In the wake of a new rush towards the video games journalism industry many self-starters, spin-off websites, and indie publications such as our own have came about under their own rules. This flexible gaming press scenario is unlike any ever seen before the massive embrace of online gaming publications after a long era of highly successful print magazines that covered the latest in technology and video games. Fast forward to today, and we find a bubbling industry full of video games websites spinning their own news, opinions, and reviews. Sometimes that same flexibility that gives indie publications the chance to reach their audience becomes a double edged sword and high level editorial staff end up on the receiving end of an internet scandal. I sat down with Daniel Horowitz (Longtime Colleague, Gaming Enthusiast, and Continue Play Contributor *among other things) to discuss this new age of internet journalism and the responsibilities an indie publication should be expected to uphold to their readers and business partners.
Jon: First off, thanks for joining me here Dan and I just wanted to say that it’s been a pleasure working with you over the years across various publications throughout my years covering video games in a press capacity. In regard to the main topic at hand, I want to start out by saying of course nobody is perfect and that this is meant to be a productive and beneficial discussion about real issues that all of us in the industry must contemplate as we move forward. Certain events take place in the public eye of the industry and cause us to re-think how we do things as a team or as individuals in our professional workplace. Like, for example – When does a business relationship end and a personal communication begin? Certainly many readers have other issues on their mind as well, such as whether or not reviews are being “bought out” or otherwise incentivized in any way.
Dan: Absolutely, Jon. The pleasure is all mine. It’s been great working with you and getting to know you as we both have evolved and expanded our roles both in the gaming press and beyond. I definitely feel that it’s a tough question to answer objectively, in some ways self-owning or owning a publication among a small collective as opposed to being owned by a corporation creates a certain sense of ownership over the content on the site, blurring the lines exactly from where, as you say, the business relationship ends and the personal communications begin.
But just like any brand, no matter how corporate or independent, the brand is distinct and needs to stay distinct from the owner. In your case, RealGamerNewz is not solely Jon Ireson and does not only represent your viewpoints, opinions and sensibilities. It’s a brand that not only provides a venue for independent writers and content creators to give their no-holds barred opinions on specific games and the game industry at large, but also has to maintain certain ethical standards, as it’s not beholden to specific advertisers or game publishers for revenue.
However, the flipside I feel is that as soon as you as soon as you devolve into letting the person take over the publication, you’re no longer a brand; you’re a blog.
Jon: That is a very useful way of looking at it Dan. The staff that you allow to express themselves without fear of backlash or censorship will contribute another piece to the puzzle that makes up your brand’s identity. Rather than being controlling towards writers and content creators we have to be willing to go with the flow sometimes and guide the editorial process more gently allowing good ideas to thrive.
Back on to what readers should expect from the publication, I think there’s a certain kind of trust that gets formed while a user interacts with the website. If a review is being read by a visitor who is passing by, they might not notice whether or not you’ve mentioned review copy disclosure such as getting the game for free and/or themed accessory items within a review kit. However, the dedicated fans your brand is gaining notice everything – and telling them what items were received by the publication (if any, since some reviews are self-financed) is a way to earn trust and be transparent with your audience.
Dan: I definitely feel like corruption in reviews is a bit of an overstated problem, particularly when it comes to independent publications. Corporate publications, of course, are somewhat limited in what they can say about specific games that their parent companies are tasked with promoting, although I feel like they have gotten markedly more honest in recent years — at least in comparison to how they used to be.
The age of the DIY Internet culture means that publications are no longer the gatekeepers of content, game publishers and public relations professionals are. They want certain stories to be told about the brands they represent, and that’s fine. In an ideal world, I don’t feel like reviewers would be pressured to review upon a particularly positive bias, and I personally have never experienced it, even with larger companies that would be more prone to act negatively on a negative review score. They may get upset if you call something ‘generic’ or ‘uninspiring,’ but I feel as though if the publication’s vision and editorial voice can sync up with the writer’s feelings on the game, then an articulate negative review can have just as much impact as a positive one.
