The Problem of Paying for Game Journalism

by Mary Lew Florida

The floor has recently been opened to discussion about game journalism, journalism ethics, and the integrity of the parties involved. While the foundation of this conversation is built on false accusations around Kotaku and developer Zoe Quinn, it also has a fundamental misunderstanding of the real issues that have been affecting the field of online journalism.

To continue this discussion we must first distance ourselves from the narrow-minded conversation that started it. This piece is not a part of a witch hunt and seeks to instead point out the complex issues that affect online journalism today.

Clickbait and Paying the Bills

A point of contention in the entire journalism industry is that consumers want quality, unbiased content, but they don’t want to pay for it. News, after all, is free, and you can get your fill from Twitter or other social media. The Internet is presented as an open resource, but someone has to pay for all of that content to be produced. This reality clashes with the sense of entitlement about information being free. This entitlement is a side effect of the digital native generation, and it’s one of the things that is ruining journalism.

As far back as William Randolph Hearst and the so-called yellow journalism during the Spanish-American War, the press has sensationalized the truth in order to sell papers. In the days when newspapers reigned supreme, you had to pay for content if you wanted access to it. Money went from your pocket to the newspaper, who in turn paid a staff of writers to stay on top of current events from around the world.

Today, an online publication is lucky if you turn off ad-block when visiting its site, let alone pay for the content. Many people haven’t held traditional print media in their hands in years, but there are still many writers in the business. So if you’re not paying for their services, who is?

Advertising. But when online advertising pays fractions of a cent per page view and click, paying writers the lowest possible piece meal rate to get the highest return possible is essential for survival. Paying your writers a good salary only works if they perform in a very specific way.

How Does This Model Affect Ethics and Integrity?

When looking for writers to deliver on page views rather than quality, you sacrifice good traditional writers in lieu of hiring good SEO writers. This approach is particularly true if you’re part of a high-prestige industry where there is a lot of competition (such as entertainment). The entertainment publication wants to hire someone who is talented at titling and tagging, who can pump out dozens of articles a day. While this approach isn’t always detrimental to quality content, SEO writing that makes the company the most money is part of a clear problem.

A prime example of this economic conundrum can be presented in the story of the Kotaku article “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 a Day off Ripped Art” (that was the original title before it was changed a day later to “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 a Day off Mario-Like Art”). That title is pure, grade-A clickbait, and it is also a lie. Flappy Bird was not made with ripped art, a term that means that the developer stole the art from someone else. The art simply bears a striking resemblance to Nintendo properties.

Typically, you hire good journalists to make sure that situations like this do not occur, to make sure that you don’t accuse someone of theft simply to get page views. But in this industry, page views are king because they are how the publications make money. At the same time, page views are not the only way advertisers are seeking revenue.

Native Advertising

Advertisers are always looking for new ways to keep and hold your attention. Banner blindness, the tendency to ignore the ad banners that are a constant part of your Internet experience, makes traditional advertising less effective. With online advertising existing as a billion dollar industry, advertisers are adapting to survive.

Native advertising is not new. The search results (ads) that pop up when you use Google and promoted posts on Twitter are examples of native advertising. These types of ads seek to blend seamlessly into your experience, to look like the rest of the content you’re viewing so that you are more likely to click on them.

What Does This Have to Do with Game Journalism?

There has been a recent rise in so-called advertorials. Advertorials are stories presented as standard news but have have been paid for and occasionally written by advertisers. You’ve seen these in traditional news media — advertisements that are almost indistinguishable from editorial content, except for maybe a word at the top that says “advertisement” or “special promotional feature.”

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In online publications, this has recently popped up in the Atlantic Scientology advertorial scandal, where the respected news magazine allowed the religious group to post a glowing review of its practices with a limited disclaimer. The disclaimer is the little yellow tab above David Miscavige that says “Sponsor Content.” It’s easy to miss, especially if you’re not familiar with the site, and that’s what makes native advertising dangerous. Specifically in games and tech, Tech Digest has a category for advertorials and sponsored content. Aside from slight disclaimers, this content is virtually indistinguishable from standard editorial content.

Advertisers are playing on expectations of integrity and unbiased content, and that’s why they choose an advertorial track. Why would any honest publication agree to something like this? As mentioned before, publications are attempting to pay their staff and need the money. The problem with game journalism comes back to money, and in some ways, Patreon is a part of that discussion.

Patreon and Crowdfunding

Recently, crowdfunding support site Patreon has come under fire after Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo banned authors from supporting Patreon accounts. Patreon is a service that allows fans to give a certain amount every month to artists and developers in order to help them create, and is modeled after a system of patronage. Kotaku became concerned that authors supporting these developers would have a conflict of interest, hence the ban. No offense meant to Kotaku, but it feels like Patreon was offered up as a sacrificial lamb, as Totilo didn’t get into the issues of patronage, support, and bias.

If Patreon-supporting writers are compromised by their support, are the writers who excitedly supported the Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9 equally tainted? Are the writers who preordered Destiny allowed to write about it? The issue of corporate patronage and bias is an interesting one and worth talking about, but it hardly seems to begin and end with a small site. The issue stems from the nature of an industry built on consumptive media. If you pay for the work that you’re receiving, and some readers demand that you do, are you too compromised to talk about it?

Disclosure seems to be important in these cases, but disclose should extend not just to small, independent developers (like the ones who use Patreon) but to larger corporate sponsorships as well. Can a site like Kotaku or IGN reasonably talk about the newest Call of Duty if they are simultaneously running large banner advertisements for the game? Or are they tainted in the same way as writers who support developers via Patreon?

These questions, from bias to writer payment, need to be a part of the larger discussion. All of this loops back to the main issues affecting journalism at large. The issues are endemic of a system reliant on advertising dollars, one that focuses on page views rather than the talent of their writers. These issues might seem insurmountable, but solving them is essential to the growth and maturation of the industry as a whole.

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2 comments

  1. What’s very very strange to me about Kotaku’s policy is is basically backwards. Journalist gives money to developer, and is therefore biased in their favour, because of that transaction? Surely corruption is supposed to be the other way round? Land developers aren’t paid by the politicians who act in their favour, they pay politicians, thats why land development has such a reputation for corruption.

    1. You’re absolutely right as far as corruption is concerned. I believe “corruption” has lacked a proper definition in this broad discussion.

      However, a journalist supporting a developer’s incomplete products might raise a real or perceived conflict of interest, which I wouldn’t call “corruption” so much as a potential for biased reporting/reviewing.

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