By David Gornoski - 12-21-05
Recently in EGM issue #199, Editor-in-Chief Dan Hsu published a surprising editorial rant against the gaming media. In the column, he charged that many in the gaming media are putting their content “up for sale.” The following is the full editorial for those who missed it:
My industry pisses me off.
I was a little suspicious of the cover choices one of our competitors was making, so I checked in with a contact of mine from a major game publisher. "Yes," he confirmed. "We can pretty much get whatever cover we want from that magazine. All it takes is for us to meet with the publisher, promise that we'll buy some ads, and discuss the details from there." So...that magazine's cover stories are for sale. Great.
Recently, some publicists for another game company were lamenting the fact that they couldn't get any coverage on a certain, very high-profile website out there, because they weren't advertising with that site. To get stories written up on their games, they'd have to start spending the bucks. More editorial coverage for sale. Wonderful.
Sadly, I'm not making this stuff up.
I have no stake in these two situations, so why should I care so much? Because even though they're competitors, they affect my business and my reputation. Why do so many mainstream newspapers and periodicals command respect? Because they don't act like the idiots I referred to above. But how will gaming journalism, a relatively new field, gain any credibility when certain prominent outlets or even entire publishing groups whore out their editorial integrity (if I can even call it that)?
So now I have companies thinking they can treat Electronic Gaming Monthly the same way...that we're all like this. We even heard through the grapevine that one ad buyer recently told our sales department that their client wants Ziff Davis publications to start playing ball with them, or else they're pulling support (meaning, if we don't start putting their games on our covers, we can kiss that ad money bye-bye, as well as support for normal editorial coverage of their titles). You know what? Those guys can kiss my ass. With full backing from my editorial director (former EGM Editor-in-Chief John Davison), we're prepared to tell them to go ahead and pull that "support." We've never been and never will be beholden to any outside party. If we miss out on some coverage...well, too bad. Ultimately, they're punishing their own customers (you guys), not us.
It looks like gamers won't be missing out on any of that coverage, though a few of our competitors have editorial real estate for sale, and business is looking good for them.
--Dan "Shoe" Hsu, Editor-in-Chief
E-mpire decided to invite Dan Hsu to a special roundtable discussion on the issues raised in his editorial. David Gornoski, Editor-in-Chief of E-mpire publication NintendoNow.com, and game media watchdog Kyle Orland of VGMWatch.com joined Hsu for the discussion.
The following is the edited roundtable for your viewing pleasure. (For a shorter summary of the discussion visit www.VGMWatch.com):
David Gornoski: As you guys know, E-mpire-especially our Nintendo Now publication-has always sought to keep the mainstream gaming media accountable both from a credibility and ethical standpoint. Likewise, over the years, Kyle Orland has acted as a kind of watchdog for the gaming media. So you can only imagine how we reacted when we saw Dan Hsu come out and lambaste members of the mainstream gaming media for apparently selling out their content pages. Dan, can you elaborate on the media problems you hinted at in your column?
Dan Hsu: Sure. Let's see...where do I begin? Let's start at the beginning. Everyone is always suspicious of everyone else. Sure, EGM's been accused of bias before. We give a game a high score, someone's bound to notice that an ad from the company is also in the same issue. Coincidence? For EGM, yes.
But we noticed two specific competitors that had some strange choices in covers. The one I referred to in my editorial specifically. They seemed to be picking odd games for years.
Kyle Orland: Odd how?
Dan: Odd as in, "Do they really think any gamers care about this game?" They're not high profile games, they're not sleeper hits, they're not marketable. We just couldn't see the angle. Because you're going to put a game on your cover that you either want to evangelize, want to help sell your magazine, or is a game that you know readers care about or *will* care about once they're done reading the story.
Kyle: How can you be sure they weren't motivated by one of those things?
Dan: So I asked a PR contact for me. Keep in mind, how our business works, we generally work with public relations first, not the developer, when securing cover deals. I asked him, "Hey...XYZ magazine...can you 'buy' their covers? I mean, if you really wanted a cover from them, can you 'arrange' it?" His reply was, "Oh, absolutely. All I have to do is get together with our marketing people, ask to meet with their publisher, then offer to buy so much in ad space, and we can get that cover signed, no problem."
That's a shock to me, because how most gaming mags work (or are supposed to work): we either ask the companies to do a cover on their game, or they may pitch us a game we hadn't heard about. Then we decide whether we want to do it or not based on the criteria I listed above (whether it can help sell mags, if readers will care, etc.).
