Home > peer-production of content > It’s about Underpayment in (Game) Journalism

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.

  1. chapo
    June 4, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with a fair bit of what you say. The internet has up-ended the traditional journalism model and they are still scrambling to make it work.

    However, the comment about Wikipedia made my ears perk up, since it is somewhat of a hobby of mine. Wikipedia really struggles with expert editors: they don’t want to edit in the bureaucratic and anti-elitist atmosphere on Wikipedia. And of course, they don’t get recognition for their work, since nobody “owns” articles on Wikipedia.

    Also, One of Wikipedia’s problems is that it is in fact not good at assigning people to tasks which are needed – it is simply not done in the volunteer culture. And many of the tasks involved in writing an encyclopedia are not fine-grained tasks which Benkler says are suitable for open-source development. (see http://www.congo-education.net/wealth-of-networks/ch-04.htm#4-2)

    Benkler is too Pollyanna-ish anyway about Wikipedia. I should add that the Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is a past fellow of the Berkman Center and they have often collaborated with Wikipedia.

    There is plenty of material about Wikipedia, Berkman center and other things at Wikipediocracy.com.

  2. Someone
    June 4, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Hello. I don’t have much against your article but there are some assumptions you make, and contradictions, which are pretty clear to see, leaving the average reader somewhat confused.

    You mention GG. So, obviously, you need to mention both sides. Clearly some people piggybacked the hashtag to troll, and surely enough you know that could be done by anyone for any reason. It is not a formal movement, so I feel that yes, you could address such comments (along with the reasonable ones) as an indication of what the movement might be about, still, its not any form of “proof” for anything.

    When explaining gaming journalism, you mention Hanlon’s Razor, as an alternative to what GG perceives as intentional malice. Then, right after you mention that the formula gaming journalism (and even journalism in general) uses, is based on clicks, and the easier way to get clicks is through clickbait, sensationalized headlines, and outright false information. How is that not malicious? It is absolutely not incompetence, most of them know well what they’re talking about. They know what brings clicks: and that’s not the true, and ethical way. If you want to get some cheap clicks from people who don’t know your outlet, and have no respect for it, you use clickbait and somewhat succeed. That goes directly in contrast with what people like TotalBiscuit do: he does reasonable, objective, ethical and fair analysis of things that are not subjective (specs, framerates, resolutions, playability, the kind of stuff that MATTERS for games), and he has a much larger audience, although he built it in long term, they are faithful viewers who are not in for the politics or the “ideas”, neither do they want to know about drama, or anything some game journalism outlets do. They want good content, and TB provides them exactly with that.

    If you wanna get paid you need to provide your audience with what they want. There are several examples of people reporting on what matters in gaming: objective and unbiased report on features and gameplay. We don’t want you to inject your politics and personal points of view in your reporting, we understand your need to virtue signal how progressive you are to the world by complaining about pointless things in a fictional world conflating it with the real world. If I wanted to know about real world politics I would just go to someone who actually understand about these matters, instead of a half-assed mix between gaming and political journalism.

    Also, shitting on your audience is a terrible way to make them like you. It’s a very effective way of making them not wanting to give you any money even if it only meant clicking in an ad for a few seconds, but I’m sure most of them would be fine watching an entire minute ad in a TB video (as long as he does the ethical thing and discloses it fine).

  3. Joe Linder
    June 4, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Your journalists hate you, and your hobby openly, the “problem” is you don’t pay them enough.

  4. TwinSatellite
    June 4, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Now wait just a second here.

    I understand that media is on a decline here.I understand you are payed peanuts. I understand adblocking and free alternatives mean there is a course to clickbait. I understand angering the audience is a good way to farm clicks here.

    But that doesn’t change the matter that what game journalists are doing is an hostile takeover of gaming culture under the guise of “feminism”, “diversity” and “progressivism”.
    I’m not a chump, I realize there is tons on money on the tech industry, and acting as gatekeepers and “consultants” is way more efficient to make dosh that “gaming journalism”.

    I can accept you have to lick corporate ass because goodies they send you can make you a makeshift salary. But painting your audiences as demons for political and cultural differences, that I can’t accept.

    Also, no “respecting member of “the good” Gamergate” (If such a thing even exist on the first place), gonna accept such a deal. “If you help me having more money, maybe I won’t treat you that bad, honest!” What’s that, an hostage situation?

    See the “cuck” people on the twitter right are spamming? It has nothing to do with sexual fetishes or racism. It means serving people who loathe us or see use as expandable pawns is something we won’t, because status and “feeling good”, or even “being accepting to X minority isn’t all. Even us nerds have a sense of pride.

    We won’t do thing because “it’s what’s good, honest!” So,what guarantees there is for the average gamer, or even the average news reader? Because I have seen enough Kickstarters to know that throwing money on problems without any strategy never work ever.

    Sorry for the strong words, but that ridiculous situation lasted long enough.

  5. June 4, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    “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”

    Lyle Yiannopoulos ‏@Lyde15
    @asbruckman You’ve seen ‘misogyny, rape threats, racism’? Where?

    Amy Bruckman ‏@asbruckman
    @Lyde15 Twitter, on the hashtag?

    First off, this is not helpful. If you wan’t to start a dialogue with GamerGate, we would very much appreciate not being demonized based on something someone said on Twitter. Especially not when you offer no proof. Please link to the tweets in question, and then we can take it from there.

