It’s about Underpayment in (Game) Journalism
A Twitter acquaintance shared this video with me last night: Buzzfeed’s Color Cabal Conspiracy – Harmful News. In it, the narrator critiques a Buzzfeed article where a naïve writer takes the words of trolls as truth, and Buzzfeed publishes it (with an added footnote later that it might not be true).
I’ve been studying members of the #GamerGate movement, and I’ve seen some awful stuff posted online: misogyny, rape threats, racism, and more. But at the same time, I also see that a subset of GamerGate supporters are reasonable people, and the movement has some valid points. One point is that journalism is in crisis.
The tag line for GamerGate is “It’s about ethics in game journalism.” I object to the use of the word “ethics.” Using that word implies that people are deliberately writing incorrect things. I think that’s giving the writers too much credit, assuming they know the truth and are deliberately subverting it. I’m sure there are cases where that is true, but I will argue that in the overwhelming majority of cases, Hanlon’s Razor comes into play: never attribute to malice to what can be explained by simple incompetence.
Changing business models have created problems for the current state of journalism—all the incentives are out of whack. If a freelance writer is paid a couple hundred dollars for a story, how much time can they afford to spend on it? I used to write short articles for Wired when I was a graduate student, and made enough for a bit of extra spending money—like going out to dinner or on a weekend trip. But for an adult with rent to pay, it can’t even scratch the surface. And payment has dropped dramatically over the last several years.
If you pay people pocket money, you get amateurs. Even worse, if you pay per click, you get writers pandering to prurient interests. Jack Murtha writes in the Columbia Journalism Review:
[Pay-per-click] was once the crown jewel of content-heavy startups like Gawker, where young writers typed dozens of articles each week, aggregating and snarking their way to a digital-media empire. Now it’s something of a financial loophole used by content mills that prey on desperate young journalists, who scrape together clickbait in exchange for pennies.
Contrast the situation of a pay-per-click writer to a salaried journalist. The person on salary is rewarded for careful work, and is assigned to cover topics based on their importance, rather than self selecting what they think will earn clicks. In his foundational work on the nature of peer production, Harvard law professor Yokai Benkler notes that a strength of peer production is that individuals self identify for tasks they are qualified for. That works pretty well for things like open-source software and Wikipedia. And it even works pretty well for unpaid writing—expert bloggers often self-identify to write pieces on topics they care about and are knowledgeable about. But where it doesn’t work is when in journalism the peer production economy overlaps with the micropayment economy, and we get, as Murtha notes, clickbait in exchange for pennies.
Instead of saying “It’s about ethics in game journalism,” I suggest that GamerGate folks say, “It’s about underpayment in game journalism.” And we might as well remove the word “game”: It’s about underpayment in journalism. I will argue that the gaming press is a bellwether for the rest of the industry. Because game journalism is arguably less important than political or business journalism, it is leading the way in de-professionalization.
Fortunately, the solution to all this is pretty easy: Be willing to pay for quality news. If you care about game journalism or journalism more generally, find a venue that pays a living wage to talented professionals, and be willing to pay for it.
Addendum: Since a few people were confused, I am not a journalist. I teach and do research at Georgia Tech.