The State of Videogame Journalism

It’s a bit of a horror story, an American horror story, and I’m not talking about the new television show about to premiere on the FX network. In the past week, what can only be described as terror has struck fear in the hearts and minds of many videogame journalists. Here’s why.

*Yesterday, Future Public Limited Company, a U.K.-based publisher of many of the U.S. enthusiast magazines like Nintendo Power and the Official Xbox Magazine, rocked the investor world by suggesting that it may sell off its U.S. division entirely. Or, the magazines might go digital instead. Or the magazines could go digital and then be offered for sale. Future will explain more on November 24.

*Word is that another lauded but struggling game magazine is about to go bi-monthly, and it may go belly-up before June of next year.

*Russ Frushtick, one of our early members and the witty writer/editor for Multiplayer, the MTV game blog, was let go last week in a round of poor-economy-related layoffs that hit employees across Viacom. Russ’ smart freelancers were hurt by the decision as well.

*Some game magazines and web sites are not paying freelancers in a timely fashion. I spoke with a Critics Circle member who is fed up with payments that come months late. That member, a terrific writer and a knowledgeable gamer, is readying to leave the industry entirely.

*The cutbacks are harming the reputations of well-known videogame websites as well. At GameSpy, which recently went through a slew of firings, new editor Bennett Ring was taken to the woodshed by readers for writing a clueless preview of Blizzard’s latest entry in the lauded Diablo series. He made things worse by lashing back at the onslaught on Twitter. I actually sent him list of videogame books to read. Perhaps this was a move that bordered on the obnoxious. Nonetheless, he chose not to reply, not with vehemence, not with a thank you.

During one of the previous recessions, I wrote an opinion piece for Mediaweek magazine. I said I was glad to see a spate of consumer magazines bite the dust because they were either redundant in the market, poorly written, oddly conceived or just plain twee. And I said recessions end, and when they end, they give rise to new ideas for great new magazines. There was hope then, and there’s hope now.

Yet this particular recession feels different. This isn’t the end of print, as the nervous nellies are proclaiming. But what’s happening is indeed troubling. Smart media observers realize that the publishers and editors of print magazines devoted to the world of gaming have to kick things up many notches in order to stay in business as they vie against competition from websites and blogs. The editing and assigning has to be more thoughtful and more courageous and the stories have to engage readers in ways that they haven’t before. Marketing and sales departments have to be push harder to garner a mix of ads that isn’t videogame related.

The question is, how? The answer must come from the brightest minds at these magazines as they conceive and plan beyond the norm. They stakes are higher than ever before. If they don’t implement groundbreaking new ideas, they won’t survive. And both game journalists and game enthusiasts will be the worse for it. Those magazines themselves? They are, in some inexplicable way, transmogrified in our minds to become our pals. And as Flaubert cautioned, “A friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.”

–Harold Goldberg

2 thoughts on “The State of Videogame Journalism

  1. Great roundup of the latest horror stories, Harold.

    This reminds me of the great Lad Mag pruning of many years ago, with books like Stuff, FHM, POV, etc. getting cancelled left and right. In this particular case, much of the blame has to go to these publications themselves, refusing to change with the times and the shifting demographics of interactive entertainment consumers — instead they kept chasing the same teen-to-20-something male “core” audience. Too much of it is guys writing for themselves and their friends, and unable to connect with a wider audience.

    I could go on, and I’ve seen plenty of warning signs over the years since I first started covering games as an editor at UGO back in 1998, but I’ll instead end with the advice I give anyone who asks me how to do for a living what people like you and I do.

    I always tell them to be a writer first and a gamer second. Go out and get some experience covering other things — politics, business, the plumbing supply industry, etc. The overlapping circles you and I run in, Harold, are full of wonderfully talented people who have exactly that kind of wide-ranging experience, but that’s not the case with many of these in-trouble publications, and that may be part of the larger systemic problem.

    -DA

    • Very nicely put, Dan. And I remember recessions before the Lad Mad pruning in which magazines like Egg deservedly bit the dust. I think what feels different to me at this moment is the scrape of the double dip recession, or whatever the pundits are currently calling the malaise we’re in today.

      As the wound heals, it gets cut again.

      You’re right about being a writer first. I’ve always considered myself a good generalist … with some specific niches about which I care deeply.

      Yet I do hate to hear about talented people thinking seriously of quitting. The only thing we can do is keep on going, keep on inventing and reinventing, and working, or working to get work — even if we’re tired. The alternative, of course, is worse than being tired.

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