Jon: You’ve brought up great points about the review system and to a large extent I can agree with what’s been stated about larger companies doing a better job in recent times. Independent companies seem to do alright with this for the most part as well – but readers are sometimes skeptical based on their own bias while reading; which is something publications both large and small deal with. It seems like gamers are backlashing for lots of different reasons, which is a whole discussion in and of itself.
I do still believe that review copy disclosure in addition to things like a review policy are helpful tools in providing feedback to readers who may want reassurance that the publication takes their review ethics seriously. Over time an honest publication will be able to show that whether they received product or not – it didn’t always mean a glowing review.
What do you see as some of the more important and urgent responsibilities facing an indie publication and their interaction with readers (and business partners)?
Dan: What makes indie publications put out some of the more innovative web content today is the freedom from restraints, and from a purely financial standpoint, the lack of significant revenue. If you don’t have to please advertisers and publishers, then why pull your punches? That being said, I think one of the most important ways an indie publication needs to interact with their readers is by putting the content first, and molding their brand around their content, rather than the other way around. A good feature-led publication will always generate discussion and debate, and even if it proves to be controversial, they are still sparking engagement and debate among their readers, which will multiply due to the constant starting of thought-provoking discussion.
On the flipside, an indie publication does have to at least recoup its maintenance and start-up costs in order to be a successful business. That requires a certain amount of discretion, and although they are not beholden to anyone, they do need to foster and maintain relationships with advertisers and content creators to survive. The market is oversaturated as it is, and for every Sony fanboy, you’ll have another Microsoft fanboy swearing their fealty to the opposing corporation. In that sense, a publication that can successfully straddle the line between corporate and indie, by maintaining a consistent and clear vision to their readers, and not get muddled in personal politics or scandal is one that will consistently grow both in quality and quantity of readership.
Jon: Another thought that comes to mind is that although we are just gamers ourselves with a habit of writing and editing thousands of articles, we have an opportunity that many gamers would love to have and do not. Our discussions with industry professionals who make the games / tech / film / music / tv / comics that we review, report on, and often times interview about were once the dreams of every gamer that had already been dismissed as impossible before the door was swung wide open by the epoch of new ease-of-use centric internet tools becoming commonplace.
The evolution of the relationship between the gamer and the game creator has come to a point where there can be instantaneous contact from fans. However, an independent publication has access to an even deeper level of contact that essentially prevents those same entities from really hiding from us. I think part of being responsible is doing your duty to the fans of these creators, artists, programmers, writers, public relations professionals, and industry insiders is to get the information that readers want to read and show these industry professionals the respect that they deserve.
Some of the communications between gaming websites and public relations (or even developers of content for that matter) has made fans of these games stop and ask themselves why they aren’t just running their own communication line to these developers. There’s something to be said about inspiring other readers to quit reading and start writing their own content, talking to developers directly, and apologize on behalf of gamers for what other sites have done with such an incredible opportunity.
Dan: I think a lot of readers would be both delighted and somewhat surprised to know that joining the games industry as a journalist is actually a lot simpler than you would think. All you have to do is buy a few current games, review them to the best of your ability, write a few insightful features, and maybe a current news piece or two, and then contact a newly formed growing publication. There are plenty of places, that, as I like to put it, are the proving grounds of games journalism. But it’s a lot more difficult to actually get paid and recognized for your work at all, and many will toil at these low tier indie publications, churning out news pieces and top ten lists until they burn out and move on with their lives and ambitions.
That’s not to say it has to be or should be that way. Don’t get stuck working under people you don’t agree with or respect, especially in an age where it’s perfectly possible to start your own thing and generate your own revenue. After many mediocre gigs writing first for free, and then after building experience, for the highest bidder, it only dawned on me recently it’s possible to create your own site and craft your own editorial vision, even if it doesn’t align with what others want. After much deliberation and feet-dragging, I was compelled to help found Continue Play [http://continue-play.com/] which in the midst of a huge relaunch and in a very short while has built upon existing contacts spent from years working in the industry as a writer and editor.