David: And this is both a major publisher and print publication we're talking about here?
Dan: The insider contact is from a major game publisher...as big as they get. That particular magazine is not a big one at all. But I've heard other stories about another competitor who is a bigger player in the market. I know of two magazines that are involved in these practices, not to mention the website I referred to in the editorial.
Kyle: These are games that wouldn't make covers on their own merits? Can you give an example?
Dan: The games that I saw on this magazine's cover, yes, they're games no sane editor or publisher would ever put on their covers. But that's from my point of view. One man's Halo is another man's Bubsy 3D, I suppose.
So another example, before I forget. I mentioned two magazines. The other, bigger profile mag…I was told by another contact in another game company (all different parties now) that they got their game on the cover of this mag "on the golf course with the magazine publisher," without any of the editors being involved.
Now, I must say, that contact isn't someone who directly works with game magazines, and I haven't got any more proof of this beyond what this person told me, so that's to be taken with a grain of salt. But, I have also heard that this "golf course" game company specifically has a name for this business practice: "Editorial Marketing"...which means they work to get the editorial coverage they want through other means (i.e., ad deals) besides just the quality of the product which is such a big no-no in my world.
David: I think many times some of these editors may not have much of a clue what's going on with the sales department end of things for their publication.
Dan: Yes, that's supposed to be the case, though. I, as an editor, should not be that involved with the sales team at all. Church and state, as they say. But your cover and cover stories are editorial, not ad space. So the editors should be the only ones involved there. My sales team, for example, has no say whatsoever in what content we put in the magazine or on the cover. I tell *them* what my cover stories are for each month.
Kyle: That should be a pretty thick wall.
David: Still, it makes me wonder. We've got reports of two print magazines and two game publishers involved with the slimiest form of unethical journalism you can imagine. You mentioned a major game site as well. I'm curious to hear the details on that situation. It makes me wonder if this is just the tip of the iceberg here. That this is a very widespread practice in the mainstream gaming media. If that's the case, it's about time people start standing up and taking notice.
Kyle: You mentioned earlier that editorial usually has to go through PR first. Is there any way around that? Does it hurt the coverage?
Dan: Kyle, it's a delicate balance. So this leads to another entirely new conversation. Because yes, the proper way to do things in my business is to go through PR. Of course, we have our insider, anonymous contacts who are willing to go on record about this or that-those guys we go to directly, without PR involvement.
But let's say I wanted to talk to the Bungie team about Halo 2 to do an interview. They would never talk to me without PR's blessing, because they will get in trouble, too. So they will refer me back to PR.
Kyle: The PR people are afraid they'll say something damaging?
Dan: Now, the trick is, what do you do after you go through PR? We're lucky in some ways, because we're so established. Game companies generally know they can't boss us around or try to influence our scores, but that doesn't stop some of them from trying.
But, because of our size, we have some weight. Heh. So, once PR sets up an interview with Xbox VP Peter Moore and me for example, I can talk to him directly and ask him some tough questions he may not answer with a smaller outlet. That's where we, as the game writers, have to ignore PR and do our jobs.
But check this out. Some companies actually feel they have the right to look over your story before it goes to print! Do you know why? Because other magazines have given them that leeway. I remember when we were working on our Xbox 360 reveal story; I was fact-checking some things with them (like what certain features or buttons are called). They told me I could just send them the article to read, and they'll fact check it for me. I laughed and said, "Uh, no." Then this person told me some other magazine let them read their entire cover story before it [went] to print.
So that's the danger of working with PR, when editors and journalists start feeling beholden to them because they're the ones setting all the interviews and access up. I feel bad for the smaller outlets who need PR for help, because I know PR will try to control things. But now I have companies periodically asking me if they can read the article, and our rule is they don't get the review scores, text, or anything until we have gone to print -- after the issue if officially finished.
Kyle: What leverage does a smaller magazine have when faced with this kind of inappropriate pressure?
Dan: Good question. If you want the coverage, you're going to have to go through PR at some point. But the thing you have to keep on your mind at all times-I don’t know, leave a note up next to your computer or something: Your readers' trust is #1. Do right by them, even if PR decides to put pressure on you. Just the other day, some fansite was on our message boards saying that the game company called them to pressure them to rescore/re-review a game, because it brought down their Game Ranking average.
I hope that fansite just stays true, stays tough. So what happens if they do, and the company withdraws support?
