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Hate the game, not the journalist: Another meditation on games journalism

Why bad writing, boring content, and rewritten press releases are all symptoms of deeper underlying problems with games journalism -- problems that aren't confined to the journalists themselves.

(Yet another disclaimer: Everything I’m writing about is based on my own experiences, observations, and conjecture.)

In one day, I've read two excellent articles and one rather hilarious Twitter spat between a bunch of grown-ass men, and all of them are about the subject of tech journalism (specifically, how bad it is). Naturally, I feel obligated to chime in, and since the last post I wrote about the business of games journalism caught so many eyeballs, I figure I might as well weigh in on the oft-thrown-around claim that games journalists are hacks and idiots and can't write.
Since this is weighing in at about 4000+ words, I'll offer a tl;dr: Hate the way games journalism is designed, not the journalist.

But first, the lit review. (The next few paragraphs is mostly just context for what I want to really talk about; if you don't care, just skip to the next section.)

Item 1 is a neat bit from the USC's Online Journalism Review, by one Pekka Pekkala, called "Copy-paste journalism wants to be free". It's basically about Pekkala's experience covering CES and finding that everything about the show basically shows up on every site because we're all just vomiting up the same press releases and heavily-controlled demos. (Read this, and you'll never have to go to CES ever.) The best chunk is here:

There is nothing inherently wrong with having 1,307 LG OLED stories to choose from. However, when they all look the same, we have a problem — hundreds of copies of the same press release, slightly tweaked. And the more you have copies, the less value a single copy has. In the old days, when all the publications had their own, small print market, readers did not realize they were reading copies. Neither did advertisers.

But the Internet made all this transparent, and this is the main reason why traditional publishers are losing audiences, especially paying ones. Readers will not pay for stories they have already read elsewhere. It does not matter if your brand is 100 years old or you used to be the IT or business publication for the decision makers. A copy is a copy, even behind a paywall.

What is even worse, advertisers realize this as well. They are not willing to pay a premium for a product that is a duplicate, no matter if it is a digital or a print copy.

This is important. Basically, remember that almost all news in the games/tech sector comes from the companies that compose the industry itself, via PR channels. When 100 other pubs are running the same article (based off the same press release) that you are running, and your readers can freely access any of those 100 other pubs as easily as they can access yours, you're not in a very good spot.

Item 2 is a quick exchange between one Nate Thayer and an editor at The Atlantic named Olga Khazan, wherein Khazan basically asks Thayer if he can rewrite a 1200 word article about Dennis Rodman going to North Korea for free and allow The Atlantic to republish it. The main takeaway here is that apparently, even a prestigious pub like The Atlantic is broke or cheap. Classy business, no? Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic published a followup, of sorts, here, which basically recaps how crappy it is to be an editor and know that you need to get eyeballs AND publish good stuff despite not having enough of a budget for either. (Also, he points out that it’s Khazan’s second week on the job, so cut slack as necessary.)

The last element is a Twitter spat between the good professor Ian Bogost and some of the Polygon edit staff (Russ Pitts, Arthur Gies, Justin McElroy, etc. You can read this thread over here for some of the good stuff ("Your product is shit. Your website is shit."). The dispute itself is focused around Polygon's changing of the SimCity review score to reflect server outages, but "focused" is being generous. From the outside, I don't think Bogost was particularly specific or lucid in his criticism from the outset, and I don't think having a handful of defensive Polygon editors join the already-crappy conversation helped make anyone look any better (though, trust me, I understand the desire to defend the work you and your colleagues put your name on when someone shits on it in a public forum). The interesting thing for me, here, is that Bogost mostly points to an already-existing sentiment that games journalism is awful, which is what I want to speak to in this post.

Dear Game Journalists: You Suck

As you can see, there are a few rather common beliefs people have with regards to why game journalism is universally terrible. In general, I think many of these gripes have a certain connection to the truth. However, I don't think that these are the central problems of game journalism so much as the symptoms of the stuff I wrote about in the last post, so to get mad at the actual journalists for this kind of thing sounds a bit silly. (If there are any Mitch Hedberg fans reading this: "Dammit, Otto, you're an alcoholic. Dammit, Otto, you have lupus.") Let's walk through them a bit.

1. Unrealistic expectations ("You're unqualified to be a journalist!")

Some folks out there are convinced that the only people who deserve to have their byline in a publication are those who have gone to school for journalism. I appreciate the reverence these folks have for journalists until I see them write comments about how Edward R. Murrow is spinning in his grave or blah blah blah Truman Capote, and then I reach for whatever vice I can find within arm's reach from my desk.

