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.

38 Comments

  1. n3cromung3r

    @AGBear Thanks Nas.

  2. Elven_Star

    @agbear Was it ever alive? 😛

    • AGBear

      @Elven_Star Hah!

  3. Rachel_Helps

    this post is very discouraging

    • Videlais

       @Rachel_Helps I agree with you. The way Alan phrases it means there is no hope to break into a paid position. If you are working for free — and everyone on Nightmare Mode is — then you are probably “murdering” games journalism. Of course, the assumption there is that everyone who writes about games somehow wants to be or is a journalist too — I’m definitely not, for example.

      •  @Videlais It was never my intention to discourage anyone from writing. Of course people break into paid writing- the EIC of Nightmare Mode is but one example. NM is a slightly different case is that we only publish original content (no news etc.), but it’s still free content. Also, I don’t think I assumed that everyone who writes wants to be a journalist- this would be a bit silly of me, since I write, but don’t want to be a journalist.
         
        If you finished this thinking “Oh no, I’d better stop writing about games” then that is a failure of communication on my part, and I apologise. I just want more recognition for the great work people do, and greater renumeration is a part of that.
         
        The writing on Nightmare Mode, and many other sites, is worth paying for.

      • @Videlais
        It was never my intention to discourage anyone from writing. Of course people break into paid writing- the EIC of Nightmare Mode is but one example. NM is a slightly different case in that we only publish original content (no news etc.), but it’s still free content. Also, I don’t think I assumed that everyone who writes wants to be a journalist- this would be a bit silly of me since I write, but don’t want to be a journalist.
         
        If you finished this thinking “Oh no, I’d better stop writing about games” then that is a failure of communication on my part, and I apologise. I just want more recognition for the great work people do, and greater renumeration is a part of that. Please keep writing.
         
        The writing on Nightmare Mode, and many other sites, is worth paying for.

  4. protensity

    Worth a read on why “games journalism” is in such a weird place RT @nitemaremodenet “Reality Check: Murder We Wrote http://t.co/94llSuSe

  5. WombatofDoom42

    The problem, of course, is that it turns into a vicious cycle– people work for free so places stop paying so people have to work for free if they want to work so places stop paying so…Of course, I guess I run one of those free sites and often work for free myself, so I guess that makes me a murderer, too.

  6. AGBear

    @EmmaJaneCorsan Wow, thanks!

    • EmmaJaneCorsan

      @AGBear You’re welcome. It kinda hit home for me. Your sentiment was perfect and I really enjoyed it despite the guilt that accompanied it!

      • AGBear

        @EmmaJaneCorsan It seems to have riddled everyone with guilt. The main point was to encourage people to monetize their stuff and buy mags!

        • EmmaJaneCorsan

          @AGBear I got that too, I used to buy lots of mags but ever since I took up the mantle of filmmaker, I rarely can afford anything else!

        • EmmaJaneCorsan

          @AGBear Perhaps I’ll come up with a film idea that needs lots of magazines as props!

        • AGBear

          @EmmaJaneCorsan You gots to sell your writes!

        • EmmaJaneCorsan

          @AGBear I know, I keep telling myself I’ll look into that but never get around to it. To be honest, not sure I’m sellable. Not yet at least.

  7. MidnightReyn

    @AGBear Very good read. Thank you for linking it.

    • AGBear

      @MidnightReyn Glad you enjoyed it :)

  8. Iain Cheyne

    Flattr or something like it might be a solution.

  9. xMattieBrice

    @stillgray @desensitisation @AGBear Funny, I just wrote something antithetical to this.

    • desensitisation

      @xMattieBrice @stillgray @AGBear Link me when it’s published.

      • xMattieBrice

        @desensitisation @stillgray @AGBear It has to do more with money than the quality of writing, but I def will :)

        • desensitisation

          @xMattieBrice @stillgray @AGBear Money is something I’ve been thinking about a LOT lately, so I’m super excited to read this.

        • AGBear

          @desensitisation @xMattieBrice @stillgray Thanks for the kind words everyone. Mattie- get linkin’ when you’re done!

  10. AGBear

    @JoeThreepwood Thanks Joe, means a lot coming from you!

  11. AGBear

    @GoodWritingVG Thanks man, I’m glad you liked it. Seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, which is great :)

    • GoodWritingVG

      @AGBear I agree with the sentiment though. I pay loads to support my fav publications. (Also, @scroll_vg is wonderful.)

      • AGBear

        @GoodWritingVG @scroll_vg I’ll check it out!

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  14. That wonderful philosophy, “to put your money where your mouth is,” goes a long way. The world would be a very different place if more people followed that simple guideline.
     
    Yet even if I fully encourage putting our money where our mouths are, I’m not quite convinced that all of our mouths should be where you say. The way you put it, it almost sounds like its wrong to write for free. I’m specially troubled by that John Walker quote you mentioned, “if you work for free, you make words worth nothing, and that’s a disservice to everyone else.” Words aren’t worthless just because they don’t cost any money. I will always be in favor of people expressing their opinions freely.
     
    Having said that, the problem you speak of is indeed very real, but I don’t think the problem lies so much in the proliferation of free information, but rather in a culture educated to be almost allergic to payed content, and unappreciative of quality writing. I still pay to read what the pros write, because they write on a whole other level, and I can appreciate that. The fact that most people fail to see that is disheartening, but I still don’t think we should blame free content.

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  16. AGBear

    @CraigBamford Thank you

  17. AGBear

    @CraigBamford Meant to put an exclamation mark on that. It was an enthusiastic thank you

    • CraigBamford

      @AGBear It…hit a little close to home. There’s reasons why I can’t contribute to NM on an ongoing basis, and I really wish I could.

  18. Relevant: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/why-beat-reporters-matter/Content?oid=2037437

    •  @Michael Robinson I read that David Simon piece a couple of weeks ago, and to be honest it probably did inspire my writing to some degree. While I’m not pretentious enough to equate games journalism with the importance of legal journalists or police scrutinisers, there are definitely similarities to be drawn.
       
      Thanks for linking it in the comments, because it’s great further reading on the decline of print media.

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