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”.

3 ideas about the future of print news

McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama amid New York Times & other newspapers at West Portal Daily
Spot the odd one out.

A friend recently emailed me to ask about what print newspapers would look like in the future, for a sci-fi story he’s writing. His words:

“Obviously the It’s The Future! thing to do would be to say they only existed digitally, but I’m reluctant to go right down the route in case it’s a bit too holo-TV and flying cars, so knowing where you’d put your money on this particular bet would be very handy.”

It made me consider the question in a way I hadn’t before – and here’s the response: three sci-fi-ish narratively-useful ideas grounded in reality, about what print news could look like in the World Of Tomorrow.

1. Print-your-own

Berg has just announced a mini in-your-house printer magic box cloud news thing. This is actual wizardry. The evolution of devices like that is basically a personal printed news sheet that you grab on the way out of the door, read on the commute and recycle at the office. Or that greets you with the day’s news in print when you arrive home, or gives you a non-screen thing to read with breakfast so it doesn’t matter if you spray ketchup on it. And it weaves personal/social news stuff in with “proper” news sources. It’s unbundled in a very cool way.

2. Artefact

The newspaper that carries your birth date, or announces your marriage – the one you appear in – is a thing people still want to keep. There will be more cut-out-and-keep, more souvenir editions, and quality of production will go up along with prices, until each paper is a beautiful object in its own right. Something along the lines of some of the really innovative papers at the moment – the prettier ones here are starting to move in that direction – or McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama.

At its most extreme, this could end up with weekly papers being more like glossy magazines – something to sit on your coffee table for days at a time, something you can dip in and out of during the week, carrying good long reads and beautiful pictures – the sorts of lean-back things you can really do well in print.

This might be the least likely of the three to come in, because even though the infrastructure is already there, the folks in charge of newspapers want to stay mass-market as long as possible so won’t make the design investments to switch to niche. And it’s questionable whether the business model would actually pan out, given distribution costs.

3. Free

People will still read something if it’s handed to them when they’ve nothing else to do. Metro and Evening Standard will still do well, in London at least, as long as there are captive commuters – though when wifi is installed on the Tube that’ll be very disruptive to their businesses and they’ll have to up their game to compete. Free sheets, supported by ads, won’t go away until/unless the last of the display ad business dies.

If free papers can come up with a better way of tracking who actually reads them and what they do, and sell that model to advertisers, then free sheets could end up being the most profitable of any medium. So depending on how near, innovative and prosperous the near-future is, it might be worth thinking about offline tracking in your newspapers – RFID trackers that would let companies see how far their papers travel and how many times they’re read, or giveaway cards that would unlock something extra (rewards online, possibly, or free coffee/pasty/Twix offers) in return for a name/date of birth/postcode.

What else?

What did I miss? I didn’t say local, because I don’t think many local papers will exist in 30 years’ time in forms other than those above. That’s not to say local news won’t – in fact, it’s likely to be much stronger than it is now, thanks to better local networks, horizontal vectors for information to spread, facilitated by but not limited to the internet. Will any news organisations run print papers as loss leaders, for prestige or for other purposes? Or will there be any profitable newspapers that aren’t also artefacts?

The paywall debate

The Wall An interesting post extolling the virtues of the paywall by Julien Rath as part of’s excellent TNTJ group blog has really gotten me thinking. Not because I agree – far from it – but it’s finally forced me to put into words my own views on the massive paywall debate. I don’t like them. I don’t think that most papers have ever been bought on the basis of the news content – or even the op-ed and columns. (Sometimes the columns – Bridget Jones springs to mind – but rarely, and certainly not enough to subsidise an entire paper.) Asking people to pay on the web for things they don’t necessarily value enough to pay for in print – this seems pointless to me. There’s a laundry list of ideological complaints about paywalls. They trap journalism behind a wall, cutting off access to information in a terribly anti-open-web sort of way. They create gated communities where dissent is unlikely and where the turbulent streams of the open web can’t intrude – for better or worse. They ensure a sort of private members’ club that cuts off those who can’t or don’t want to pay, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.

Ideology aside, my most basic reason for disliking paywalls is business based. We have declining circulation in print, which means very few new paper readers will come to our websites based on what we’ve put in our newspapers. One of the obvious ways to gather new readers therefore is online, getting young people used to seeing our content linked on Facebook, Twitter, social networks they belong to and appreciate, in the hope that we can drive brand loyalty through those platforms and maybe, eventually, a few of those people will start reading the paper. What happens to that model if there’s no accessible content online? It dies. What’s the plan to attract new readers to your brand above all others if it’s all behind a paywall? I haven’t yet seen one that works. It doesn’t matter how well-written or wonderful your editorials are – if no one can link to them they aren’t going to drive new traffic to your site. Breaking news content online will rarely if ever be unique outside exceptionally specialist circles. Commentary, analysis, feature articles are more “valuable”, but very rarely irreplaceable given the vast amount of alternative and specialist content available for free elsewhere. And many news consumers now read what their social circle reads and links. We come through that to like personalities or subject-specific content, but that’s not the same as a brand loyalty – I read Charlie Brooker and the Guardian Datablog regularly, but that doesn’t mean I ever read the Guardian homepage. Paying for the whole Times website when I just want Caitlin Moran doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – especially when I can’t search for Times content using my normal methods (Google) and no one else links me to it because it’s all behind a wall, so I’d have to go hunting for it specifically if I wanted to include it in my daily reading. If many other net users are like me then they won’t be willing to pay for a whole bundle when what they want is one strand. I’m more open to the idea of limited paywalls on sites like the proposed New York Times one, where only very regular readers – the folks who are already brand loyal – get charged for content. I still think they do more harm than good, because at that point you’re essentially punishing people for liking you too much. If the expectation is that content is free, suddenly charging is going to irritate people and drive them away from engaging too strongly. Yes, journalists need to be paid for what we do. We need to eat and live, after all. I’m interested in the idea of micropayment systems that let me pay pennies at a time for content from any one of hundreds of news sources – from specialist science papers via Athens through the Financial Times through the Sun, I suppose, pretty soon. I’m interested in untapped affiliation potential – ticket sales, restaurant bookings, holidays, iTunes links next to band reviews. We can still make money from picture sales, family notices and so on, but we can do it in new ways – like the death notices my paper has set up where a single payment gets you not just the notice in the paper but also a living page that remains as a permanent and changing tribute. And that’s before we get into serious targetted advertising solutions, or the content changes that have got the Mail Online to where it is today. [Edit to clarify: I’m not suggesting that any one of these is a magic bullet that will save the news industry. I’m simply pointing to possible multiple revenue streams that I feel are worth exploring to see whether they could go some way towards paying for news.] I’m not Rupert Murdoch. I haven’t sat in front of the figures or done the maths with real audience numbers, so like most other people I’m just having a good old reckon. Still, I reckon there are better ways forward than paywalls. What do you think?