Why Is It That Video Game Publications Want Their Journalists To Write For Free?
Video Game Journalism these days seems to be dying a slow death, and it looks like this has been going on for quite a while. The niche writing topic has reached a point of such saturation that it’s more like we’re drowning in publications that focus solely on Video Games and the related culture. Add in the vast number of publications that have a ‘Video Game’ section, and it looks like most outlets cover Video Games to a certain extent.
With this over-saturation comes a number of problems — some of which aren’t unique just to Video Game Journalism, but Journalism as a profession. Well, at least it’s still technically a profession, although one that’s getting less lucrative as time goes on. Although, it seems that Journalism that focuses on Video Games seems like the perfect case study of what’s going wrong with Journalism as a whole, and not just because it’s the aspect of writing and reporting that I’ve the most experience in.
The first problem is pretty self evident: With so many publications, how does a publication that focuses on Video Games get notices when there’s literally thousands of other publications that are vying for the same eyeballs? Maybe people will answer with ‘Well, just produce quality content and perform some strategic marketing and you’ll be fine.’ That’s all well and good; it’ll cut out the competition of most other publications — quality content isn’t exactly their strong suit (more on that later on). But that leaves thousands more publications still vying for those eyeballs and, by extension, ad revenues.
Which leads us perfectly to the second problem: If you’re not generating any ad revenue — or very little of it — how do you pay your writers? It’s seems like a basic principle; you pay an employee, freelance or otherwise, a mutually agreed upon amount in exchange for their services. Easy to grasp, right? Then why do the founders/owners/editors of most publications refuse to grasp this? If you look around most sites that offer Video Game Journalism positions, you’ll see that most publications offer no financial incentive to their writers. Many offer the possibility of being paid somewhere down the line, if the publication starts to generate revenue, which is always a big if. Here’s one job site dedicated to Video Game Journalism jobs. Have a look and see how many paying Journalism jobs you can see. Out of that, how many would you pay a salary of any sorts, let alone enough to justify the work involved?
What do Video Game Journalists get out of the unpaid positions that are constantly on offer, aside from the possibility of a paid position with them somewhere down the line? Experience, a unique platform (aren’t they all?) and exposure, and the possibility of getting a paid position somewhere else down the line. Well, to paraphrase Wil Wheaton, exposure isn’t going to pay my f*cking bills.
And what’s the result of all of these unpaid positions? Low quality “journalists” creating low quality content and trying to pass themselves off as some sort of Christopher Hitchens or Hunter S Thompson, except reincarnated as a Video Game Journalist. Well, if either writer were brought back from the dead and had the brain functionality of a zombie, then there might be some comparison between what so-called Video Game “Journalists” currently produce and what Zombie Hitchens and Zombie Thompson might produce. (Even on their worst days, Hitchens and Thompson’s articles were still miles ahead of what most writers are producing today. Comparing them to some of the Video Game hacks of today would be a dis-service to the deceased.)
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Video Game Journalism is an art form that is dying well before it’s time. Quality Video Game Journalism is something that should be paid for; not offering any form of monetary reward means that Quality Journalism isn’t something you’ll be getting. This, in turn, creates an endless cycle: Publications refuse to/can’t pay for quality journalism, they get a bog standard article based on a press release that’s being regurgitated by countless other publications, and they don’t get many views because nothing about the article stands out, resulting in less page views and less money from advertising or sponsorship. This lack of financial generation results in publications not being able to pay for quality Journalism. Wash, rinse and repeat.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a way to turn the ship — and it’s down to both Video Game Journalists and the Owners/Editors of Video Game Publications to come to an agreement: basically, pay the god-damn Journalist what his/her time and skill is worth. You’re paying for Quality Content and the less you pay, the less likely you are to get Quality Content, simply because if we aren’t getting paid for our work, we have to go do something that pays our bills, meaning that we’ve less time and energy to devote to producing something that people actually want to read/watch/listen to. As easy as that might sound, not every Owner of a Publication can afford to pay their Journalists. There’s a simple solution to that: if you can’t afford to pay someone for their services, don’t ask them to do it. You wouldn’t get a Plumber to fix your sink without paying him, so why ask a Journalist to do it?