A Follow-The-Money Problem

Games journalism. It’s not really about ethics. It’s about money. Shocker, I know.

You can get to the heart of almost any organization’s strengths, weaknesses, issues, and successes by following the money. If you’re looking for motivation of almost any business, follow the money. Specifically, figure out where the money is coming from and where it’s going. If there’s something happening that you don’t like, it’s probably because you are not the part of the group that’s the primary contributor of money to the organization in question.

money

If you’re looking at a company that’s doing things that you don’t like, things that fundamentally don’t align with your interests, it’s pretty likely that you’re not the target audience (and thus not giving them any money) or you’re not the customer, you’re the product. You can rail against this, but no matter how loud you get, it’s not going to change unless the flow of money changes.

The common saying is that money is the root of all evil, which I honestly find to be something of a cop-out. Everyone needs to pay the bills, keep the lights on, keep food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads. These aren’t easy things to do. If you’re looking at a professional games journalism site, something that posts multiple times a day (every other hour? more?) and that you can rely upon for coverage of a large number of events, you’re looking at someone, usually quite a few someones, who need to make enough money to essentially spend all day posting. Odds are good you don’t pay a dime to any games site– most don’t even give you the option. So, you’re looking at something you consume for free, that takes up someone’s entire workday, who needs to pay the bills somehow. Follow the money.

If you’re not paying, someone is, or no one would be writing. So, who would want to give someone money to write about games? First, advertisers, though too many ads and you, the reader, won’t read the site anymore, so getting all your money from ads isn’t likely. Second, game publishers, who want people to know about their games and know that games sites are a good marketing platform. Both of these groups have money and motivation. This is all pretty obvious, but it’s where the whole “ethics” question gets thrown into the mix.

What conflict of interest?! I work here in my spare time.

Is there a conflict of interest when it comes to accepting money directly from the people you are reporting on? Certainly. Pretty much every type of enthusiast press deals with this. Why? Well, what’s the alternative? Gotta keep the lights on somehow, gotta keep food on the table. The relationship pretty much has to run this way because otherwise you don’t have the money to keep the site up. Does this absolve the enthusiast press of the conflict of interest? No, but “real journalism” is going to take a backseat to “paying the bills” any day of the week. Because it’s enthusiast press and not life-and-death reporting, there’s no value in martyring yourself to report on “big issues” because this is entertainment media; “big issues” pretty much don’t exist.

There’s an alternative model that’s been suggested for games reporting sites: Webcartoonists. The vast majority of webcartoonists don’t sustain themselves on their comic alone; it’s a very rare few who can focus exclusively on their work, and they’re almost all solo endeavours. They also post, at most, once a day, usually less often than that. Not counting sponsored posts and reposts, Kotaku posted ten times today (Sunday, May 10). Destructoid posted 11 times. MassivelyOP, a niche site, posted 9 times today. BlizzardWatch, an even more niche site than Massively, posted 7 times. It’s not a coincidence that those numbers are all really close to one another. While a webcomic can update once a day or less to remain relevant, a games site needs to update multiple times a day– in some cases upwards of ten(!) to stay relevant– that’s where the market equilibrium is happening. The model doesn’t seem to work.

I originally planned on making a graph to show this off, comparing today’s pageviews to the number of posts made. Pageviews are relevant because that’s what gets people to see the advertisements and the marketing that funds the site. Your eyes looking at these sites is the traffic that drives revenue (you are the product). However, the divide between games sites is pretty stark. The readership of sites with 10 or more posts versus the readership of sites with less than 10 posts in a given day is STARK. We’re talking orders of magnitude here, it makes for a silly looking graph. I don’t have a complete picture of the data to support this, but I strongly suspect that if a site updated, say, 15 times a day, they wouldn’t see a significant increase past about 10 or so posts. I do have some supporting data, however.

IGN.com updated 32 times this past Sunday. Here’s their Alexa rank:

ign

IGN.com, Alexa ranking

For comparison, here’s Kotaku, with less than a third of their post count:

kotaku.com, Alexa ranking

kotaku.com, Alexa ranking

As a final point, here’s the Escapist, with 4 posts:

escapistmagazine.com, Alexa ranking

escapistmagazine.com, Alexa ranking

These are all pan-media outlets with a focus on gaming. They all have relatively similar curves, with a spike of readers in the last quarter of 2014 and then some levelling off, and all taking a dive in April (as news hits the doldrums). The Escapist is notably even more pan-media than Kotaku, but Kotaku is right in the 500-700 rank, whereas the Escapist is between 4000 and 5000; an order of magnitude. IGN only gains 300 or so rank over Kotaku, a fairly meager gain in absolute terms, particularly for triple the output. I’m not suggesting that post count is the only (or even necessarily the most important) factor in readership, but there’s definitely a correlation, and all of these sites are posting FAR more than once a day or a few times a week.

The difficulty is finding a model that supports the interests of the audience while providing enough income to support the sites themselves. It seems unlikely that readers are going to be willing to pay for access to games news sites– the current games news sites are the old game magazines, which almost wholly died out with the advent of the internet. The audience was more than happy to become the product in return for getting content for free.

Cory Doctorow in his hot air balloon

Cory Doctorow in his hot air balloon

The other model I’ve seen is the very egalitarian, very grassroots “bloggers can be the new games journalists”, suggesting that the content created by bloggers, in aggregate, can cover the news and be honest and reader-oriented about it because there’s no real money in it for them. It’s the same concept that drives the idea of twitter-as-international news. I’m not sure if it can work; the idea of crowdsourced reporting is still really young and I suspect there will be barriers to entry put in place by both existing games sites (who want exclusive coverage) and game publishers themselves (who want to be able to control what people say about them). It’s definitely a problem with the Youtube scene by most reports– people either allow themselves to be bought or are shut out.

I’m not sure what the future of games reporting is going to look like, but I think the first place to look to see where it’s headed is the flow of money. You can boil a lot of things down to a follow-the-money problem, and if you figure out how that flow is working, you can get a picture of how it’s likely to change and what would need to be different to get what you’re looking for.

I suspect that a site with no advertising, that charged a $10/month subscription fee and managed to get a critical mass of readers would deliver some really top-notch reporting, but I also doubt there are enough people willing to pay for that.



Source: Digital Initiative
A Follow-The-Money Problem

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