They have Games Press they can go to for screenshots. Maybe someday, there'd be room for an equivalent of an AP service that smaller outlets can subscribe to. (Is there one? I haven't heard of one.) And they can rent or buy the games when they come out. I know that's more expensive than getting a freebie from the game company, and some fansites don't have a budget, but can you put a price tag on your integrity?
When I applied at EGM, I asked the editorial director who was interviewing me: so what do you do when you get pressure from the game companies? I reminded him of an editorial I read in EGM a while back about Capcom pulling ads because they were pissed at some review scores in EGM. He told me, "If you take care of the readers, the readership will come. Then the advertisers will have no choice but to be in your magazine."
Kyle: Yeah, can you name any of these companies or magazines that have been doing this more recently?
Dan: I remember Acclaim pulled some ads, too, because they didn't like my Turok (N64) score. But I didn't even hear about it till years later, long after Acclaim returned to EGM. Our publisher purposely kept that info from me because he didn't want anything influencing my reviews. A couple of years ago, I wish I could remember, I hate naming names here because I can't remember if it was Midway or Capcom.
I was having a conversation with a game company who was very unhappy with our reviews of some product, and on the phone, hinted that they may have to pull advertising support because they felt like we weren't "on board" with them. And I interrupted right there and said, "OK, listen, we're not going there. I'm happy to discuss the review, but advertising has nothing to do with this. I don't care if you pull ads." But I'm sure smaller outlets get it more than we do, because we've established that we don't bend in those situations, at all.
Here's a funny story. This is the reverse, and I apologize, I can't name names because it was told to me off the record. This PR person told me this other magazine's editor *overrates* their games because he's hoping for more ad dollars from them! I can't offer any proof that this magazine is doing this or not, but that's what this PR person told me, for real. That was funny (in a bad way).
Oh, I was going to say. I had a selfish reason for doing that editorial. I'm hoping that, with this added pressure for everyone to do the right thing and for the press to start acting like press, that it'll make it better for *all* of us across the board. A lot of times, we at EGM feel like we're fighting an uphill battle.
Kyle: Amen. How widespread do you think these problems are?
David: I agree. This is the first time though I have actually seen a publication outside of E-mpire or VGMWatch.com really come out and confront this shady journalism. I commend you for that, Dan. It's great to have you onboard our mission.
Dan: One [of the problems EGM faces] is trying to get companies to organize multiplayer games for us for reviews. We're constantly trying to explain to game companies that, if they have a 16-player game, we need to play it with 16 players!
The funny thing is, they'd probably get better reviews if they can make sure we have full multiplayer games. After all, playing a 10-person capture the flag session is much more fun than doing it with three reviewers alone. But a lot of times, they act like we're causing them a major inconvenience. We even had two different companies tell us, literally, "No one else seems to need this...why do you guys?" That blows my mind, why a company wouldn't want to make sure you experienced a full multiplayer game.
Kyle: More importantly, why a game magazine wouldn't want to ask for that experience.
Dan: So we run into the same thing elsewhere, too. Because our peers act "loose" with regards to their editorial integrity, like I mentioned in my editorial, other game companies start thinking EGM will "play ball" as well.
If all my competitors were tough and honest, if all my competitors wanted to play full multiplayer games, if all of my competitors would not allow game companies to read their copy before going to print, etc., it'd make my life a lot easier. Because then we'd have these established guidelines and rules about how companies should treat press. Like, I cannot imagine Sony Pictures asking Roger Ebert if they can read his review before he publishes it, to OK it.
David: Would it be off base to suggest that, in light of the possibility that this shallow prostitution of the press is widespread, many publishers see the mainstream gaming media as something not to be respected but, rather, strong-armed if they don't appease them?
Take a look at Peter Moore's recent criticism of EGM's review of Kameo: Elements of Power. He actually demanded a "re-review." Granted, he's entitled to his own opinion, but why is it that so many publishers seem to disrespect the supposed independent mainstream gaming media?
Dan: I think game companies, generally speaking, do think they can strong-arm the gaming press. I'm not trying to show off, but being that EGM's one of the oldest, biggest, most established-if they can treat us that way, I'm sure others get it, too.
I just interviewed Peter Moore for EGM, and we talk about him asking for a re-review.
Kyle: What did he say?
Dan: I think that's a different situation, because saying it publicly like he did, I don't believe he honestly meant it. It was more in a "trash talk" sort of vibe; do you know what I mean? When I asked him about it, he said he was joking...like asking a referee to overturn a goal. You want to complain, but you know it's not going to happen. But he did have constructive criticisms of the review, which I can respect.
