The Business of Games Journalism: A Conversation with Alexander Macris

SuperNerdLand had the opportunity to talk with Alexander Macris, Co-Founder of The Escapist and VP of Emerging Brands at Defy Media about games journalism


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.


side macrisYou 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.


side macris 2Do 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.


And thank you to Alexander for shar­ing his thoughts. You can find him on Twitter @archon, have a gan­der at his Escapist Profile or watch his TedX talk below. 


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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