I'm not the most grizzled journo around; I started writing for a Mac games site when I was about 14, and I went to school for Philosophy, only taking one class on Creative Journalism along the way. I've had the privilege of working with a few folks who have had formal journalism education, mostly BAs with a few advanced degrees here and there. And from what I can tell, most people in the tech/games publishing biz don’t really care about journalism education, because it’s not specifically valuable to the way tech/games publishing works.

If you have one, you're likely to require less training with regards to good writing technique (how to write a headline, deck, lede, etc.), and we can safely assume that you understand things like plagiarism and not-fact-checking are Bad Things. However, when it comes to the kind of stories you write, how good you are at writing them, and how well they perform, I'm willing to bet that your degree doesn't matter -- in tech and games.

Fact is, journalists aren't doctors or lawyers. There is no independent licensing board that gives us our fedora and generic press badge. Most of the basic skills and methods of journalism as they apply to the current model of tech/games publishing can be taught to someone over the course of an internship, no degree needed. (Unsurprisingly, everyone I've ever met in tech and games that either has an advanced degree in journalism or a significant amount of experience working in non-tech/games journalism is even sadder than you are with the state of their careers, and so they leave, or they drink a lot.)

Here's the thing, though: In order to be a proficient games/tech journalist, you need to thoroughly understand the subject you're working within (games/tech) and you need to thoroughly understand the method by which you produce a piece of writing you can honestly call journalism. In reality, the split is probably like 90% subject understanding and 10% journalistic method, and that 10% boils down to stuff like "properly attribute quotes, quit being a dick link to the original source already, don't make shit up, and if you respect yourself in the slightest at least reword that god damn press release."

With that kind of split, you can pretty much guarantee that the only people who get into tech and games publishing are the people who love the tech/games bit, not the journalism bit, because there's not much there that actually uses the full skillset of a Properly Trained Journalist (and, honestly, I'm not convinced that there are really many jobs at all which do that outside of tech/games, either).

So why does the current tech/games publishing model devalue traditional journalistic skills so heavily? Well, that gets into the second, related gripe:

2. You are a consumer first and foremost ("All you do is rewrite press releases!”)

When most people think of a capital-J Journalist, they think of a person (probably one that looks like Gamasutra's Frank Cifaldi) who reports on Just The Facts, Ma'am. This Journalist's job is to deliver unto we the people the information we need to protect ourselves from The Powers That Be. He or she probably writes for a Times, or a Gazette, or a Whig--possibly even a Tribune--and these are all publications that you read in order to understand what the hell is going on in the world. Darn it, you want to find out why traffic is so bad, or who the heck gave the OK on this stupid re-zoning bill, or whatever, so you read your local newspaper.  (Or something like that -- I only read Bay Area news for articles about Oakland shootings that I can hear from my apartment and pictures of cats.) To the reader, you sell information that is relevant to them by virtue of where they are, and to the advertiser, you sell eyeballs that are relevant to them by virtue of where they are (the Macy's in the mall wants to let you know they're having a sale).

Now let's look at the job of someone who writes for your average games site. In our existing consumer games journalism model, pretty much the only viable business model for mass-market games journalism is predicated on informing the reader as consumer; that is, providing consumers with information they can use to decide which products they should allocate their money and attention towards. As I pointed out in my RIP 1UP post, the pitch to the reader is, basically, "Hey, you--buy our magazine/read our website, and you'll never waste fifty bucks on a game you don't like ever again," which dovetails with the pitch to the advertiser: "Hey, you--buy pages in our magazine so people who want to buy games can find out about your game."

As a journalist, treating the reader as a consumer in the tech/games industry means your angle on any given item is going to look something like one of the following:

  1. Is this product worth buying? (A review, probably.)

  2. Does this product look like it could be worth buying when it comes out? (A notable announcement or a hands-on preview.)

  3. Is this story about a product that people are already paying attention to? (Anything about the next iPad, for example.)

  4. Does this story help a consumer make smarter tech/games purchasing decisions in general? (This can include how-to articles, shocking exposes of bad corporate behavior, that kind of thing.)

  5. Is this story just generally interesting to the kind of person who would read a consumer tech/games publication? (There's a reason they call them "general interest stories.")

Go ahead and check your favorite consumer tech/games site and see how many of their front-page stories fall into one of these categories. (I'll wait.)

I imagine that people outside the publishing biz like to think that all the words present on any given games/tech mag are there because they're a genuine expression of what the editorial staff is thinking about that day. It isn't, really. It's more like an expression of what the editorial staff thinks you're thinking about that day. But "you" mean different things to different people. You might not think of yourself as "interested in buying a simulation game" when you click on that SimCity review, but that's how that publication's ad sales folks probably see you.

Here's a thought experiment: Let's pretend that you're a budding staff writer at your first pitch meeting for your favorite consumer tech/games site, and any story you pitch will have to fall into one of those buckets. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Well, as it turns out, each of those buckets are not equal.