If he really wanted to put full-on pressure on us, he would've called me directly, or my editorial director, or my group's president because he would want to hint at this affecting ad buys. Because he didn't do that, I believe he was just having fun.
David: Yeah, but I think it may not necessarily be a matter of size so much. You guys are pretty big. But you are reporting getting bullied by a few publishers. I think it's more of a problem of outlets, regardless of their size, trying to go where the money is. They don't seem to care about journalistic integrity. They're more concerned with their bottom line. As a result, we see an excessive abundance of shallow "purchased" content usually focusing on games geared towards Hollywoodization.
Dan: Do you mean you're seeing more coverage of mainstream, Hollywoodized games?
David: Absolutely. There's no question about it. It goes back to the same reason publications are resorting to this content for sale practice. It's about the immediate max revenue they think they can create. And for most areas of the game industry, publications seem to think Hollywoodization content sells.
Dan: Hmm, I'm sure EGM is as guilty at that as anyone. I can tell you from my own experience that that doesn't have anything to do with inappropriate pressure from game companies, rather, what we think our audiences may be into. Let me give you an example: The 50 Cent game...very Hollywood, right? Not a game most hardcore gamers are interested in at all. But he's still huge.
Shane (my previews editor) was telling me a story about how he was reading EGM on the bus, and all these kids were crowded around him looking at the mag, and when they hit the 50 Cent preview, they went absolutely nuts. They didn't care to read about Katamari or even Zelda. Our job is to balance that. We still want to cater to the hardcore gamer, but we don't want to ignore those big-sellers, either.
David: That reminds me of another example of what is apparent "selling your soul to the highest bidder." The Spike TV VGA’s. Notice how this horrible title hardly anyone bought was nominated for practically everything? Notice how 50 Cent was actively involved in the awards program?
Dan: I wouldn't know. I see suspicious things all the time, but because we get accused of bias as well, I don't make actual accusations until I have more than "just a feeling."
Kyle: So what kinds of games are the ones getting pushed... the ones that "no one in their right mind" would put on a cover?
Dan: If I told you, you'd find out who I was talking about.
Kyle: Yeah, that's the point.
Dan: Can I explain briefly why I didn't name names?
Kyle: Please do.
Dan: I had a lot of reasons for not naming names. Naming names could be construed as petty, like I'm attacking specific people or outlets. While I want to call them out because I want the industry to shape up, I don't want to get into petty fights. I feel like we're above that. Second, that was an editorial, not a news story. I think, David, you gave me some examples of how news sources will call out when others have done something wrong.
David: Yes, Fox News, NBC, CBS...they do this all the time in the world news media.
Dan: But we're not a news publication. We're a consumer entertainment mag. If I were Kyle Orland or Next-Gen Online or GameDailyBiz, yes, that'd be perfect for me to research, get quotes, and do an investigative report. But that's just not something EGM would do as a full story. We're not a trade publication. And we're not an all-news source like NBC or CNN, etc.
David: I would add that you're absolutely correct about that. However, like you said there are publications that cater to both consumer and trade coverage...E-mpire is one of those.
Kyle: Well, if you aren't willing to bad-mouth your competitors how about lauding them? Are there any outlets you feel do have suitably strict separation of advertising and editorial?
Dan: I've only worked at Ziff Davis Media, so I only know for sure that we don't do that. I will say that Game Informer's Editor in Chief wrote me, upset that I didn't name names because he felt like that would lump GI in with the other bad guys. I feel an email like that wouldn't have come from someone who was guilty of such practices. And I have stated for the record on our message boards that the outlets I had in mind are not GI and IGN, who were often accused by some readers. I'm not saying they do or don't do anything bad. I have no idea. But they weren't the ones in my example.
Sure, if E-mpire or [Video Game] Media Watch or someone else wanted to investigate these accusations, I'd happily watch for the results. I do wish it broke open, because it would force everyone to shape up.
Did you guys go to the last GDC?
David: Yes, we sent a team there.
Dan: Do you remember at J Allard's keynote speech, they gave out 1000 HDTV’s?
Dan: I remember meeting with some folks at an IGJA meeting and bringing that up, about how it wasn't appropriate for any press members to keep that TV, and some people (mostly smaller fansites) having that light-bulb moment of, "Oh, you're right...I didn't even think about that." I remember seeing someone from NBC who won one, and he told me he couldn't take it, which made me happy. But I also know some members of the press who did keep them, which really disappointed me.
