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Why Do We Give Away Our Work?

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  • So I've been struggling in the world of game "journalism" for a few years now and I've started to wonder... why are so many of us giving away our work for free instead of demanding at least a token fee? The standard arguments are "You're gaining experience so you shouldn't expect to be paid," or "There's just not much money in the field so you'll just have to work for the exposure until you get picked up." I understand where these ideas are coming from, but they don't work for several reasons:

    1) People get paid to do a job regardless of level of experience.

    If you are in an entry-level position in any other field, from pipe-fitting to nuclear physics, you gain some sort of salary for your efforts. Sure, you may not make much, but you're still getting paid. Writing doesn't seem to work that way. With the proliferation of gaming sites on the Internet anyone can set up a webpage and start spouting off their opinions, regardless of talent. At least in most other fields there is a barrier of entry, a requisite starting point where someone can say "You have the basic skills needed to do this job" but that doesn't seem to be the case in our field. Thus, lots of "volunteer" sites pop up and those of us hungry for work get sucked in with the hopes of being noticed by a large website or publication. It just doesn't work that way though, and all we're doing is creating a pool of unpaid labor that continues to allow unqualified and unnecessary websites and blogs to exist, further diluting the pool of good writing and good writers availabe in this field.

    2) It's not what you know, it's who you know.

    I know this adage is true in almost any field, but in writing I'm sad to say it's not really a meritocracy at all. There are plenty of good writers out there, but very few of them make a living at this. Why? Because they don't personally know John Davidson, Garnett Lee, Andy Mac, Shoe, Geoff Keighley, Adam Sessler or Brian Crecente. Game journalists as a whole tend to be a very close-knit group, for better or for worse, meaning that nepotism (in an expanded sense of the word) is pretty rampant. Very rarely does someone new break into the mix, but rather sites and publications just tend to pass around the same key staff members from one job to the next. As an example, look at the career of Patrick Klepek (1Up, MTV, G4), is he a particularly amazing writer? Not really, though he is quite good he's not gaming's version of Roger Ebert, his success is based on the fact that pretty much everyone in the industry knows who he is, and he can jump from one job to another simply based on his name. While this is a testament to the success of personal branding, it's also evidence that no one else has a chance if a job opening comes along and Klepek decides he wants it. Your talent doesn't matter, he's already got the job because the editor probably already knows him.

    These forums are meant to gin up discussion so I'll leave you with a question, how are we supposed to get better as a profession if we continue to allow ourselves to be hamstrung by bad writers and governed by the laws of familiarity rather than ability? While I encourage everyone to write feverishly in order to develop the skills necessary to succeed, I beg you to do it on your own site or blog (or here under your user profile), rather than being "employed" by someone else who isn't talented enough to write but yet demands you work for them with your only compensation as "exposure." Also, I implore you ask the movers and shakers how far they reach when they look for new talent. I'll start off; Andy, when you were hiring the new editors for the site, where did you go to find them? Did you post openings on job boards and classifieds, or did you ask the staff to reach out to people they knew personally who may have been interested in the opportunity?

    I hope I haven't already burned bridges with this post, but I feel like these are issues which need to be examined honestly and openly addressed. If we truly have a passion for this industry, then we have to do whatever we can to improve it, even if it means shining a harsh light on ourselves and being willing to face whatever unpleasantness we may find. Thanks to everyone who read this far, I look forward to hearing your responses.

  • Sad but true, my friend. Unfortunately, talent does not take you nearly as far as connections can. The level of gaming journalism could definitely be drastically increased. I have read my fair share of poorly written reviews, but beyond that a lot of the people in this industry seem to not even know as much as they certainly should. Not going to call anyway out in particular, though I could (no one from GI), but sometimes work has confusion in it or just flat out mistaken info. And I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a podcast where the group collectively did not know something, even something recent or one would say something wrong and the rest all agree. These are the people who are closest to the scene and do this for a living. How can they at least not be on the same level of knowledge as the core? How can they have confusion, even about a game they are currently playing (believe me, it happens way too often)?

    The one thing I will give to the ones already in "power" is that they all have lives too. They cannot spend all their time searching the ever expanding depths of the web for the best talent out there. There has to be a meeting point. Surely, when they search for new talent, it should be an open one. Fair to all, based on ability and not because they are Patrick fvckin' Klepek.

