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Part Two of a multi-part series, read The Death of Games Journalism: Part 1-  Journalism 101 here or visit the parts index. 

In recent years games media has gone into a decline. Some sec­tions seem to be in a tail­spin, with indus­try lay­offs hap­pen­ing en masse. It’s been writ­ten off as “the inevitable decline of writ­ten jour­nal­ism,” but out­lets with a more niche approach have been pos­i­tively effected despite the storm. I wanted to do a more busi­ness ori­en­tated exam­i­na­tion of games jour­nal­ism, as it is use­ful to know how we got to where we are as we chart where to go in our future. The cir­cum­stances we find our­selves in didn’t creep up overnight.

Alexander Macris (or Archon as some have come to know him), Senior VP of Emerging Brands at Defy Media and co-founder of The Escapist, gave a break­down on Twitter of the chal­lenges fac­ing gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions and some of the eco­nomic real­i­ties of pro­duc­ing con­tent about games.

We have a Senior Vice President of a media com­pany lay­ing it out bare. This one of the most enlight­en­ing and reveal­ing exchanges I’ve seen on the sub­ject, so I’m going to go through it step by step and expand on the most rel­e­vant parts.

side11Right out of the gate we hit on an impor­tant point: no mat­ter how much their polit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties would like to deny it, each site is sub­ject to the whims of the free mar­ket. A mar­ket needs a clear need for some­thing to have growth in any sec­tor. Someone makes an inter­est­ing point later in the thread which is “Well have they even tried?” The answer, I think, is yes and no. Yes, some pub­li­ca­tions have tried to uphold a very high level of stan­dards and have dis­ap­peared. Also, no, I don’t think the cur­rent crop of sites sin­gled out as bad actors by recent events have exper­i­mented at all with the demand for jour­nal­ism that lines up with the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s a risk they seem to not be will­ing to take.

Quality con­tent requires time and resources. This seems obvi­ous, but as the mar­ket shrinks and con­tent qual­ity is dri­ven down, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber qual­ity does not come from the ether. A busi­ness will not invest more into a mar­ket than they think they will get in return. If we want to see more qual­ity con­tent, then some­one has to put their hand in their pock­ets and pay for it or a site has to be will­ing to take a big gam­ble and hope that going above and beyond will be rewarded.

side22Now we get into the num­bers game, the sim­ple arith­metic any site needs to do to sur­vive: price per click vs. price per arti­cle vs. num­ber of clicks vs. num­ber of arti­cles you can put out over time. It’s the same sum as in any form of pro­duc­tion. I some­times com­pare purely profit ordi­nated prin­ci­ples in cre­ative are­nas as “box fac­tory logic,” partly due to the pub­lisher Activision bring­ing in a host of pack­aged goods peo­ple to help cre­ate video games. Games media is one arena you do have to look at like a box fac­tory at times, though. Money in should yield more than money com­ing out, you can’t avoid that truth in any busi­ness. The exam­ple Alexander lays out is pretty close to real­ity. The prob­lem that much of the gam­ing press (and the games indus­try) has is this: they would run a lousy box fac­tory.

I did a fol­low up e-mail with Macris where he stressed that the exam­ple of $2.50 per a thou­sand views was sim­ply that, an off the cuff exam­ple:

Just note that the com­ments were off-the-cuff and not pre­cisely cal­cu­lated val­ues. E.g. I’m not stat­ing that $12.50 per hour or $2.50 CPM are the pre­cise aver­ages of the indus­try as a whole or of any par­tic­u­lar sites. Those were merely approx­i­ma­tions rel­a­tive to each other. The exact val­ues fluc­tu­ate widely site by site and even month by month (more ads dur­ing Christmas sea­son, etc.), but the gen­eral point is that wages and CPMs are tightly cor­re­lated in chal­leng­ing ways.”

Clickbait tries to tip the scales; it tries to get the absolute min­i­mum expen­di­ture to pro­duce the absolute max­i­mum num­ber of clicks per page. That’s why we see click­bait often spread across 10 – 12 pages; it yields more raw page views and you can serve more ads that way. Given that time is a pre­mium, there is going to be a nar­row mar­gin between profit and loss for an orga­ni­za­tion. So there are large incen­tives to tempt a site to reclaim cash wherever pos­si­ble and those meth­ods won’t always be eth­i­cal or pro-consumer.

side33I do it for free. I’m a hob­by­ist writer and in a sense I sup­pose I am part of the prob­lem for writ­ten con­tent. A series like this would be dif­fi­cult to do on a com­mer­cial basis. It is long, it needs a lot of edit­ing and it isn’t about a speci­fic hot but­ton cur­rent event. Just to give you a glimpse behind the sce­nes here at SuperNerdLand, the arti­cles we get the most traf­fic for are those that cover events still active in the “News Cycle,” as it were [Publisher Note: Truth. Editorials on cur­rent events receive far more traf­fic than other con­tent by a large mar­gin]. That’s why you see many sites make really dumb click­bait out of sto­ries that are cur­rently pop­u­lar. It’s done quick and dirty and isn’t meant to hold up in a month, or even a week.

