The Death of Games Journalism Part 2: Business 101
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.
Right 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.
Now 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.
I 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.
One 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.
Let’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.
Leigh 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.
Games 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
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