Kyle: The smaller sites, I feel, are struggling just to get by, and any sorts of freebies they can get they'll take. The practical blinds them to the ideal.
Dan: So my whole thing about wanting *everyone* to shape up (because you think it'd make it better for me if I were honest and the readers trusted me but not my competitors), [was because] so many people in my industry looked at me like I was weird for not keeping the TV. That should not be the reaction! Everyone in my industry should *expect* that I wasn't going to keep the TV.
David: Yeah, that's almost a form of payola if you ask me.
Dan: I will say that was a gray area because Microsoft didn't give it to me specifically. I'll be honest. I had to think about it. It was a nice, $1200 TV! But because no one at MS gave it to "Dan Hsu" specifically-it was a completely random drawing-it's not about payola at all. It wasn't about buying favor from me. But I looked at it this way. I just asked myself, "Would I want any of my readers to know I got this TV from Microsoft?" The answer was very clear to me. I didn't tell any of my readers that I kept it!
Haha, just kidding. I didn't keep it.
David: Well to an extent you could call it "mass media payola." [The idea is:] Anyone who randomly gets one of the suckers...surely they'll be a little sweeter on us come press time, eh?
Dan: Heh, but that room was more full of developers than it was press. Yeah, you're completely right. That's why it's cleaner, clearer not to take it at all. Even for press, a gray area is bad. Better to keep it black and white.
David: I’m curious about the details regarding this online site you mentioned in your EGM editorial, Dan. Anything you can elaborate on?
Dan: Sure. I had lunch in NY with a couple of PR people. I can't say who, because this would get them fired. But they were complaining about this prominent website not giving them any coverage of their games, because they represented a smaller publisher who wasn't buying ads on this site. They said flat out: If we want coverage, we need to buy ads. That's all I can say about that. I didn't get the website's side of this story.
Kyle: A large site?
Dan: It's a large site, yes.
Kyle: All right, I think that's good from my end. Thanks for elaborating on your editorial a little.
David: Yeah we pretty much covered the various issues raised. How about a final question for all of us: With the knowledge that there's the likelihood that shady practices between the press and publishers is rampant, what next? What needs to be done from both an outlet perspective and a consumer one?
Dan: The consumers have to rise up and demand better from the press. I'm not sure how they can do this if they themselves are not sure who's doing the right things, and who's not. But I hope the industry watchdogs like Media Coverage at GameDailyBiz, Kyle, Next-Gen, etc. can help us clean things up, so we all get the proper respect that we deserve, as an industry as a whole.
David Gornoski’s Final Word:
If you’re a regular follower of E-mpire network content, no doubt the stories of shady journalism and corruption come as no surprise. Our publications’ media analysis goes as far back as the late 90’s. Over the years, we’ve strived to balance the gaming media by exposing bias, corruption, and shady journalism-wherever it was found. These editorials and reports not only have helped gamers see the reality of many publications but also ensure accountability. That is our job. We focus on not only consumer entertainment but also the trade aspect of the gaming media as well.
With that said, it is great to see the leader of a consumer entertainment magazine stand up and join our cause. Dan Hsu did the right thing for coming out with these stories. Not only does it vindicate what the watchdogs have been saying, it also shows that mainstream media leaders have had enough of the lack of journalistic integrity as well. I’ve noticed many corners of the game industry criticizing Dan Hsu for not naming names. But again, that’s a baseless critique. EGM focuses solely on the consumer end of things. It’s not their journalistic place to call out certain publications. Folks, leave that to E-mpire.
So what next? With no names named, consumers can’t do much yet. Hopefully this roundtable served to educate consumers not quite aware of just how low many publications in the gaming media are stooping to bring in the money. Any publication that is revealed to even have one instance of “for sale” content will lose all of their credibility in the eyes of the consumers. This is certainly not a light matter, and I strongly feel that the examples Dan Hsu gave are only the tip of the iceberg. The gaming media is young, but that’s no excuse. How can games ever be taken seriously by society when not even the enthusiast press that covers them can be trusted? Rest assured, something will be done. E-mpire is embarking on a sweeping industry-wide investigation into the bottom of this problem. No stone will go unturned. We will not stop until we have answers. And you, the consumer, will be the first to know who you can really trust and who you cannot. If our investigation produces backlash from publications and publishers, so be it. Consumers deserve honesty. They deserve to know the truth.