sense, but real-terms traffic loss looks rather unusual.

Audience stats like this are usually closely guarded secrets, because of their commercial sensitivity, but it’s fair to suggest that homepage traffic (at least, to traditionally organised news homepages) is a reasonable indicator of brand loyalty, of interest in what that organisation has to say, and of trust that organisation can provide an interesting take on the day. Bookmarking the homepage or setting it as a start point for an internet journey is an even bigger mark of faith, a suggestion that one site will tell you what’s most important at any given moment when you log in – but it’s very hard even for sites themselves to measure bookmark stats, never mind to get some sort of broad competitor data that would shed light on whether that behaviour is declining.

It’s plausible, therefore, that brand search would be a rough indicator of brand loyalty and therefore of homepage interest; the New York Times is declining there, while the Daily Mail, for example, has been rocketing to new highs recently. I would be incredibly surprised if the Mail shares this pessimism about the health of the homepage, based on its own numbers. (That’s harder to measure for The Atlantic, whose marine namesake muddies the search comparison somewhat.)

The death of the homepage, much like the practice of SEO and pageviews as a metric, has been greatly exaggerated. What’s happening here, as Martin Belam points out, is more complicated than that. As the internet is ageing, the older, standard ways of doing business and distributing content are changing, and are being joined by newer models and methods. Joined, not supplanted, unless of course you’ve created your new shiny thing purely to focus on the new stuff rather than the old stuff, the way Buzzfeed focuses on social and Quartz doesn’t have any real homepage at all.

You need to be thinking about SEO and social, pageviews and engagement metrics, the homepage and the article page. Older techniques don’t die just because we’ve all spotted something newer and sexier, unless the older thing stopped serving a genuine need; the resurgence of email is proof enough of that. Diversify your approach. Beware of zombies.

Facebook: news as signal, everything else as noise?

Facebook is taking reach away from brand pages. That much seems pretty obvious from the growing anger of people who’ve spent time and energy building audiences on Facebook, only to find they now can only reach a small proportion of them without paying. Mathew Ingram has a great piece today on GigaOm looking at this in a lot more detail, covering the negative reactions by both major brands and individuals looking to use Facebook to promote their work.

In any case, every successive change or tweak of its algorithms by Facebook — not to mention its penchant for removing content for a variety of reasons, something Twitter only does when there is a court order — reinforces the idea that the company is not running the kind of social network many people assumed it was. In other words, it is not an open platform in which content spreads according to its own whims: like a newspaper, Facebook controls what you see and when.

At the same time as all this is going on, Facebook is giving a pleasant boost to pages belonging to news organisations; the Guardian isn’t the only news organisation seeing a rapid rise in the numbers of page likes it’s receiving, starting on March 18. That’s driven by Page Suggestions, a relatively recent feature that, well, suggests pages to users, generally based on posts they’ve liked or interacted with, though it’s possible Facebook’s changing/has changed the situations when it displays that feature.

It certainly seems like an algorithm tweak that’s designed to benefit news pages by boosting their audience, but not necessarily their reach – while news pages are certainly getting more exposure, that’s no guarantee the posts themselves are reaching more people. It could be a mask; boosting audience numbers for particular types of pages in order to counteract a general lowering of reach, so that news brands end up more or less where they started in terms of the people who actually see their Facebook shares. Or it could be a rebalancing, promoting news pages at the expense of other brands on the basis that Facebook would much rather you got news in your news feed than advertising.

Or, given the lack of transparency of Facebook’s approach across the board, it could of course be a blip; an unintended consequence of downgrading some types of content that leaves news at an advantage, for now. Either way, it’s not likely to last unless it helps Facebook become the sort of Facebook that it thinks it wants to be – and it’s another reminder, even on the up side, that this isn’t a platform that can be controlled.

Time vs the news

Jason Kint, in an interesting piece at Digiday, argues that page views are rubbish and we should use time-based metrics to measure online consumption.

Pageviews and clicks fuel everything that is wrong with a clicks-driven Web and advertising ecosystem. These metrics are perfectly suited to measure performance and direct-response-style conversion, but tactics to maximize them inversely correlate to great experiences and branding. If the goal is to measure true consumption of content, then the best measurement is represented by time. It’s hard to fake time as it requires consumer attention.

Some issues here. Time does not require attention: I can have several browser tabs open and also be making a cup of tea elsewhere. TV metrics have been plagued by the assumption that TV on === attentively watching, and it’s interesting to see that fallacy repeated on the web, where a branching pathway is as easy as ctrl+click to open in a new tab. It’s also easy to game time on site by simply forcing every external link to open in a new tab: it’s awful UX, but if the market moves to time as the primary measurement in the way that ad impressions are currently used, I guarantee you that will be widely used to game it, along with other tricks like design gimmicks at bailout points and autorefresh to extend the measured visit as long as possible. Time is just as game-able as a click.

 

It’s worth noting that Kint is invested in selling this vision of time-based metrics to the market. That doesn’t invalidate what he says out of hand, of course, but it is important to remember that if someone is trying to sell you a hammer they are unlikely to admit that you might also need a screwdriver.

In a conversation on Twitter yesterday Dave Wylie pointed me to a Breaking News post which discusses another time-based metric – time saved. It’s a recognition that most news consumers don’t actually want to spend half an hour clicking around your site: they want the piece of information they came for, and then they want to get on with their lives. Like Google, which used to focus on getting people through the site as fast as possible to what they needed. Or like the inverted pyramid of news writing, which focusses on giving you all the information you need at the very top of the piece, so if you decide you don’t need all the details you can leave fully informed.

There’s a truism in newsroom analytics: the more newsy a day is, the more traffic you get from Google News or other breaking news sources, the less likely those readers are to click around. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing those readers or that they’re leaving unsatisfied; it may in fact make them more likely to return later, if the Breaking News theory holds true for other newsrooms. Sometimes the best way to serve readers is by giving them less.