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”.

News making money

Ryan McCarthy, at Reuters:

But if you’re working in media now you shouldn’t be worried about getting your website to hit 20 or 30 million uniques — if ad rates continue to fall, even websites of that size may not be economically viable. Instead, media companies should be doing everything they can can to improve the economic value of their work (which may not mean more pageviews).

For those of us actually working in web journalism, this adds yet on another layer of existential angst. Journalists certainly shouldn’t spend their time worrying about how to make their articles more attractive to advertisers.

Whole article is worth a read, but I don’t think its conclusions quite hold true. For one thing, there are more ways of selling ads than simple CPM, from more careful targeting to real time bidding to TV-style channel takeovers at busy periods. Some of those have the same problems as CPM with oversupply when it comes to pure growth, but for others size of market is vastly important when combined with good user data.

Secondly, maybe journalists should think about the value of their articles, as well as their other attributes. Or if not the journalist themselves, at least someone on the editorial side. The nature of journalism online is a fascinating crossover of popularity, importance, usefulness and financial value, and every news organisation builds its editorial criteria differently from those sets. But if you build your business only on the first three, and ignore the last one, then eventually you don’t have a business at all.

Games journalism and games PR

A game journalist’s job, stripped down and simplified, is to write entertainingly & informatively about products in as unbiased a way as possible. A game PR’s job, likewise truncated and simplified, is to introduce as much bias as possible into the media in favour of their clients.

They might be friends across the divide. They might share loves of certain games, journalists might fundamentally adore all the work a certain company puts out, they might really like getting free stuff, and if you’re a PR you might justifiably believe what you do is about getting your games or platforms the publicity they deserve. But none of that changes the nature of the relationship.

You don’t have to receive cash, as a journalist, to be bought and sold by PRs; as a PR, you don’t need to intend to cause someone a conflict of interest in order to do it. There’s a sliding scale, of course, between a review copy and a mini figure and a special limited edition set and a trip to Turkey where you get vomit in your ears. Journalists need games to do their jobs. Sometimes they can’t get access without going on a press trip. But if expensive trips with buckets of free food and booze had to be paid for out of pocket, journalists and their employers wouldn’t pay. If they didn’t work in favour of PR goals – to bias and increase coverage – PRs and game publishers wouldn’t pay either. They don’t always work on everyone who goes, but if they didn’t work at all it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t happen. And those trips are just as much about relationship building and making friends across the divide as they are about anything else. They’re about breaking down the professional line and making it harder to publish something negative, as much as they’re about making it easier to publish something positive. After all, who wants to disappoint their friends?

Journos might not think they’re biased, and might not like it if people think they look that way. They might not love that their business model is mostly driven by advertising, and that they have to cover the same games that advertise next to their words. PRs – especially those with journalism backgrounds – might not like that their job is essentially to persuade journos to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t. But that’s how it works. That is literally what they are being paid to do. At the very least, that should be a conscious thought in the minds of both parties.

If you’re a journalist with access and PRs want to woo you, it’s because they think they can influence you. Or perhaps, these days, just because that’s how things work – people, until last week, had all but stopped questioning it. There is big money riding on everyone keeping up the facade of normality over what is, when you break it down, not a normal process or set of relationships. That’s even leaving aside the potential job in PR that waits for many journalists, when they finally get sick of the uncertainty and the poor pay – and the possibility of upsetting a potential employer is another biasing factor.

There’s no easy way to “fix” this on a wide level; every media organisation has to set its own standards, and enforce them. But if you’re a journalist or a PR, some advice that you can take or leave as you please: work out where your line is, and reject stuff that crosses it. Don’t be surprised when other people draw their lines in different places. And if you’re called on to defend how your behaviour appears, make sure you can do it honestly.

A note on context: this is in response to the uproar last week over games journalists, PR, perceived corruption and libel threats, which culminated in Robert Florence standing down from his Eurogamer column after this article was amended. There’s a good timeline/roundup in this RPS post.

A note on me: I am a journalist, working in digital production for the Guardian, who writes occasionally about video (and other sorts of) games. I’m married to a freelance games journalist. We also design live games, which don’t really have much of a PR budget. I’m writing this from that personal perspective, which is relatively distant from the games journalism industry, in that I don’t do it full-time, don’t really get paid for it, and don’t tend to get invited to big PR events. Keith Stuart’s take on this for the Guardian is here.

Full disclosure: A game PR bought me a bottle of Savannah dry cider once, but I don’t remember who it was. Grant informs me it was someone working for Namco Bandai.

Requesting politely to stay in the dark will not serve journalism

Quote

At Salon, Richard constantly analyzed revenue per thousand page views vs. cost per thousand page views, unit by unit, story by story, author by author, and section by section. People didn’t want to look at this data because they were afraid that unprofitable pieces would be cut. It was the same pushback years before with basic traffic data. People in the newsroom didn’t want to consult it because they assumed you’d end up writing entirely for SEO. But this argument assumes that when we get data, we dispense with our wisdom. It doesn’t work that way. You can continue producing the important but unprofitable pieces, but as a business, you need to know what’s happening out there. Requesting politely to stay in the dark will not serve journalism.