    To close, to a certain extent you have to accept exposure as the only compensation. 'Tis a shame but it is the way it is and you cannot keep others from clouding the figurative sky with their own smoke, may it be pretty as yours or not.  But awareness should rise and certain systems should be in place to more easily identify the real talent. Just do not give in. Worst thing is someone who hangs up their passion and falls to the monotony of the "normal" world.  Keep plugging away and am sure you will eventually get what you deserve.

  • Looks like this post turned out to be more timely than I expected: http://kotaku.com/5374861/

  • As someone who is not a "professional" writer. Someone who has no formal background.  Someone who has no college education.  I am a little bit disheartened by this revelation.  I worry that if my writing were to become something of a phenomenon, no one would really care because im not friends with this guy or that guy and therefore can't be published.  

    It is my dream to become a famous novelist.  To become someone who can redefine writing as we know it.  I want to become someone that can entertain and provoke thoughtful and meaningful conversations on topics i write about.  I want to write about whats in my soul and regardless of how many people may like it, i want to express my innermost thoughts and opinions.  

    Being someone who suffers from severe attention deficit disorder i find it difficult to write the large amount of ideas i have in my head.  One such story has been there for close to two and a half decades now.  If I were to overcome this crippling disorder and actually get this story exorcised from the depths of my brain, I know it is nearly impossible to get such story published.  I know that publishing houses only publish work from solicited writers and getting your work out there to be solicited is *** near impossible.

    This upsets me greatly even though i have always had an idea how it worked.  I don't want to write things that are going to necessarily be popular for the sake of talent and art.  The problem being that popular stuff isn't always done by talented people.  the same goes in the music industry.  Musicians and journalists and writers in general are subject to the public.  if the public doesn't buy it the publishers won't sell it and let's face it, the public is sometimes pretty stupid.  As evidenced by our own Andy Mac and one of his blogs.  He writes that he is tired of the conspiracy nuts believing he has sold out and publishes a magazine that has been bought and paid for.  These same people are the ones that continually buy such magazine as well as others.  They are ignorant to the truth.  They are fearful of the truth.

    I'm kinda rambling here but my point is that writers who push the boundaries. cross a few lines, or are talented enough to write something provocative and thoughtful are probably not going to get that job.  They won't get it because people are afraid of talent and the truth.  I think id rather never have that job if it means i don't sacrifice my ideals, my mind, my thoughts and opinions.  It kinda sucks but i can live with it.  Of course im not a writer like brad or others are, but i'd like to be.  Just not at the expense of what's important and dear to me.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Just to give my personal experience as someone relatively new to the industry -- I've only been "professionally" writing about games for about two or three years now -- I think you're maybe summing it up a little too cleanly as being entirely based on who you know. The bigger problem is just that getting paid to write about games is a rather small industry that a rather large number of people would like to be a part of. Since positions in this industry are limited and very often in a state of flux, it's often going to seem like a small number of bigger names get shifted around into every opening. However, that's not entirely true.

    To use myself as an example, when the very Mr. Patrick Klepek that you reference in your post -- a grade-A reporter who I don't think you're giving enough credit for abilities -- decided to leave his job as news editor at 1UP.com for a position with MTV's Multiplayer blog, I ended up being lucky enough to take over his spot. Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm a ball of pure talent or anything. I did and still do have a lot to learn. But I certainly wasn't a popular name in the industry nor someone with tons of connections. I'd just worked my way into people's notice with lots of continuous hard work on sites like Evil Avatar and then eventually as a freelancer for 1UP, GamesRadar, and others.

    Likewise, you can look at some of the other new Game Informer hires -- people like Tim Turi and Dan Ryckert -- who haven't been working professionally in the industry before now but were recognized for having a lot of fantastic potential. It's not like they're related to Andy or anything. They just happened to be looking for the right job at the right time with the right past experience to back them up -- much of which they had done without pay, like myself.

    Another thing to consider is that there might be a reason that knowing the right people is part of the job. While writing is obviously the core of what we do and (in my opinion) the absolute most important ability to have and to continue improving, writing for a major publication also requires the ability to deal with people on a social level, whether it's PR people while digging for a news story, a developer during an interview, or readers on the forums. Knowing some of the bigger names in the industry and being able to stay in touch with them and keep them even remotely interested in your work despite not being fully in the industry yourself can act as evidence that you'll be able to handle some of the other social responsibilities that come with the job -- responsibilities that writers are somewhat less than known for.

