Free/Fake News, Games Journalism & the future of online. November 30, 2016 cliffski Big topic, but I’ve been musing this for a while. Regular readers of my blog will know me as a big supporter of advertising. Some years I’ve spent six figure sums on advertising. Ouch. Advertising works, and I won’t bore you trying to prove that, when there are great books out here that can do this, scientifically with hard evidence. The problem with advertising is not that it doesn’t work, but that people are trying to kill it off, without (as usual) thinking about the long term consequences of their actions. This is a general problem with society, we try to ‘fix’ X with no thought to the secondary or tertiary effects. Its human nature. I even made a game that models such effects which helps explain why politics often gets this wrong. Ad-blocking is becoming more and more common, and this presents a problem not just fort advertisers (its a problem they can actually solve), but for consumers and society as well. I’d argue its why Donald Trump is president, and why nothing has been done about climate change. Seems a stretch? let me try to persuade you. Firstly let me write in defence of people who block ads. Generally I do not block ads, I do not have ad block installed on my PC. I have a different plug-in called ghostery. Ghostery is there to identify and optionally block ‘tracking’ beacons and cookies that are often found on sites where you would not expect them. Visiting a site that shows me ad banners is just fine with me, but notifying dozens of different companies about every site visit I make is…not ok. I am prepared to have a Volkswagen advert in my peripheral vision while I read the news. I see that as a (more than) fair trade. II do not see the notification of facebook, google,twitter & a dozen companies I’ve never heard of that I am reading that same article to be a fair trade. Some sites I visit, with a simple 4 or 5 paragraph article, have 20+ trackers identified by ghostery. In the real world, you could imagine this as me reading a newspaper with 20+ anonymous businesspeople stood behind me peering over my shoulder and making notes of who I am and what I’m reading into little notebooks. Are you happy living your life like that? I sure as hell am not. So people rebel against this (and who can blame them) and as a result they install ghostery or adblock, and continue to surf the web. The ads have magically disappeared, and all is good with the world. Somehow the online content is still there, but we never care how it works, because we just assume we can free-ride of all the dumb schmucks who have not installed ad blocker yet. The problem is…the scales are tipping so that too many of us are blocking, and not enough of us are viewing. The end point of this trajectory is that the people producing the online content are not earning anything from ads. What happens next? The BEST outcome, and it may seem perverse but the very BEST outcome is that all of those sites go bankrupt and close down. That the very best thing for society that can happen. Sounds weird? well again, do not focus on the immediate consequences, think about the secondary and tertiary effects. Someone who runs an online news site, or games review site already has staff, maybe premises, they have web hosting, they have technical skills…are they going to give up when ad revenue dries up? Not without a fight, which means (after perhaps a period of fighting a losing battle with ad-block-blockers and then begging…) they will take money from wherever they can get it. This used to be an indie games review site. You probably have not heard of it, it didn’t do well. Getting attention is hard. The thing is, if you read any of the articles on there, you probably do not notice any major difference between it and any other games website. There are no ads…but then you assume they are just getting blocked right? In fact no. There were never any ads on the site. I own it. I set it up to promote indie games, and hired a journalist to write for the site for a while. I did it because I saw a very long term business case for ME to do this. The more people who played indie games, and heard about indie games, the better the prospects for the industry I was in. It also meant more indie game devs knew who I was, just as I was going into publishing. It als meant more ‘independent’ coverage of indie games that prevented the whole industry becoming steam plus rock paper shotgun. This was a strategic business move by me. BTW I am a game developer. Are you happy with me owning a games news site? Luckily I’m a nice guy, I’m not out to screw people over, and even if I was, the journalist who worked for me is a very honest nice guy and has a lot of integrity. However… it would have been easy to hire someone a LOT less scrupulous for the same money on the understanding that every fourth article would be about MY games and incidentally how awesome and underrated they are. Believe me…its not difficult to find wannabe journalists looking for actual paid work. The frightening thing is…as a reader, you have no idea. You read something online and you just assume its free. is it unbiased? Is it actually paid content? Did the journalist get flown to Barbados to review the game? When journalists cannot earn any money from ads, a 3 night stay in a five star hotel in Barbados to review Grand theft Auto sounds irresistable. The real killer is that its probably CHEAPER than conventional advertising, and it comes across as more ‘honest’. Oh the irony. So circling back to Trump, Climate change and fake news… If you haven’t seen my point yet, here it is in four words. Someone is always paying. In the past, you knew who. it was Volkswagen running a banner ad. it annoyed you, but you knew who it was. Very WORST case, if you were reading a review of the new VW Golf and you saw the ad, you probably thought ‘hmmmmm’ and maybe engaged some cynicism about the articles impartiality. Thats good, that’s how it should work. The problem now is that the ad has disappeared, but that SAME money will be spent, and it will make its way to the guy writing the article somehow, you just cant see it, and you probably don’t even think about it. We suffer a lot from ‘fake news’ lately, which has been blamed/credited with Donald Trumps election win. I recognize the phenomena from climate change, where there has been a history of ‘fake news’ claiming that wind turbines don’t work, that solar panels never pay back their costs, that climate change is a Chinese hoax…and other such bullshit. The problem is the same: ‘News; being written not because it is actual news, or even true, but because the person paying for the news has an agenda, normally one that furthers their business interests (in this case big oil). Note the phrase: “The person paying for the news” That used to be you. It used to be me. We used to pay through ads, and that got annoying and now we just block them and don’t think about it. These days we pay in other ways, maybe through surrendering our personal information to Facebook (who doubtless then sell it), or maybe we pay with our votes. Yup, we pay with our opinions and our freedom of thought. We stopped paying journalists years ago, and never gave a damn about them, which means that we can now hire journalists for dirt cheap. You got a marketing budget of $50k? that will write a LOT of articles, believe me. You have a marketing budget for your oil company of $1billion? How much for the US election campaign? Journalism is cheap, and we made it so. So how the hell do we fix this? Well its actually quite simple, in the way that all solutions people do not want to hear (use less fuel, fly less, eat less beef to help with climate change) are simple. The problem is they require you to think long term and behave in a way that seems irrational in the very short term. PAY for journalism. You can subscribe to a lot of news sites. this gets rid of the ads. If you are a gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun has a supporter program. Online versions of UK print newspapers like the Guardian and Times have subscriptions you can pay to. The economist is a great weekly news magazine you can subscribe to online. I honestly believe that paywalls will become MORE common, not less. Everyone jeered at the ‘evil’ times paywall. Its still there. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a ‘mug’ or ‘gullible’ to pay for something like this. I hope I have established in this article that you are ALREADY paying for it, you just don’t see the connection. And to round off, here I am, a highly skilled and very experienced software developer and business owner typing this article on a VERY cold Wednesday morning instead of coding my next game. How am I doing this? Why do I have this blog? What is my motivation? Well clearly its a bit of personal PR and branding. If you read all this stuff, now and then i have a post thats about my latest game and its trailer. Thats how I am getting paid for this. I don’t *deny* it, but then I don’t bang on about the link either. Was this article really *free* for you? Have a think about it, and if it concerns you that this was motivated by me wanting to sell you stuff, you can formalize the arrangement by paying what you want for the Humble Tycoon Bundle, which is on sale now and includes Big Pharma and Democracy 3. hey, at least I haven’t stuck any ad-tracking cookies on here right?