– from Matt Stempeck’s liveblog of Richard Gingras’s Nieman Foundation speech

Aggregation – a substitute newspaper?

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Scott Fulton’s conclusion in this piece, but it’s well worth a read nonetheless. On the difference between Google and journalism:

News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.

The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.

But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.

Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.

For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – Schema.org microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.

To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:

Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.

Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.

Journalists and dickishness

Are journalists dicks? Lyra McKee wrote a rather interesting post on the subject, suggesting that many new journalists and tech journalists in particular are more about the ego than the story, and that while it can be good for their profiles their work suffers as a result. I came across the post via John Thompson on Twitter, and it spawned a rather fascinating (if meta and navel-gazing) conversation on the subject, which I’ve Storified below.

My personal opinion has long been that being very good at anything creative and public (both of which journalism certainly is) tends to involve both a large ego and a well of insecurity. Going out in public and proclaiming that what you’re doing is worth someone’s time and attention – that your work is important – requires a certain brash self-confidence. But being ambitious and driven more often than not means being terrified that one day what you do won’t be worthy – and that means a constant anxiety and need to prove yourself, sometimes at the expense of niceties. The combination makes for fascinating, creative people who combine often seemingly incompatible traits – thick skin and vulnerability to criticism – with deep insight, blinding intelligence, common sense, a work ethic that would make an oxen blush and myriad other laudable traits. Sometimes that means a bit of dickishness, too.

Stop blaming the internet for rubbish news content

Newspapers and newsrooms generally have always striven to publish stories that are important, interesting, informative and entertaining.  Not every one puts those in the same order or gives them the same importance. But the internet hasn’t changed that much.

The unbundling effects of the net mean that instead of relying on the front page to sell the whole bundle, each piece has to sell itself. That can be hard; suddenly the relative market sizes for different sorts of content are much starker, and for people who care more about important/interesting/informative than entertaining, that’s been a depressing flood of data. But the internet  didn’t create that demand – it just made it more obvious. Whether we should feed it or not is an editorial question. Personally, I think it’s fine to give people a little of what they want – as long as a newsroom is putting out informative and important stories, a few interesting and entertaining ones are good too, so long as they’re not lies, unethically acquired or vicious.

If you spend a lot of time online you will see a filter bubble effect, where stories from certain news organisations are not often shared by your friends and don’t often turn up in your sphere unless you actively go looking for them. That means the ones that break through will be those that outrage, titillate or carry such explosive revelations that they cannot be ignored. That does not mean those stories are the sum total output of a newsroom – any more than the 3AM Girls are the sum total of the Mirror in print – but those pieces attract a new audience and serve to put that wider smorgasbord of content in front of them (assuming the article pages are well designed).

Of course, some news organisations publish poor stories – false, misleading, purposefully aggravating or just badly written – in the name of chasing the trend. That’s also far from an internet-only phenomenon. The Express puts pictures of Diana on the front, and routinely lies for impact in its headlines. The Star splashes on Big Brother 10 weeks running. The editorial judgement about the biggest story for the front is about sales as much as it is newsworthiness. Sometimes those goals align. Sometimes they don’t, and editors make a choice.

It is ridiculous to blame the internet for the publishing of crap stories to chase search traffic or trend-based clicks – just as it’s ridiculous to blame the printing press for the existence of phone hacking. In both cases it’s the values and choices of the newsroom that should be questioned.

What is a blog, anyway?

This post by Andy Boyle seems to have struck a nerve on Twitter today. It exhorts news organisations to stop referring to things they produce as blogs just because they use different CMS or are branded differently to regular content. While I don’t think it quite applies across the board – this, for instance, is definitely a blog – Andy makes some very good points.

Sadly, blogs brought along a stigma that people still use  – which is wrong — that they’re done by people in their pajamas in a basement somewhere. Blogs are not the same as regular news content, some media folks thought, because they weren’t in your “main” CMS. They had a wall between them and they are different. They may even be branded differently, with a different header and logo. They weren’t the same as regular content because they were in a different system! Right?

Wrong.

It’s time to stop bifurcating your content as blogs and news because they run on separate systems. It is all content, so why not call it that? Even if you have outside people writing posts on your website that are unmoderated by your staff — that’s still content that’s part of your media outlet’s website. I don’t have any research proving this, but in my short journalism career many media outlets just slapped the name “blog” on something because it lived in a different CMS. We should stop this. Please.