Consider that your job in editorial is to fulfill your promise to the reader (to inform them) and to ensure that sales is accurately delivering advertisers their promised eyeballs. Not just any eyeballs, mind you, but eyeballs that are in the market to buy whatever it is the advertiser is selling. If you're running a website, you usually do this by tagging stories on the backend as about something specific -- "smartphones" or "Xbox" or whatever -- and selling advertisers on eyeballs reading those specific tags. In other words, the more specific the audience you can offer, the higher you can charge for ads, because each eyeball is more easily converted into a sale.

Now let's revisit those angles in the numbered list up there. #1-3 are all pretty much gold for an advertiser; if you read a review, preview, or news article focused on a certain product, you're probably interested in buying said product, or one of said product's competing products, so that's an advertising win.

#4 is pretty compelling from the reader's point of view--everyone loves reading about how you'regetting fucked on printer ink--and so these are usually a pretty easy sell in pitch meetings because they're the articles everyone wants to write. Readers love these articles because it makes them feel cared for, but I'm willing to bet advertisers are a bit more dubious on this one; HP is not going to want to advertise next to a story about how much HP is fucking you for ink. Also, the Venn Diagram overlap between "people who are interested in reading articles about how they're paying too much" and "people who are interested in buying a new printer" is presumably much lower than the overlap between "people who are reading reviews about a new printer" and "people who are interested in buying a new printer". If I decide to sell 30,000 printer eyeballs to Canon, and Canon notices that those eyeballs came from an article about why printer manufacturers are the scum of the Earth, Canon will likely take those advertising dollars elsewhere, because it's a less-efficient use of their ad budget.

#5 is an interesting one. I get the impression that most consumer games site readers like to feel as though they're reading the games equivalent of the local news -- a publication that targets them because they're interested in video games and want to be informed about The World of Video Games, not simply because they're buying video games. So they read the op-ed pieces, the retro game lists, the Local Man interviews. Games readers don't like being treated as "just" consumers, probably because they're invested in the medium for its own sake, and buying games is simply one way they express their investment (alongside engaging in online platform wars, making game-themed cakes, getting game-themed tattoos, and so on). Having more general-interest stories kind of create the illusion that your games site is like, the Game Enthusiast Gazette, instead of Game Consumer Reports. They're warm and friendly.
Unfortunately, these stories are also generally pretty far removed from the whole exchange-of-goods-and-services-for-money thing; a slide show about The 20 Coolest Printers From The 1980s has only the slightest connection to buying a printer in the 20XXs.

So let's return to the thought experiment: You are pitching a story to your editorial director. Your editor's job is to line up enough stories with angles that the readers like to keep the readers happy, while simultaneously ensuring that the overall balance of content is in keeping with your publication's ad sales team pitch. (If either side becomes unbalanced, said editor is fired either for losing pageviews or losing advertisers.) Note that this doesn't mean the editor's job is to ensure good coverage -- that would be bad journalism! -- but to ensure that the nature of the site's content is advertiser-friendly, even if the specific words aren't. (After all, bad reviews of one product are possible ad placement opportunities for a rival's product.)

Of the five available angles, the first 1-3 are a no-brainer because they make both readers and advertisers happy, so a big part of your job is going to be feeding basic announcements/reviews/previews to the daily churn.

Angle #4 (empowering consumers in general) is tough because it's a lot of work and requires a good ad sales team to justify the expenditure; I've seen stories that comprehensively test mobile data speeds all over the US, which is awesome and well-rewarded by both readers and advertisers, and then seen stories that comprehensively tested airports for Wi-Fi speeds/power outlet availability/etc. and I'm pretty sure that despite the massive expenditure of time and resources no one really appreciated that story so much.

Angle #5 (general interest) is tough because it tends to be the kind of story readers enjoy knowing exist, but don't always read, and advertisers could care less about it, since it’s rarely connected to purchasing decisions. So when you're pitching, you're going to have a harder time getting stories in if they're in buckets #4-5.

So now, let's get back to the gripe: "All you do is write press releases." Well, guess what: When it comes to "news that is relevant to an audience of tech/games consumers," pretty much everything in that category comes from the companies themselves. And companies will typically communicate via interview, advertisement, or press release. So, yeah, you get a lot of news driven by press releases, because press releases are the de facto method of communicating pretty much anything that a company would want to communicate to a consumer audience, and you're reading a publication that is designed to communicate to consumer audiences from the outset.

For starters, the companies that advertise in your publication gate your access to review product, preview opportunities, and embargoed announcement press releases -- all of which are things you need to do your damn job (see angles #1-3) in the first place. Good luck with capital-J journalism there.