  • Thanks for providing yourself as an example Phil, I'd like to follow up a bit with you if I may. When you took over for Patrick (who I may be selling short, I can only go by what I've read of his work), did you reach out to 1Up or did they reach out to you? Were you contacted by someone you had already met at the organization, or was it sort of a bolt from the blue where you got this mysterious email/phone call one day with a job offer?

    I ask that because more often than not people in this industry get job offers from someone they've met at a big event like E3 or GDC or some sort of publisher media day or something like that. Most jobs tend to spring from media room introductions and folks keeping in contact after exchanging business cards.

    Now, I find that to be a perfectly acceptable way to gain contacts and hunt for jobs, but I worry that our industry may rely on it a bit too much. Lots of people can't get into GDC because it's super expensive and press passes only go out to well-established sites. E3 is even trickier, as even with the now-expanded attendance there is still a level of discretion that goes into being offered a badge. Publisher media events are even tougher than that, since they keep a very specific list of sites and magazines who they'll invite to any given event. In this instance, there are a lot of talented writers out there who never get into a show and therefore never meet any of the movers and shakers. Their work must purely speak for itself and unfortunately, there are a lot of people making noise out there so getting noticed is nigh impossible.

    I've actually run into a different connundrum myself, where I've been to a number of trade shows and media days but I'm often so busy with appointments I don't get time to go hang out in the media lounge and strike up conversations with other journalists. Normally I'm in meetings from the time the doors open until they close, and then I spend all evening writing up coverage. Once in a great while I'll get to hang out with some other writers at one of the evening parties thrown by a publisher, but even then I'm supposed to be working and checking out the games so even that networking time is restricted. I have been able to make a few connections working all these events, but in a sort of paradox my committment to hard work has restricted me from sitting down and talking with a lot of the people who could potentially hire me down the line; that's supremely frustrating.

    I do believe that in order to succeed in this industry you need a high level of talent because, as you mentioned Phil, it's a small industry with a lot of people wanting in. However, I still believe that the networking aspect is overemphasized, possibly to a fault. A lot of fellow writers on forums and help groups are talking about how to expand their collection of business cards instead of how to be better writers. Most of us are worried about finding a job first, THEN improving our craft once we're drawing some sort of salary, no matter how meager. That's backwards, but because the real life "writer's guild" is so small and tight-knit breaking in has become priority one.

    I don't really know how to wrap this post up because I feel like I'm coming across as more of a pessimist than I really am. I've been working in this industry for a few years now as a labor of love, and I think I'm just personally burning out from working so hard with less to show for it than I had hoped. On the one hand, I've been able to interact with some really great people from the industry (yourself included Phil), but on the other I'm starting to see some excellent writers give up because the opportunities just aren't there.  

  • Again, speaking only from my experience, of course I wasn't contacted out of the blue. That's now how any jobs work anywhere. I had been freelancing for 1UP for a long time, was urged to submit a resume for the position, and did so. I did a job interview, just like I have for every job I've had in the industry, and was finally offered the job by Sam Kennedy -- who I'd only met once previously, for said interview -- and Dan Hsu -- who I had not met at that point.

    I still think the "opportunities not being there" that you bring up is more due to the small size of the industry than some sort of insidious focus on only including a small group of tight-knit friends in the proceedings.

  • I think the size of the industry is another issue that perhaps bears addressing, as it directly informs this whole conversation, as you've implied Phil.

    When you look at the number of "highly respected" gaming outlets, there aren't many. As far as sites go there's basically IGN, 1Up and Gamespot; blogs fall to Joystiq, Kotaku and Destructoid; and magazines worth noting are GI, GamePro (maybe) and EGM before it folded and if it comes back. Yes, there are other mags, and a ton of blogs and websites, but when publishers and PR companies are looking at who they want to cover their games, those are the places they go to first. Which is understandable from their perspective, they want the most return on their investment.

    The question I have is this, why aren't there more outlets which garner this level of respect and attention? There are plenty of other high-quality sites, blogs and mags out there that don't get anywhere near the level of attention that the major players do. What  is it that sets these particluar outlets apart? I'm not trying to be snarky, I genuinely want to know why they're considered the best of the best.