  6. The Colour of Heartache
    June 4, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    I agree with your argument, but I think you’ve overlooked something. The gaming community has already created those well paying jobs you ask for.

    Look at youtubers like Total Biscuit. They’re very financially successful and beloved by the gamer community.

  7. william
    June 4, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    For the original concerns “ethics in gaming journalism” were apt. Journalists were doing things that they should not do. Forgetting the disclosure bits which is a solid case, take what happened to Brad Wardell.

    Accused of sexual harassment, later cleared of all wrong-doing in court. (The judge actually compelled his accuser to issue a formal apology/retraction.) When the story first broke, multiple gaming press outlets ran it. Reasonable. However this lead to his wife and children being harassed. After it was proven that he was completely innocent, he reached out to the press for them to correct the record. They gave him the finger. It took GG for at least two sites to finally apologize/issue corrections. Even during GG he has been harassed with the same allegation because the record has not been corrected. Curiously before GG he was harassed by the same person whose attempts to conceal her relationship drama caused sworn enemies (Reddit and 4chan) to work together.

    Or take what happened to wizardchan. On the word of one person, they were condemned as harassers. In return they were harassed. When they reached out to the press to correct the record, they were given the finger.

    Over and over incidents such as these have happened. All the outlets had to post was a followup or a brief amendment. Mistakes happen and people should be forgiven. Reading a court transcipt and writing a couple sentences does not require much. Especially since the wife and kid deserved an apology for the unpleasantness they had to put up with.

    Then there is the tendency of the gaming press to gleefully insult their audience. When people complained, they doubled down. All prior to GG. And that is just gaming journalism.

    Meanwhile, the problem with the big kids is that though they are aware of the current structural failings of the profession, they still source them for their research. When David Brooks of the NYT uses GG as slang for the modern bigot because amateur journalists are making errors, this is a problem. When the WaPo are seeking out known trolls for quotes, editorial oversight has a problem. When tech companies and CEOs are consulting with known harassers for anti-harassment efforts because multiple media outlets vouched for them despite their record, then press accountability is a problem.

    Thank you for looking into this. Keep digging and you will see that you are being too generous. It is a lot worse than you think. (Don’t get me started on Wikipedia. That is has not been working well for years. GG has only brought that to the attention of more people.)

  8. Pete
    June 4, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    Nope, It’s about ethics in game journalism. It’s blatantly obvious that there is a group of professional game journalists who write the same things, think the same way, that is what the problem will always be as long as they are out there.

    If you want to complain about pay scales, take it up with your editors. Good [honest] journos will find somewhere that values them. Or go the youtuber route, there’s a few people making a living that way.

  9. 3mber
    June 5, 2016 at 4:39 am

    I’m not in with GG really, but even I can tell “maybe journalists would do a better job of we paid them more” sounds like the kind of thing only a journalist could write ;).

    My attitude is that we should be extremely critical of misinformation from journalists. Like, if a single counterexample to their claims exists, we should expect corrections. If corrections don’t occur, we should expect that journalist to become *unemployable*, like truckers who have an accident on their record. A journalist’s whole job is to spread accurate information, and an inability or unwillingness to do that is no different from a surgeon who can’t or won’t perform surgery. Once the journalists who can’t do their job are removed, the remaining five or six will be paid very well.

    This may sound like a joke, but in many ways it’s already happening. People’s trust in journalism is at a statistical all-time low, and more and more people are leaving mainstream journalism behind in favor of Youtubers and bloggers who are more directly versed in the fields they write about. If journalism wants to compete, sooner or later they’re going to have to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. One way or another, that’s about where it’ll end.

    • June 5, 2016 at 8:03 am

      I’m not a journalist 😀

      • 3mber
        June 5, 2016 at 5:09 pm

        Didn’t mean to imply you were! Just that the statement sounded like something they’d come up with… and I admit I have actually seen it from journalists before. At the very least, your sentiment is shared by people who are in the industry.

        I think the part that people who say that misunderstand about GG and similar groups, though, is that they don’t actually *want* the journalists to get better at their jobs–they want them *gone*. There’s no shortage of people who are willing to do quality writing on topics they are heavily versed in, and the problem is merely that these people are mixed in indiscriminately with journalists who are unable or unwilling to do their job properly. Someone can’t demand a higher salary when their role is completely vestigial, easily replaced, and, judging from their performance so far, outside their abilities.

  10. June 12, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Very interesting post! I didn’t consider the idea of underpayment before.

    Being someone who’s gone from pro to anti GG, I did have a real interest in journalistic reform, not in some disingenuous plea for ‘critical objectivity’ (an idea that I hate), but for a reform in general competence. I think you make your point about ‘pocket money for amateurs’ very well, but even with well-paid leading journalistic figureheads for giants such as IGN or Gamespot, I just find them to simply be bad writers with a poor eye for criticism.

    This may appear sanctimonious in some way, I’m not saying GAMES JOURNALISM IS IRREVOCABLY SHAFTED because I do have idols in games journalism, intelligent and apt critics, but they are all freelance video essayists.

    Patreon is a wonderful thing, were I old enough to contribute I wouldn’t think twice!

    Smashing post.

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