The Business of Games Journalism: A Conversation with Alexander Macris
As part of our ongoing series looking at the Games Media, we recently talked via e-mail with co-founder and General Manager of The Escapist Magazine and Senior Vice President of Defy Media, Alexander Macris, about the business side of games journalism and the state of online media in general. Part of this interview, and his previous comments on social media on this subject, were included in “The Death of Games Journalism – Part 2: Business 101.” It’s worth noting that these are his personal opinions and do not reflect those of Defy Media and their outlets.
I guess as a starter I would ask: Do you feel the economic realities of games writing/content have shifted since you made these comments in September?
The economic reality continues to be a case of too much supply relative to demand. There is far more content being created today than any audience is capable of consuming. In a typical industry, this would not occur, because the suppliers would be unable to make a profit and would leave the industry. But supplying content is no longer, strictly speaking, being done for profit. Many people create content without expecting to make money from it. They may do so to contribute to a gift economy, or to promote themselves, or to share with friends, or as a means of self-expression, or out of boredom, narcissism, or other motives. But their actions, regardless of motive, impacts those who are creating content for profit by increasing the supply of content. If a consumer is using his time to read a great blog written for free by a college professor, then the consumer is not using that time to read the content written by the editors of the NY Times. From the point of view of the NY Times as a business, the college professor is a now its competitor.
Now, in any industry, under highly competitive conditions, prices for its goods will tend to fall towards their marginal cost. The marginal cost of web content is virtually zero – the cost of serving a piece of content to 100K people and 10M people is trivial (relatively speaking). And so we see constant downward pressure on the “price” of content, whether that price be expressed as a subscription fee (or lack thereof) or as a price to advertise around the content.
The trick, of course, is to escape that trap by finding a way to make YOUR content not just be generic “content” but something special, unique, must-have.
You spoke in your TedX talk about “intellectual nourishment,” do you think that the internet is intellectually malnourished?
The internet is not intellectually malnourished. It’s not a mind. That’s like saying that a candy bar is malnourished. The internet is a tool. It can be used in ways that are intellectually nourishing or malnourished. Many people – myself included – use it in ways that are malnourished, a lot of the time.
There’s an old adage that if you want to lose weight, you should get rid of the junk food in your house. Likewise, if you want to quit smoking, you throw out the cigarettes, and if you want to quit drinking, you get rid of the wet bar. That’s because all of us are more likely to succumb to vice when we have ready, easy opportunity to do so. The internet is like a grocery store that offers unlimited junk food, smokes, and booze, all the time. Sure it also has organic leafy green vegetables but few of us can resist the beer and pretzels.
Do you think it is unrealistic or naive for consumers to expect gaming publications to adhere to lofty standards of practice?
I think it is unrealistic to expect business models or standards or procedures created in one time and place for one specific medium to apply to another. Many of the standards of journalistic practice were developed during the heyday of mass media. We no longer live in the mass media era – we live in the social media era. We would be better suited to think about the sort of standards that should apply to social media. There are all sorts of problems and issues developing that our society isn’t even close to figuring out. (Consider: Is it good for society that all of us are one bad viral tweet from utter social shame and career destruction? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it’s worth thinking about.)
In the face of services like YouTube growing, is the decline of written media inevitable or are there newer ways to secure revenue?
To thrive, media companies have to deliver content in a format that the audience wants to consume. If audiences prefer video to text, then text will continue to decline in audience share. It is consumer-driven. I personally much prefer reading to watching videos. I can read and digest an entire page of text in seconds, whereas watching the text presented on screen will take ten times as long. But clearly most consumers today feel the opposite. They’d rather watch a 15 minute video than, e.g., read a 5,000 word article. Therefore, video is gaining market share and text is losing market share.
The larger question is: Why are audiences more favorable to video than text today? Many educators are beginning to talk about the post-literate society. Perhaps I’m a Luddite in this regard, but what others laud as a bright digital future sounds to me like a deterioration into an unlearned dark age. My TEDx talk has more on this.
Do you think the future of mass-market written content lays with ‘Advertorial’?
Maybe. Ultimately if we are going to continue to have professionally created content, then content creators will need to get paid. In the Renaissance, that payment came from patrons. In the 20th century, that payment came from advertisers and subscribers. I’m not sure where it will come from in the 21st century. More and more physical products are being digitized. (Consider: Music was once a physical product you bought. Movies were once a physical product you bought. PC games were once a physical product you bought. Now all three are just digital. With 3D printing this will soon be true of, e.g., collectible miniatures, tableware, tools.) Digital products tend towards zero marginal cost and hence over time towards being free (and, when not free, get pirated). Thus creators of free goods are sustained, at present, by advertising. But if everything becomes digital, who are the advertisers? At a certain point, the vast majority of all economic activity in our society is going to be in the creation and exchange of digital goods. If, by then, consumers still don’t think digital goods are worth paying for, we’re going to be in an awkward situation.
What do you think of the idea, posited recently by David Auerback and others, that emotionally driven ‘clickbait’ is on the decline?
David Auerbach is one of the smartest journalists on the planet. When he tweets, I take notes.
Do you think there is enough political plurality within mainstream games journalism?
Enough according to who? There is no regulatory agency overseeing political plurality in the media, nor should there be. The media is a business. If there is a market for X type of media that speaks to X type of audience, then eventually that audience will be served by an entrepreneur who sees the opportunity. Anyone who doesn’t think mainstream games journalism is serving the audience has the right to create some game journalism they think is better. If they are right, they’ll find an audience and profit. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.
Do you think serious Games Journalism is “Dead”?
No. I think that it has fragmented, just as games have fragmented. It’s not a bad thing. There are more intelligent people writing about games than ever. What Erik Kain writes about games and what Leigh Alexander writes about games might be very different, but they are both literate, intelligent people who are serious about their craft.
Are crowdfunding services like Pateron a viable long term solution for delivering content profitably?
I think they are a part of the solution. I think we will ultimately move to a system of diversified revenue streams, where content creators have patrons and subscribers who support them on an ongoing basis, come together to get project-based crowdfunding, receive distribution fees from media companies, endorsements from advertisers, etc. The music industry has been the most dramatically effected of any entertainment industry by the digital age, so look at the variety that is flourishing there.
How accountable should gaming sites be to their readers? How do you strike a balance between populism and closing down feedback?
There is no “should”. It’s not a normative issue. Some gaming sites will be very engaged with their readers and serve their needs closely. Others will take a magisterial stance and cover what they see fit. Readers will decide to which they want to give patronage. Either strategy can work – it depends on your personnel and your editorial philosophy. Are your editors visionaries who intuitively know what the audience wants, or analysts who engage with the data to find out what the audience does? I’ve had both types work for me.
Sometimes a brilliant businessperson can be utterly scornful of feedback from consumers because the businessperson knows the consumers better than the consumers know themselves – look at Steve Jobs as an example. Other businesses succeed by turning consumer engagement and accountability into metrics that they can measure and build on. Proctor & Gamble makes money every year by delivering consumer products that are precisely perfectly tweaked to be just what the consumer will buy – but you can’t name a brilliant Proctor & Gamble executive who is behind it all.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
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