The Death of Games Journalism Part 2: Business 101

Scrumpmonkey is here with part two of his multi-part series on The Death of Games Journalism. Today, Business 101

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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

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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