I never realized the power of having a strong network until now, and I feel like one aspect that makes an indie publication a front-contender is a strong network. While an indie publication needs to earn the respect and trust of its readers, having a large dedicated team of writers and content creators, of people who are not only excited and passionate about games and others forms of media, but also about writing and creating, is what separates the critics from the ranters, the critiques from the sermons, and the analysis from the dogged fan loyalty.
Jon: One more angle to this entire situation that I’d like to discuss is the separation of brand from individual (as you’ve pointed out above), but in regard to social networks. A social network account for a brand, in my opinion, should not be used as if it were a personal account for an individual. Instead, I believe readers should expect a feed of info about the indie publication that the account represents (for example each time RealGamerNewz has a new article published, we tweet and share it on Facebook), but not lengthy and deeply personal conversations with other social network users. Adversely, social accounts should not just be used to spam links to the world exclusively.
It is my belief that an indie publication such as RealGamerNewz or Continue Play should use their social network presence to engage with their audience and content creators who could potentially contribute a new source of news and interviews for the publication to provide to its readers. The real behind-the-scenes work should stay behind-the-scenes, but the social presence shouldn’t be boring; it should be professional and precise in the wording of statements.
Unfortunately, I wish it ended there. While I am a huge supporter of free speech and personal individuality being important to the human race, I can’t help but feel like any social network account that is known to belong to a member of staff at a publication can sometimes have its statements used against said publication. While certainly we should never try to control our authors, there will be times when the behavior of individuals is reflected upon the brand permanently by the audience of any racy exposé material.
To what responsibility do you believe readers should hold publications in terms of offensive material on social networks, when posted in personal context on an individual’s account? Also, do you think publications use their official accounts for too much personal chatter, and what other thoughts does this bring to mind as an experienced author / editor?
Dan: Well it’s a tough line to walk for sure. Social accounts for brands (particularly Twitter as it involves direct audience interaction) need to be engaging but not too informal. It’s always a great idea to reach out to new followers on your social networking platforms and get them interested in your content. It shows you pay attention, and it shows you care about your readership. That being said, you want to be seductive, but not too alluring. You’re a provider of content for the reader, not their personal friend, and you don’t want it to come off in a way that it seems like you’d be perfectly willing to swap Snapchat info in the back of a pickup truck.
This is where personal accounts and brand accounts differ. Personal accounts are also used for networking, but they also can be more, well, personal. Feel free to tweet or share Facebook statuses that are ridiculous and somewhat off-kilter, as well as personal photos and things about yourself. That is, unless these things tend to be things that the majority of people in your target demographic would find horribly offensive. Don’t use it a platform to make sexist or racist jokes, or anything so out-there that it would legitimately be offensive to people reading your social profiles. Keep it wacky, keep it funny, keep it philosophical if you want to, but don’t keep it offensive.
As a caveat to that, don’t use your social accounts to make the world purview to all of the illegal things you may be doing. If you’re sniffing a hooker’s naked body, it would be a good idea not to post this or about this to any social media accounts. What would you think if one of your favorite athletes or celebrities did the same? You may not be a celebrity, but you need to act with a modicum of discretion. Don’t compromise yourself or your brand with any back-door dealings.
Still, it’s important to maintain the distinction between the company profile and the personal profile, and make sure each are engaging in a way that is appropriate to the particular audience.
Anyway, I think that about covers the ethical responsibilities of an indie publication in this day and age: stay honest, create compelling content, surround yourself with a team of hard-working individuals who put analysis before dogma, and actively maintain your brand image, both with your company and personal social accounts.
Hope that was helpful to those of you who read, and I look forward to many more discussions with you, Jon. Feel free to weigh in the comments section below.