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Ruin And Recovery In Games Journalism (With Jason Schreier)

Is games journalism as we know it dying or just changing?

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It sure is an interesting time for games journalism, which as we’ve all learned from living in continually interesting times, is not necessarily – or even typically – a good thing. Layoffs are a regular occurrence. Sites, when they’re not being horribly mismanaged, are shutting down right and left. Promising young voices are jumping the fence into PR and development. How do we come back from this? And what will it look like? On a very special Inside Baseball Week episode of Aftermath Hours, we discussed all of that and more.

This week, Luke and I are joined by our former Kotaku colleague, author and Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier. True to the theme, we spend most of the episode discussing the state of games journalism: Are layoffs and site closures a sign that traditional games journalism is dying? Or is it just evolving into a new, perhaps more sustainable form? How can new websites hope to grow when younger audiences largely follow creators? And to what extent does that ecosystem even facilitate journalism? 

Then Jason gives us a preview of his upcoming book about the history of Blizzard, tantalizing us with scoops and phrases like “Chris Metzen fistfight.” Finally, we wind down by answering questions about what Jason’s workday looks like, whether he’s considered going independent, writers who inspired us, the ramifications of platforming awful people, and Inside Baseball Week itself. 

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that at least one website survives while all the others are shoveled into the coal furnace of oblivion. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Nathan: The people running these sites do seem totally OK with them just collapsing under themselves. Yeah, they're gonna make money off them first, but whatever happens after -- presumably after selling them -- happens. They wash their hands of it. They're good. You do that enough times to enough places, and eventually you just run out of websites. There aren't any left. I'm sure that Polygon and IGN survive this. But anything smaller than that -- potentially even Kotaku -- probably doesn't.

Jason: Yeah, and I mean, a big question here is: What sort of value, if I work at a gaming website, are we bringing to readers that they can't get anywhere else? That, I think, is going to be a fundamental existential question for a lot of these sites. At the end of the day, if your traffic is reliant on, like, being on Metacritic on embargo day because that's where a surge of your traffic comes from -- people wanting to see the latest eight out of ten [score] for a bid-budget game or whatever -- I'm sure there's interesting insight you're bringing to the table, but it's also one of 100 other reviews that people are reading. Not to mention all this stuff on YouTube and Twitch. Fundamentally, you're not bringing a lot of unique value for people that they wouldn't be able to get at an IGN or Polygon.

I think if you're running a games site these days and you're trying to future proof yourself against this current, awful downturn, that's the question I would be asking: What do we offer that will make us stand out from the pack? That's what you guys have been doing quite well at and what some others have. But unfortunately, yeah, Nathan, some of these sites I don't think are gonna make it. The big ones will survive, and some of the mid-sized ones might not. That's just part of the cycle I mentioned earlier, unfortunately.

Luke: It's funny because you mentioned that cycle, and it's almost a consequence of the churn that was present in Nathan's article that he just posted where it laments that because there's so much turnover in the games press, there's very limited amounts of retention. You get very few seasoned, experienced people staying in the industry long term who are able to not only share that experience with newer and younger hires but also to have some perspective on wider trends in the business. People who have been in it for a longer time might remember that the boom period you mentioned, Jason -- 2014 or 2015 through the start of 2019 or 2020--

Jason: The era when they actually flew you out to New York. That's how you knew it was the boom time.

Luke: Yeah, that's another story. But that was sort of the golden age. That's when Kotaku had by far its highest staff count. But when I started at the website in 2006, there was only a handful of full-time video game websites. I actually started part-time because Gawker couldn't afford to have six staff members full-time and was only paying us $10 a post. Then you went through a period where video game websites grew a little bit and then started contracting a little bit. 1UP went bust, Joystiq went bust, and then it contracts again. And then we go through the boom period I just mentioned, and now we're going through a contraction again.

On my most optimistic days, I do look at it like that, like 'Hey, we're going through a contraction now. There will be survivors, and hopefully in five years time, we'll be looking at a healthier scene.' Other parts of me, though, are like 'There's been so much turnover and such a loss of experience, especially at a senior editorial level, that I don't know what that business is going to look like in five years.' Even if there is some kind of healthy headcount, what does the business look like when so much of that older boom period resulted in a number of senior people who'd been at the same website for a long time, who developed skills and perspective that can really help shape a website and help the whole medium grow and mature. I feel like video game journalism really went through that in the 2010s, where so many people stuck around and were so good at their jobs for so long that it was like a rising tide lifting all boats. Now so many people have been lost whether to development -- the development side -- or other media or they're just out of the field altogether. 

I'm just worried that the next period of relative calm will be punctuated by people who don't have that experience and have been brought up to work in a field that is far more friendly to publishers and far more aware of an influencer-style of content -- far less interested in doing investigative journalism or serious criticism. If they were raised in a scenario where you've got to pay the bills and stay alive, then websites might be more interested in paying the bills and staying alive rather than putting in more serious work.

Nathan: I think the other big issue we're looking at is, after a certain age level, a lot of people just don't read about games anymore. On top of that, it's a structural thing. They don't go to the parts of the internet that even contain more traditional websites. They mostly stay on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, and places like that. When you have that issue, then even if you're doing really good work that would appeal to a lot of these people, they just may never find it or hear about it. Or they might think the idea of what you're doing is cool, but they might think 'That's not really how I engage with stuff, and I don't have time to put in all the effort to become part of these communities you're making. And I already have my own communities where I think the people are cool and good, so I don't need to.'

It does feel like there's a hard line there that's really difficult to get around. Even when you cover things that those people might be interested in. I spent a long time writing about Twitch. And I still do sometimes; I've got a book coming out about it. But I feel like many of the people who would've liked that work never found it. Some did, but even then, it was a lot of older people who follow these scenes. Younger people would maybe hear about it by way of a content creator reading my article on stream or something. They wouldn't go support the work directly because there are all these other obstacles to getting there. As long as that remains the status quo, I think it pretty heavily benefits companies, because companies are already really hooked into that ecosystem, they do sponsored deals with content creators, all of that. And so the way that a lot of content creators talk about games is just very different than how we do.

Luke: Do you think that's the same customer, though? Someone who's so embedded in the influencer ecosystem that they can't differentiate between the two things might not be our [audience]. We're not going to be IGN. We're never going to appeal to everyone with a whole suite of content. We're definitely appealing to a certain type of person invested into a certain type of games coverage. I don't know if ultra-young people who are super into the social content ecosystem might even be the people we're chasing if they're getting their stuff through TikTok and YouTube shorts and Instagram and whatever. That might be a wider problem that is completely out of our control. That's a shifting cultural generational trend thing. I don't know if we can fight that battle.

Jason: Yeah I don't know. I think you have to kind of meet people where they're at. The newspaper of record these days, The New York Times, is doing all sorts of multimedia stuff. They have podcasts and newsletters. It's trying to reach people wherever they are. I think that is ultimately the solution. That's not to say every website should be trying to do everything. It's kind of recognizing the audience you're trying to pursue and doing it that way.

(Podcast production by Multitude.)

Inside Baseball is a week of stories about the lesser-known parts of game development, the ins and outs of games journalism, and a peek behind the curtain at Aftermath. It's part of our first subscription drive, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing!

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