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Follow the Money: Trust & Game Journalism

Game media sites have lost the trust of many game players. We can follow the money to understand why, and how to rebuild that trust.

Paul Barclay, Blogger

September 8, 2014

4 Min Read

A large part of the recent outcries around ethics in the game industry has focused on game media sites & the perceived bias of those sites to either large publishers throwing around lots of money, or indie publishers who have built strong relationships with the sites. This is a problem that's been growing for some time, and it's going to continue until there's a visible change in how game journalism is funded.

(A note about perceived bias: It doesn't matter whether or not there actually is bias. Just the perception of bias is enough to wreck credibility. So, I'm not going to get into the issue of whether there actually has been any bias or any unethical behaviour)

Follow the Money

In these situations, it's often helpful to follow the money. People who play games are the major consumers of game journalism. However, big publishers are the major funders of game journalism, mainly through advertising buys. This disconnect between funding and consumption is one that's going to erode trust over time as publishers (AAA and indies alike) try to control the message about their games, using any resources they have ($$$, relationships, access) to do so.

I'd like to see the games media be able to resist pressure & influence from publishers. If we can get there, and get there visibly, the trust will rebuild over time.

But we can't have a truly trusted and ubiased outlet until the money flow changes. We need a gaming news site that's 100% independent, and 100% funded by players. Not funded by advertising. Not funded by devs. Not funded by publishers. Not funded or owned by media conglomerates. Just by existing, such a site would shift the landscape of games journalism.

Not every site would have to change. Just one truly independent site could be enough to shift the behaviour of the whole games media industry. Lots of potential unethical activity becomes a lot less appealing when it can't influence the trusted independent site. The existence of this kind of site would actually strengthen sites like Gamasutra and the other games media sites who strive to deliver ethical, on-point content.

This Has Been Done

I'd like to see a gaming news site built around the same model as Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. (Disclosure: I'm a Dish subscriber) The Dish is one of the first of a new breed of 100% reader-supported independent news sites. Because the readers pay their bills, readers can trust the reporting to be free from outside influence. And, because readers pay their bills, their reporting is focused on what the readers want to know, not what the political parties or advertisers want. Contrast MSNBC or Fox News.

The shift in money flow allows the Dish to do some great things. They don't need to take advertising, so they don't have to tailor their content to be appealing to advertisers. They don't do advertorials. They can steer clear of clickbait. They can dive far more deeply into important issues. They can hold true to their really solid editorial policy. And they can respond in public to reader emails (which means they don't have to have comments on their pages, so they're presenting a safe and non-toxic environment).

Building that kind of site for gaming news & reviews would be relatively simple. It would need to build its brand on trust & ethical behaviour. And it would need some trusted big name journalists to bring in the initial subscriber base - those are the exact same people who could start & lead this kind of business anyway. The basic business model should work much the same way. And the business model's a good one:

There's Money To Be Made

The Dish is pulling in about $900k per year, from 30k subscribers. It's averaging 8 million page views per month. And it's at breakeven midway through its second year. Those numbers look achievable for a gaming site (even one being built from scratch) - the potential market is smaller, but it's more focused, and there's less competition.

If I was on the media side of the industry, I'd be running numbers now and writing a more detailed business plan, because this looks like it checks the boxes of a viable startup. Start-up costs are low. There's a fan base that really wants the information. It's a niche market, so reaching out to the fan base is easier. And the timing couldn't be better - right now, all the major sites in game journalism are vulnerable to this kind of competitor.

This business model's there for the taking - the right combination of journalists could build a subscriber base very quickly, and become sustainable at a low number of subscribers. I know I'd subscribe.

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