    Also, how do we expand the industry and create more opportunities and editorial voices from readers to choose from? I've worked for a number of sites that, despite high-quality work, have never managed to break through. I've got several friends who are in the same boat; most places make enough money to cover costs, but never garner the cash needed to expand, grow or begin making waves.

    The obvious answer is that the major players have major cash flow, most of which are backed by major media companies whose interests are spread well beyond gaming. Also, with traditional advertising models failing and even the major companies faultering most outlets aren't growing, they're shrinking. So where does that leave us, have we hit the saturation point already? Can gaming media grow and hope to keep pace with the very industry it's covering, or is the difference between making games and covering games so vast that the two fields can't feed off each other?

    The most unique business model is obviously the one GI has adopted, partnering with a game retail chain has allowed the mag and site to shelter the current economic storm. But even this arrangement could be threatened if games go to digital distribution and places like GameStop become obsolete.

    So to get to the point after all my rambling, I agree with you Phil that the industry is small, so how do we grow it? Or, is it even possible to grow it or have we already seen the crest of the wave and now we're riding down the other side, just waiting to crash into the surf below? Where does this industry go from here?

  • Media in general is in a very strange state right now, especially (but not only) enthusiast media. I don't think it would be possible for me to accurately guess where things are going, but I don't necessarily know that growing in the way you mean -- as in, more places that are able to pay full-time salaried positions -- is likely. If anything, the Internet has made that more unlikely and (some would argue) more unnecessary.

    But regardless of your point of view on that, all media is in a huge transition state, not just writing about games, so I think everyone's trying to feel out where we go from here.

  • This has been touched on by Phil, but I can say from personal experience that the "it's not what you know, it's who you know" thing is nonsense.  I lived in Kansas my entire life and didn't have any connections with the gaming industry when I started college.  I started writing for the local paper and website, and within five years I had amassed about 600 reviews and attended E3 yearly.  At no point was I paid for my work back in Kansas, I did it out of a genuine interest and the knowledge that it would be incredibly helpful in terms of experience and getting a job in the industry.  I sound like someone's dad right now, but it really is all about hard work and persistence.  I did a ton of work for no pay, and I aggressively pursued a job in the industry until I finally got it.

    There are tons of people that would love a job in the industry, but there's a very limited number of positions.  You don't have to know anyone, and it doesn't matter what part of the country you're from.  If you're a good writer and you can persist even when no jobs are on the horizon, you can end up with a job doing what you love.

    Senior Editor, Giant Bomb

    Twitter: @danryckert

  • It's such a weird time; newspapers are drying up, magazines are struggling and even websites are getting hit hard. I know "media" in a very general sense will make it through, but I wonder what it will look like on the other side. It's kind of ironic in a way, the Internet opened up freedom of speech and freedom of the press in a way never before possible, but as a consequence we've now eaten away the very foundation that held up the media in the first place. The competition for readers (and consequently, ad revenue), has fractured the audience and created more problems than it solved in my opinion. Death by a thousand papercuts it seems.

  • Sorry for the double post, but I think this article sums up the issue perfectly.

  • Actually, I would think that article disagrees with you quite a bit, as it's really about people who've been in the industry for a long time and *aren't* able to get consistent, steady work on the press side -- rather than people who are new to the industry being unable to break in. It's an excellent read, though.

  • I've been following this line of thought since brad started it with the thought that it might give me some insight into this trade. I am curious, is it possible to get into this industry without college degrees or experience? I am a writer at heart, however extenuating circumstances in my life kept me from finishing college and i have no real world experience.  Should I keep on going and trying to do this, break into this industry? Or should i just give up and continue my existence as a die hard reader and fan? Any feedback, no matter positive or not, would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  • Hey ChiaPett666--

    I actually know quite a few people in the industry -- some in very high positions -- who broke in without a college degree. It's definitely possible, although a degree is often listed as a desired requirement for applying for positions in the industry. Essentially, I would say it's still possible to break in, you just may have to work a little hearder and have a little more work backing you to show that you can write despite not having any formal training. It wouldn't be easy, but then, as we've discussed in this thread, breaking into the industry in general isn't terribly easy.

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