On Games Churnalism

Written by Joe Martin

May 31, 2011 | 07:24

Tags: #column #journalism #rant

Companies: #bit-gamer

On Games Churnalism

Author's Note: This was originally meant to appear as my Custom PC Grumpy Gamer column for Issue 94, but it seemed to fit better online...

Glancing over the bit-gamer news section, you’d be forgiven if your first reaction was disappointment at the lack of updates. It’s true, we don’t always post every news story that appears on the Internet, but we do that for a reason. Namely that most of the daily stories hitting the Web aren’t news at all, but carefully controlled marketing spiel fed out from publishers or PR agencies. Many of the stories published on big gaming sites are nothing more than deliberately controversial quotes or fluff, while others are just screenshots or videos. We try to only post the ones that don’t fit these rules.

This isn’t a part of some big self-aggrandising lecture. We don’t have a team of professionally trained news writers constantly researching exclusives because – and this is the really depressing factor – such a team is wholly unheard of within the business. Our focus is much more on reviewing hardware and games, so news-wise we often have to cope with acting as a filter.

It begs the question of whether ‘journalism’ is the right word for this job. I’ve been working in this industry for more than five years now, and in that time I’ve only met two people who actually have journalism qualifications. The overwhelming majority are hired for having some degree of writing ability and a broad knowledge of the market, rather than any background or training in journalism or reporting. This shouldn't come as a surprise.

On Games Churnalism
A news story about this image should not require more than one sentence of text

There are benefits to hiring non-journalists, of course. You then have writers who actually know what they’re talking about, for example, rather than being syntactically perfect non-gamers.

The downside to hiring from the pool of gamers, rather than a pool of journalists, is that they often enter the industry laden with biases and with no idea of how the PR machine operates. They aren’t sure of their real responsibilities or whether they should be adversarial, professional or friendly with competitors and publisher spokespeople. That’s certainly what I was like at the start, although I thankfully had the grumpy guidance of former editors Tim Smalley and Richard Swinburne to steer me right.

Print magazines, with their big budgets, publishing companies and more traditional editorial structures, have been largely resistant to these effects in the past. Or the effects have been limited, at least. On the Internet, though, where anyone can set up a website overnight, the problem has spiralled out of control. The result is an apparently endless stream of no-news stories, such as when developers say their next game will be better than the market leader (as if they’d ever say otherwise) or when Twitter rumours are reported as legitimate possibilities. Even the websites run by big publishing companies (such as Future and Dennis) are constantly succumbing to churnalism just to keep up with the bigger and messier blogs, which thrive off the back of this constant cycle of content.

Games publishers release three new screenshots and the ‘journalists’ rush to be the first to upload them, all the while repeating the same developer-satisfying hyperbole – ‘It’ll blow your mind, it’s so visceral, cinematic!’ Really; screenshots aren't news. Sling them in a gallery if you can, but don't make it out to be 'news', because it isn't.

Here’s a tip: if a headline contains a question mark, it’s not a news story. It's a grab for attention.

On Games Churnalism
Capturing screenshots from a trailer? Not news either

I could cite 100 examples if I had the anger and energy to do it, but I don’t. I’m too tired of seeing the same sites rewarded for their lack of research and ethics with a rush of readers, so I’ll skip to a recent example. Did you know that CVG, in a rush to get an extra influx of traffic, has taken to screen-capturing images from official trailers just so it can create more news stories around big games? They've done it with the likes of Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and many more. Just who exactly those stories, found via the excellent GameJournos.com, are serving is something I’ve been unable to deduce. I’m pretty sure the readers know how to use the pause button.

Similarly, I expect most readers want more from the writers they follow than the level of crass, freebie-grabbing, copy-pasting and press release reproduction they currently receive.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not above posting a game trailer or newly-released screenshot into a news story when it makes sense or it's relevant. We’ve even created a new video section on bit-gamer just for game trailers and those who want to see them. What I won’t do, though, is blindly take every press release, developer quote or sliver of information and pad it out into a full article just to keep the advertisers happy.

There’s precious little dignity to be had when you play games for a living and I’m anxious not to let go of what little I’ve got left.
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