Going back to my (very brief) exchange, Alexander Macris expands upon this when I asked him if the eco­nomic real­i­ties had shifted since he made these com­ments:

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.”

Alexander is some­one I would love to have a full con­ver­sa­tion with, I’ve reached out with more ques­tions as I hope to con­tinue writ­ing about the eco­nomic and prac­ti­cal sides of games jour­nal­ism since there seems to be an almost rav­en­ous hunger to know more about how the games writ­ing sausage gets made. But I am grate­ful to him for giv­ing us this pretty rare and can­did win­dow into an area many jour­nal­ists and edi­tors seem uncom­fort­able talk­ing about.

side44One of the big trends to emerge in the attempts to stem the bleed­ing of ad rev­enue has been the rise of the “adver­to­rial.” I won’t lie, I despise the prac­tice. But from a busi­ness point of view, it makes a cer­tain amount of sense. If the con­tent is the adver­tis­ing, then you can’t really adblock it. This is also true for other forms of native adver­tis­ing, but I think “adver­to­rial” con­tent is a med­i­cine worse than the dis­ease. It erodes the already shaky trust in con­tent providers and when done incom­pe­tently you end up with what The Atlantic did in 2012. They ran a com­plete adver­to­rial pack­age from the infa­mous “Church or Scientology” and had it sit­ting side by side with the other con­tent on their site. Someone at The Atlantic thought it was more impor­tant to make money by any means nec­es­sary, to the point of tak­ing money from an orga­ni­za­tion described as a “dan­ger­ous cult” that stands accused of crimes rang­ing from black­mail to forced abor­tions. Yet The Atlantic still thinks it has the cred­i­bil­ity to cover cur­rent events, includ­ing videogames. with some pretty shoddy cov­er­age of com­plex con­tro­ver­sies like GamerGate. All of this, despite show­ing a com­plete lack of judge­ment and ethics that most read­ers would find unpalat­able. This is an extreme exam­ple, but the pres­sures Macris is describ­ing makes out­lets feel they have to adopt these kinds of polices just to stay afloat.

side 55Let’s talk about USPs (or unique sell­ing points). What makes a site dif­fer­ent from the thou­sand gam­ing other sites out there? What makes your con­tent stand out?  For many gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions the answer they have come up with is to trade on out­rage and other emo­tional responses. This is a very short-sighted view, though. Any hack can woo the fickle flocks on social media with an out­landish head­line and a mis­lead­ing pic­ture. This is the essence of click­bait and peo­ple gen­er­ally don’t care where click­bait comes from. The audi­ence has no loy­alty to its cre­ator and no rea­son to come back when the site goes even deeper to the bot­tom of the bar­rel. My views dif­fer from Macris some­what, in that I think in the last eight months gamers have made it clear what they want to see and have acted on those words pretty deci­sively. If you can carve out a ded­i­cated niche in a mar­ket and really nail down what your read­ers want then I think it’s much eas­ier to weather the storms rag­ing through almost all forms of com­mer­cial jour­nal­ism now.

Hilariously, the site Polygon was sup­posed to have been founded on prin­ci­ples of strong ethics, dis­clos­ing finan­cial ties and not accept­ing cer­tain types of pro­mo­tion. That was sup­posed to be part of their appeal, every­thing on the site was to be above-board. If that was the sell­ing point they were going for and the mar­ket they wanted to reach, then I  say they have fal­len flat on their face.

The effect Macris describes is a pretty com­mon effect, though. You see in focus test­ing that a busi­ness will make a pro­duct for a hypo­thet­i­cal “con­sumer” based on data of what a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple think they want, but then end up mak­ing a pro­duct no real per­son would actu­ally pay money for. The only real way to mit­i­gate this is to lis­ten to feed­back and try to make con­tent you would want to see, with a busi­ness model you would feel is fair as a con­sumer your­self. But this is just from the per­spec­tive of a con­sumer. The rea­son I used this Twitter exchange and the rea­son I fol­lowed up with Alexander is because I don’t have edi­to­rial expe­ri­ence, or even expe­ri­ence being a paid games writer. I think it is impor­tant to at least attempt to get the view­point of some­one with real expe­ri­ence, some­thing I think the op-eds in games media often fail to do.

So I hope this gives you a win­dow into just how money gets made cur­rently in games media. We’ve already seen pub­li­ca­tions start­ing to down­size or fold. The Escapist recently had a round of lay­offs and AOL recently shut­tered Joystiq, fold­ing a tiny por­tion of its con­tent into Engadget’s games sec­tion. Destructoid has shed staff for some time and in October they lost their EiC (Editor in Chief) under unclear cir­cum­stances in the midst of accu­sa­tions of wrong­do­ing. Layoffs seem to be a fact of life now in games jour­nal­ism, adding to the sat­u­ra­tion of labor in the mar­ket.

