Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown on the dangers of putting pageviews over readers
The web may be rapidly descending into a morass of BuzzFeed-inspired quizzes and virally headlined image galleries, but much of the game media, and its news desks in particular, continue to work to tradition. News coverage is played with a straight bat and to a rigidly defined template. First comes the news itself, based on a press release or another website’s original reporting. This does the greatest service to your readers, letting them know what’s happening and where they can go to read more about it. It’s also by far the quickest to produce. It won’t, however, get much traffic; other people’s news never does. You need to follow up.
At the opposite end of the scale is a considered, balanced report with input from multiple sources. These might be the most satisfying to read, but they take a relative age to pull together. PRs tend to go into lockdown when a story breaks – if it’s bad news, they want nothing to do with it; if it’s their own announcement, they’d rather let the press release speak for itself – so you may struggle to get the access you need. That just won’t do when you’re on a 20-minute deadline. In an era when news cycles move at such lightning pace, your audience is three or four scandals ahead of you by the time you’re ready to go. And how do you produce an eye-catching headline for a story that goes out of its way to be even-handed? Twenty-two Amazing Industry Reactions To Videogame Drama X (Number 17 Will Make You Cry)?
Little wonder, then, that the most common follow-up to a major story is the opinion piece. While not quite so quick to produce as a PR rewrite, all you need is a single source – your own brain – and the ability to express a viewpoint in enough ways to fill a word count. The headline practically writes itself, you hit your deadline with time to spare, and the clicks and comments roll in.
I’ve written plenty of such pieces in my time, and I’ve never felt entirely comfortable doing them. As my mouse cursor hovered over the Publish button, I would hesitate,
Which is going to get more traffic, the piece that’s evenhanded and nails it, or the patronising, one-eyed one?
wondering if I was about to make a quite profound arse out of myself. I’d be torn apart in the comments, I thought. I’d forever be known as the guy who thought Wrongheaded Thing X about Industry Development Y.
And then I realised it doesn’t matter in the slightest. In fact, given how the Internet works, it might even be better to be wrong. It’s why BuzzFeed and its ilk are so fond of image galleries, and why their headlines point to a single image that falls roughly two-thirds of the way through the set.
Advertising remains online media’s principal source of revenue, and it is still most commonly sold on pageviews. The more clicks your website gets, the greater your ad revenue. Now, which is going to get more traffic, the piece that’s thoughtful, evenhanded and nails it, or the patronising, oneeyed and factually inaccurate one that’s guaranteed to get readers frothing below the line and on social media? There is no distinction between good and bad clicks for the ad men, no metric to differentiate between the reader who leaves happy and the one who departs in abject fury. All that matters is that views are expressed in a browser window, share buttons get clicked, and comments are posted. Take whichever side of the argument you want, just so long as you take a side, and take it quickly.
I’m not saying that writers are going out of their way to be wrong. I’m not sure how I’d get out of bed in the morning if I thought that was the case. But there has never been so much scrutiny on how the videogame press does its job, and with every individual error of judgement, our collective stock falls that much further. We are among the few privileged enough to have a platform for our views. And it’s vital that privilege isn’t abused for the sake of making a few more quid off the advertisers.
I appreciate the irony in using a monthly column to call out op-eds. I realise, too, that the opinion piece predates the Internet by decades, and that there was a time when print media was considered too speedy. In 1858, The New York Times said communiqués by telegraph were “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth”. Perhaps it’s not a question of pace, then, but priorities. A writer’s first obligation isn’t to analytics or advertisers, after all, but to readers. Stop giving our audience reasons to trust us and soon enough we’ll all be pumping out 30-page galleries titled Which Mario Kart 8 Character Are You? And then I really will struggle to get up in the mornings.