While I don’t have any hard stats or user testing data on how readers react to the word “blog”, my gut instinct is that their readings are very different from the way news organisations tend to use the term. To a newsroom, the word blog might signify a lighter tone than news or feature. It might imply a home for specialised subject matter that might not fit with the rest of the site. It might be used to signify a linked, ongoing set of posts like the word “series”. It might mean “something done through WordPress” or “something put online without subbing first” or “a side project we give the juniors to prove themselves”. To some, in some newsrooms, it almost certainly means “not proper journalism”, despite the (somehow, still ongoing) conversations about whether bloggers can be journalists.

The question is what it means to our readers. My fear is that for them it may have more resonance with the meanings towards the end of that little list than the ones at the start. Blog shouldn’t be a dirty word or one that’s used to put down the effort of the people creating something – but in the minds of many, at the moment it still is. It’s important to set readers’ expectations by what’s on the page, but we don’t need to distinguish web-only or web-first or even tone in this way – there are other words that might make just as much sense to us, and even more to readers.

Distribution: journalism’s current (and next) big upheaval

the best free paper bag everThis month’s Carnival of Journalism post is late, because I’ve had my head busy in other places for the last few days – but as per the rules, there shall be no apologies. This month Steve Outing asks what technology or digital trend will up-end journalism next.

I want to pick apart the notion of trends for a minute. Trends aren’t about technology. Technology turns up because people create it, sometimes to fulfill needs or because of ideas about the future, but mostly because something that already exists just isn’t good enough. Innovations are born out of frustrations. If enough people have a particular frustration, and something comes along that fixes it, it’ll be widely adopted. Or if something designed to fix a particular frustration turns out to make life just that little bit better for lots of other people, lots of other people will most likely want to use it. Trends are about people, not things.

We’re in the middle of a massive upheaval in how distribution works, and media organisations for the most part are lagging behind in understanding and taking advantage of the changes. Online, the news is centrally hosted, unbundled, available in discrete chunks, accessible from anywhere; news pieces online are not just things to consume, but stations in ongoing journeys, spaces for conversation, and reference points for wider conversation. They’re used in many different ways, not all of which involve actually consuming the content on the page.

But most organisations are very much bound into a model where readers must come to us, rather than one where the news gets to people wherever they happen to be. This is one of the dominant trends at present: distribution models changing from top-down to peer-to-peer, both for news stories (in the sense of content created by journalists and hosted on a single URL) and for news itself (in the sense of the raw informational building-blocks of that content). This is true on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Delicious, and most other social media that offers link-sharing capability: we’re already a long way down this road.

The long, difficult road for news organisations is understanding that they can actually be distribution platforms, as well as reporting the news. It’s moving into peer-to-peer news networks, personalised and sociable. Letting people pick what they care about and customise their own experiences on our sites, and making it very easy to get our news wherever they happen to be online. It’s ceding control to the users, trusting them to know what they want, and understanding that they do value journalism enough to consume it voraciously, so long as it turns up at the right time and in the right place.

We are in a buyer’s market for news – and for journalists too

International Money Pile in Cash and CoinsFor this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Michael Rosenblum asks: “Is it possible for a good journalist to be a good capitalist?” My answer: yes, but the people who employ journalists tend to be a lot better at it than the journalists themselves, thanks to the state of the market and the laws of supply and demand.

Entrepreneurialism – while it can be brilliant and is a vital part of the ecosystem – is risky, difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, and the odds are against you ever making more money from it than you could from more traditional employment. Freelancing is, of course, not the same thing as being an entrepreneur, and while plenty of journalists go down that route the money is often scarce and the financial position insecure. At present journalism jobs – outside specialist markets like financial journalism – are few and far between, and even at their best the money pales in comparison to some other professions, as Michael points out in his introduction post.

Many journalists don’t want to be – aren’t cut out to be – technical or technological innovators, or freelancers chasing clients for cash. Some of us love digital production and want nothing more than to be playing with new ways to tell stories. Others want nothing but to be allowed to get on with their important investigatons, or their war films, or their pithy columns. I am unequivocably in favour of journalists learning new skills in order to do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively – but when it comes to demanding they move away from their specialism and into areas they may not enjoy or be good at, I get a little uncomfortable. Not everyone can or should be a jack of all trades.

This is a supply and demand problem. This isn’t an issue of journalists not wanting to make money – it’s an issue of there being an awful lot of very talented journalists, from new graduates to grizzled veterans, all of whom would like to be able to eat. Journalism right now is a buyer’s market, and content is very cheap. The people at the bottom of the rung who can afford to work for free will do so; freelancers who can undercut the competition will get the gig. Employers who want to employ journalists and cut costs at the same time can pay so little, because so very, very many people want a job in journalism, have sunk years of time and a great deal of money into the prospect of a job in journalism, and are willing to work for little cash because of their principles and desires.

Much like news online, journalists’ skills are devalued not because they are not respected, but because they are abundant. Much like an absolute paywall, unless you have unique content or the ability to ensure everyone adheres to the same pricing strategy, charging more for your work is likely to simply make people turn elsewhere. The macro issues affecting the industry hit journalists individually too. The solutions to both problems remain unclear.