Side Business textLeigh Alexander’s ill fated OffWorld site serves as a cau­tion­ary tale to all those who would try to force the gam­ing pub­lic to like their par­tic­u­lar brand of con­tent. All of the media cov­er­age, all the indus­try con­nec­tions and all the loudly trum­peted tick­ing of the right ide­o­log­i­cal boxes can’t force the pub­lic to care about your con­tent. If you can’t exist in the mar­ket then the mar­ket will reject you. Especially if your con­tent is com­ing from a base of deri­sion, with Offworld even going so far as to try avoid­ing use of the term “gamer” in its con­tent. Maybe this is why we see so much hos­tile rhetoric to cap­i­tal­ism from sources like Feminist Frequency’s Jonathon McIntosh. Aside from being a one man quote mine, he is obvi­ously the cre­ator of much of the con­tent put out by the duo, even going so far as to regur­gi­tate a piece he wrote for Polygon in 2012 as a “new” video.

Pretending the old is new isn’t pro­gress. Its mar­ket­ing. And I think there has been a lot of “money for old rope” ideas going around, espe­cially when it comes to re-inventing games cov­er­age to be “more inclu­sive” to the point it ends up not adding any­thing of sub­stance. It’s going to be another trope in this series, but if you want to make the most impact then the best place to do it is in video. It doesn’t help that a lot of what gam­ing web­sites put out is the same cycle of press releases and news arti­cles. They even cite one another in many cases or sim­ply re-word a press release so you get iden­ti­cal con­tent almost any­where, cut­ting down on a site’s unique appeal to vis­i­tors. Video con­tent on the other hand has the added advan­tage of per­son­al­ity. The pre­vail­ing wis­dom seems to be that if you shame a prob­lem hard enough it goes away. From the Games Journo Pros leaks we saw quite a few dis­parag­ing com­ments about YouTubers like John Bain, known as TotalBiscuit.

side cokeGames media really needs to nail down what it wants to be and where it sees its con­tent in three to five years. Crowdfunding is a stop-gap, you can’t live on it forever if you want to build a viable com­mer­cial pro­duct with growth. Subscriptions are an option, but as we’ve seen, many peo­ple sim­ply don’t want to pay for them when there are “free” alter­na­tives. Perhaps it is time for the gam­ing press to swal­low its pride and accept that they are becom­ing more niche. This does not have to be a bad thing either. I think there is room for a more cus­tom tai­lored enthu­si­ast press rather than the mono­lithic mega-sites with huge invest­ment deals that have yet to see long-term profit. Content is king and it always will be. Clickbait is, by design, very thin on meat. Controversy is also start­ing to spook adver­tis­ers, as many are mov­ing away from sites like Gawker partly due to a suc­cess­ful e-mail cam­paign by gam­ing activists and high-profile PR blun­ders like set­ting up a Twitter bot to tweet “Mein Kampf” in a suc­cess­ful attempt to sab­o­tage a Coca-Cola social media mar­ket­ing cam­paign. I don’t need to tell you that this is not a smart move for any pub­li­ca­tion that wants to retain main­stream spon­sors.

Slate’s David Auerbach seems to think the dom­i­nance of emo­tional click­bait is wan­ing because of these fac­tors and posits that the less scrupu­lous out­lets, like the kings of click­bait at Buzzfeed, may be mov­ing to a more “adver­to­rial” based model like described ear­lier. One thing is cer­tain; the land­scape will never stop shift­ing. Be it the rise of video con­tent, the abun­dance of free blogs, the demands for more eth­i­cal jour­nals, or even just nat­u­ral mar­ket trends as estab­lished ideas and meth­ods become out­dated. You either adapt or you die and many sites seem to have cho­sen the later. I’m glad to have seen sites like Niche Gamer and TechRaptor carve out their own niche (if you’ll excuse the pun) in this dif­fi­cult envi­ron­ment, as I think they point towards a way for less exploita­tive games jour­nal­ism sites to flour­ish.

A final thought before we part: in this cut-throat and shrink­ing indus­try, who thought it was a good idea to declare their main reader demo­graphic “dead?” As I’ve shown in numer­ous ways, Games Journalism is suf­fer­ing from enough prob­lems already. A self-inflicted wound out of spite seems like the last thing you would want. So if those out­lets dis­ap­pear over the next few years due to the crush­ing weight of eco­nomic real­ity, I feel quite con­fi­dent there will be very few tears shed by the gam­ing com­mu­nity. If gamers don’t have to be your audi­ence then maybe no one does.

Nothing per­sonal. It’s just Business

Continued in Part 3: Woman Problems

Visit the the Parts Index

Scrumpmonkey can also be found on YouTube, on Twitter and on Medium. You can also read more about him in his writer intro­duc­tion for SuperNerdLand

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/header-business.pnghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/header-business-150x150.pngJohn SweeneyEditorialDeath of Games Journalism,Editorial,Games MediaPart Two of a multi-part series, read The Death of Games Journalism: Part 1-  Journalism 101 here or visit the parts index.  In recent years games media has gone into a decline. Some sec­tions seem to be in a tail­spin, with indus­try lay­offs hap­pen­ing en masse. It’s been writ­ten off as “the inevitable decline of…
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John Sweeney
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.