Yesterday the rumors started circulating that media conglomerate AOL is planning to close down all sites associated with joystiq.com. A day later, and without any evidence to the contrary (including from AOL), it would seem that a closedown is imminent and that we will soon be without one of the staples in the games news industry.
In what appears to be impeccable (or awful, depending on your viewpoint) timing, I recently interviewed a writer for Massively (one of the impacted sites), Justin Olivetti. The interview is to appear in the upcoming episode 14 of my Beyond Bossfights podcast (to be released Monday, February 2), and the subject we spoke about was blogging and games journalism. One thing that struck me about the interview was how proud Justin is to work for Massively, and how much he enjoys getting paid to do something he loves: write and play games. Indeed, the site seems to go to some lengths to provide transparency of their ethics policy, which is something that seems a bit nebulous throughout much of the rest of the industry.
I wonder, though, if this somewhat stricter adherence to a set of ethical standards in some ways contributed to the site being less profitable than competitors. It’s difficult to say without studying the ethical practice of each competitor, but you don’t have to go far to find numerous examples of games journalists behaving in an ethically questionable manner. Thanks to #gamergate, there are entire websites dedicated to such chronicles. In the hyper-competitive world of online journalism, there is a constant balance being struck between speed, accuracy, completeness, and ethical practices and those that err on the side of caution sometimes don’t get the bulk of the traffic that advertisers covet.
Alternative Chat dropped the word ‘paywall’ into her post this morning, and I’m a little ashamed to admit that this possibility had never crossed my mind. I assumed that AOL’s move was more of a cost savings gesture, or an attempt to streamline down to their core business. But in retrospect, isn’t ‘the news’ kind of AOL’s thing? Didn’t they already strip away a majority of their fringe businesses in order to focus on being an online content portal? And how much of a dent could the dozen or so full-time Joystiq staffers make in the relatively large AOL expense budget? We already know that converting a once-free site to paywall doesn’t work as a business model (unless you’re the NY Times), but launching an entirely new paywalled portal might be something they’d be willing to try. Entirely speculation, of course, but it makes more sense than completely walking away from a growing demographic.*
Lastly, I think back to something that Justin and I discussed on the podcast. I asked him whether he thought non-paid bloggers helped or hurt the paid game journalism sites. On one hand, having non-paid bloggers and enthusiasts pondering various aspects of gaming and leisure might tend to raise awareness of these issues on a grand scale, and keep people searching for, and reading, all game related content. On the other hand, the abundance of free content, unbound by such nuisances as fact checking and codes of ethics, and at times beating the ‘big guys’ to the story, might just be enough to pull eyeballs away from the sites that show up on a media conglomerate’s expense sheet.
Justin answered that he believes the relationship is mutually beneficial. I think I still agree with him.
Featured Image by nicoleleec on Flickr