But the readers want more investigative journalism!” you cry. Well, in order to investigate, you’re going to need people to talk to you. People love gossiping to journalists, but they hate being held accountable for it. (For what it’s worth, I know that rumors involving Aliens: Colonial Marines and the developer-related fiasco behind it were circulating months before the game actually came out.)

So you end up running a story with an anonymous source that readers are convinced is bullshit, because so many no-name publications out there run stupid new-console-leaks from anonymous sources, or you decide to be a Good Journalist and not run rumors out of respect for your audience (which is funny, because people love reading rumors pieces and hate sites that run rumors). Actually, it’s even more likely that while deliberating about how to handle this story, you get scooped by someone else posting about it on Reddit using a throwaway account.
In order to produce capital-J Journalism, you need people to talk to you with names that you can put in your article. In order to produce the kind of muckraking, here’s-how-you-are-being-fucked-by-the-man stuff that people want to see so they can have faith in Journalism, you need people to talk to you about the bad stuff they’ve seen happen. In my experience, getting one or the other is easy, but getting both is very, very hard. That’s understandable, of course -- people want to vent and tell the truth without forever being unemployable. (People are more willing to martyr themselves over issues of national importance than they are about video games and iPhones, I guess.) What’s a capital-J Journalist to do in this biz? Well, they find another one.

3. Expecting a five-star meal, getting an Extra Value Meal (“You’re a terrible writer.”) 

I’m going to be short on this one; yes, there are awful writers in the games journalism biz. There are also some awfully good ones. As far as I can tell, quality writing -- that is, being able to mechanically craft a sentence (then a paragraph, then an article) that is accurate and engaging -- isn’t rewarded in the consumer tech/games gig when it comes to the bottom line. I want to believe that good writing draws more readers, or a higher quality of reader, but I’m willing to bet that if that is the case, we’re still a ways off from being able to sell ads on a higher-quality consumer games eyeball. If you dig up some personal blogs or off-hours writing that belong to your favorite games journalists, you’ll probably find they’re a lot better-written, more engaging, and more relatable. It is rewarded when you begin to cultivate your own personal audience, I think, but not in the 9-5.

Fact is, everyone in the biz could afford to spend more time working on writing better. It’s a skill, after all, and we should develop the skills we use in our jobs. But it’s hard to justify that when your work environment probably doesn’t reward good writing as much as it rewards volume. And, let’s face it, when you’re mostly rewriting press releases, it’s not like you have a whole lot of room to spread those wordsmith wings, anyway. Before you start calling everything on a major website’s front page “Shit” because it doesn’t match up to the quality of a particularly insightful blog post you read the other day, consider that the problem might not be the writer’s actual writing competency, but the sacrifices demanded by the consumer journalism form itself. No doubt there are some people with the potential to be excellent chefs working in McDonalds' kitchens worldwide, but they'll be hamstrung by the demands and ingredients available to them; don't go to McDonald's and expect Chez Panisse, even if Alice Waters is behind the counter.

(For those of you who think I'm cutting crappy journalists too much slack; that's material for the next post, which is actually meant for the writers themselves.)

Everything is terrible

Ultimately, I think that blaming journalists for the state of tech/games journalism is kind of silly. Many of the folks I know are tired of being stuck doing mediocre work; especially since most people get into this biz to see their byline next to a major article, and when you yourself that article is relative crap, it doesn’t feel so good. The way I see it, the “rules” surrounding the “game” of the consumer tech publishing biz are designed to produce relatively mundane, safe, boring stuff, and blaming the people who feed themselves by playing that game (the writers) is to blame the symptom, not the problem. The model is dependent on treating the reader as a consumer before anything else, so of course you’re going to find that the quality of what your reading is going to suffer, because you are more than just a consumer.

That said, I understand why people blame the journalists. As readers, we want to believe that the interaction between reader and writer/editor is one of pure information; that the writer’s job is to present information and inform the reader in return for a humble wage and the privilege of being a conduit for information. But the model, as it exists currently, is something of a bait-and-switch; both the writers and the readers want to believe that they’re producing and consuming pure news for The People, even though the money that makes everything happen knows it’s really about information for The Consumer.

In the end, this journalist-blaming happens, I think, because the readers want to believe in the power of journalism. We want to believe that in every aspect of our life, there is a legion of highly-trained, smart folks looking out for common people like you and I, wielding mic and pen against the powers of evil, and the alternative --  that journalists don’t have special powers, superior methods, or secret sources -- is too terrifying for these people to contemplate. (Perhaps it's not so surprising that so many superheroes are reporters in their normal lives.) Better to crucify and bemoan the ones who fail to live up to your idealized standards, than to realize that the game simply doesn't work that way, and, in fact, the house always wins.

(Yes, I realize that this once again ends on a note many of you will call “chilling” or “cynical.” I plan to follow this up with something a bit more uplifting.)

--patrick miller

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