Reality Check: Murder We Wrote
I am a murderer. Well, maybe I’m more co-conspirator or an accessory, but the details don’t matter as much as the crime: killing games journalism.
Whether you’re reading this on Split Screen or Nightmare Mode, no one asked for your money and no one ever will. Split Screen dropped advertisements a few months ago because they weren’t worth the effort, and Nightmare Mode’s ad revenue doesn’t cover the hosting costs. There has been an explosion of games sites thanks to easy content management solutions like WordPress, Joomla and even Tumblr, most of which are run by amateurs and hobbyists. I’ve touched on this before, and I’m aware that people in conservatories shouldn’t hurl boulders, but we need to talk about all this free stuff we are creating and how it impacts our colleagues.
By writing for free, amateurs have inadvertently lowered the worth of paid journalism. Just as free-to-play games and ad-supported apps for smartphones have lowered our expectations of what a video game should cost, free writing has lowered the expectations of what good writing should cost. This isn’t just a problem with games journalism: it’s a problem with all media, and outlets have struggled to adapt in an age where we can get news from Twitter and Facebook before the newspapers. Games media struggle more, since not everyone can travel to Iraq as a war reporter or investigate a political scandal, but anyone can write about games.
Researched writing is valuable. Investigative journalism is an essential check on the powers of the state, and games journalism is vital to protect us consumers from the motives of greedy corporations, never mind moving the artistic medium forward. I love writing, but frankly I can’t carry out that kind of research and hold a full-time job as well. If that research is your full-time job, whether salaried or freelance, your work will be better for it and readers will appreciate it more. Without the insightful criticism and investigative work that paid journalism allows, you’re left with ten thousand trite reviews and a smattering of Top Ten lists.
The barrier to entry is practically non-existent. I started publishing on Geocities (remember that?) in 2000 and moved through various outlets, mostly unpaid. It’s great that writers can showcase their talent and develop skills in a competitive industry, yet I question whether all this free work benefits the journalistic profession. My hope was always that a rising tide of quality writing would raise all our boats and give more people a slice of the freelance pie. The best free writers would be hired and become paid writers in a perpetual creative cycle. Based on anecdotal reports from friends, the opposite seems to be the case: a drought of funding is coming that will leave us all stranded. There are too many writers and not enough jobs.
Magazine sales are in decline in both the UK and the USA, including games publications. Beloved British comic The Dandy is going digital-only after seventy-five years in print. There is hope that digital magazine sales will make up for the decline in print sales: in the UK, T3 has managed to increase sales through its tablet app, and today I was reading Edge via a frankly excellent iPad incarnation. Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily describes a “bundling problem” rather than a digital problem, with readers turning to services like Instapaper and Pocket to curate the content they want to read instead of purchasing pre-curated magazines.
It can’t be a question of declining interest: video games and the chronicles of the form are more popular than ever. Eurogamer and OXM UK have seen impressive year-on-year growth of visitors and presumably advertising revenue too. People aren’t reading less, although perhaps they are reading in smaller chunks. The phrase ’long read’ makes me laugh, since I wonder why you would ever want a short read.
Regardless of how we’re reading, we aren’t paying for it. Print magazines rely on advertising as well as upfront costs and subscription fees, but in the translation to online publications that has largely eroded. Ars Technica still offer a premium subscription, but do you know anyone who pays for IGN Prime or Gamespot Total Access? Gamespy’s Founders Club and Fileplanet no longer exist, and there’s no obvious way to directly support other sites by paying. Instapaper bypasses advertising and ad blockers erase them from existence: perhaps a necessary step when faced with heinous Flash banners and ugly websites, but it could be considered theft by those whose livelihood depends on ad revenue.
The model of not paying for things is a fundamentally broken one. It should have died when the dotcom bubble burst, but it has resurged with the proliferation of ad-supported apps (mainly on Android phones) and free information via Facebook and Twitter. However, Android developers just aren’t making money compared to their iOS compatriots. As journalism has shifted from tangible products like newspapers and magazines to blogs and websites, it’s harder to justify charging users- which is why paywalls don’t work, either, because they run counter to our expectations of how a site should operate. Writing for free is not the cause of this, but it’s certainly a catalyst.
How often have you read in a ‘tips for budding journalists’ blog post: don’t write for free? As usual, John Walker says it best: “if you work for free, you make words worth nothing, and that’s a disservice to everyone else.” Yet I’d go further than that: writing for free, anywhere, dilutes the commercial value of writing. When you’ve got countless fanzines regurgitating press releases and posting links on Twitter, why do you need to get your news from a paid outlet? I often contact websites asking for RSS feeds with only their original material. Seriously: if you don’t serve an RSS feed without news, I’m not subscribing. If you think such a feed would be sparsely populated, then you need to think more about what you’re writing.
How do we counteract this dilution of value? How do we amateur writers and hobbyists continue doing what we love without detracting from the work of others? Simple: we start paying. This week I put my money where my mouth is, subscribed to Edge for a year and bought the latest issues of Continue and Kill Screen- not because I think these are worthy charity cases, but because I think the writing is worth paying for and yes, better than most free publications. Even if it was merely as good as the best free writing, who wouldn’t want to compensate their favourite writers? Services like Flattr are promising ways to renumerate writers for their work and regain a sense of paying for quality content.
Do you know how much a digital issue of Edge costs if you subscribe through iTunes? £2.15! That’s less than a sandwich! While Twitter and RSS are great for reading curated content, curation is overrated: I like surprises. I want to read writers I disagree with and support the people I admire. Let’s start paying for things again: subscribe to magazines you like, whitelist games websites so they can show you adverts, purchase games through affiliate links on your favourite sites. Pay for things you like and shun the things you don’t. Some things are worth their weight in gold- and magazines are quite light anyway, so you won’t be out of pocket.
How do you support my writing? Oh, just buy me a pint.
Disclaimer: Alan hasn’t made a penny from writing this year and, contrary to the rumours, has never written for Edge magazine.