Apologies for the navel-gazing, but I have to talk about the role of the press, and the difference between journalism and gossip in the wake of the Kotaku blacklisting situation. If you didn’t follow the story, basically Kotaku published an article talking about how Fallout 4 publisher Bethesda have blacklisted them from PR efforts and early review copies due to them leaking the existence of the game well before Bethesda announced it this year at E3. Ubisoft has also blacklisted Kotaku for revealing details about Assassin’s Creed games before Ubisoft was ready to reveal them. “A Price of Game Journalism" reads like it’s an attempt to shame these publishers for blacklisting them, and while I’m loathe to defend corporations blacklisting outlets that publish things they don’t like, it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to work with Kotaku any more if they think they’re untrustworthy. There’s a fine line between revealing secrets as journalistic endeavors, and what these leaks were: gossip.
And there’s an interesting thing about the role of the gaming media that this scenario reveals. The blacklisting hasn’t stopped Kotaku from posting about Fallout 4, or Assassin’s Creed games. No, they continue to post regularly about the game. Often, the games media is mentioned as part of the marketing of games. But we’re not marketing, we’re journalism. Our objectives are different from marketing’s objectives, and we’re seeing where the day will come when the press’ indirect role in marketing will have nothing to do directly with game publishers, because it might not be beneficial to anyone. But the press must realize this too – the things we say may affect access, and that’s part of the job.
Our role as enthusiast publications is to inform our readers of the happenings in our field, to give our fair and honest opinions on games, and to speak truth to power when necessary, even if it’s inconvenient. It is not necessarily to help publishers and developers sell more games. Access to games comes as part of the role, yes, but it comes with trust that should be respected and not abused when possible.
This trust can be abused on each side of the process. While things like embargoes have benefits to both press and publishers in some circumstances, they can be easily abused by publishers and PR. It happens all too often where a publisher will want coverage embargoed until well after a game is publicly available. This was a big deal with last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity post-release review embargo on consoles, which was a bit of a scandal. But on mobile, you sometimes get publishers that want reviews or even release announcements embargoed until after the game is already out – sometimes until over 24 hours after the game has been available in New Zealand.
But many publishers and developers are reasonable. Even if we say something that’s negative, as long as it’s fair, they understand, and continue working with us, and us with them. And some PR do understand that embargo times and release times don’t match up, especially with the chaos of releasing on the App Store. Not everyone is like that, but respect and professionalism does exist in the industry, it’s not that rare. And if an outlet does blacklist TouchArcade? We sure hope you won’t notice it, because we shouldn’t let it affect our coverage.
And you look at something even involving Kotaku, where Activision still has a relationship with them even after a Destiny story exposing the issues with the game’s creation. But think about how that differs from leaks of unimportant secrets. This reveals truths to the public that allow them to be better informed about why the game had issues. Maybe Activision and Bungie would rather that people don’t know these messy details. Regardless, it’s something that happened, and there’s not really any good reason for that to remain secret if it’s relevant to the public. Both sides understand how this works: the press will say things you don’t like, but if it’s fair and minimizes harm, then the publisher should accept it and move on.
But what we as the press need to remember is that in the business of revealing truths, not everyone’s going to like it. And you’re going to make access-providers mad when you spill secrets. But with journalism also comes the mandate to reduce harm.
For example, take the two Dizzy Knight games. I found out about Andrew Morrish’s Dizzy Knight game after I posted about MegaSweet’s Dizzy Knight. I actually contacted Andrew Morrish before posting about his Dizzy Knight. I would’ve had the right, because it was public, sure. But I wanted to minimize the harm that could arise to all parties from using the platform here at TouchArcade by talking about it when there were potential issues about the conflicting names. Journalism, even our brand of journalism talking about games you play while on the toilet, comes with the mandate to minimize harm, and there’s value in not saying something if the negatives outweight the positives.
If an outlet wants to spill secrets without impunity, to reveal unimportant information like the existence of a game before its creators want to reveal it to the public, they should realize their place. That’s not honorable journalism, it’s gossip. To spread gossip, and then to make a stink about how publishers whose secrets you gossiped about now don’t trust you? As little as I want or should be on the side of corporate interests blacklisting a site, it’s hard on a human level to not say, “Well, jeez, what did you expect?" It’s not speaking truth to power to say that Fallout 4 exists before Bethesda is ready to say that it is. It’s gossip, and appealing to lurid curiosity, and clicks for the sake of clicks. It ignores even the human cost of exposing the work of the human talent behind these games before they’re ready to talk about them.
And here’s the thing – as the press, we need to be trustworthy. And having access to secrets before everyone else knows helps us out. It allows us to be more informed about the industry, and to know what’s going on. Developers tell me about future projects and plans off the record regularly. They might not want to commit to something knowing that people would nail them for it later, or harangue them if something didn’t work out. But trusted press might want to know because it would help guide their coverage, and allow them to be better-informed to the public. Again, I serve the public, not developers, but there’s a way to maximize the benefits of access to better inform the public, even if you, as the readers, don’t necessarily know how it helps. But if developers know that I won’t willingly harm them or violate their trust, then this bargain benefits both of us.
And it’s possible for this bargain to be violated on the supply side, as well. Large publishers should not be embargoing coverage beyond when the public has access to the game, but this is a reality of the industry that gets pulled all the time. Our interests and the interests of publishers are not the same. And embargoes in some circumstances are good, so that outlets don’t have to rush to publication, they can make good, reasonable coverage based on access to information beforehand. And I’m not necessarily a fan of a publisher restricting access to outlets they don’t like; it’s certainly a suboptimal situation, and a potential slippery slope. But I know that if I willfully violate anyone’s trust, then why should they trust me in the future? Kotaku making a big point about this might not help them in the future – especially when they’re sending the signal that it doesn’t matter if they get access, they’ll still talk about these games. They’re not really sticking it to Bethesda by not publishing about Fallout 4. But it goes to show that Bethesda, or any large publisher, doesn’t necessarily need the press, to market their game. Heck, they don’t need to deal with the press at all if they’ll keep getting press!
The reality is the top 5-6 pubs could yank press access to the top 15 games a year from Kotaku/Polygon and likely not lose a sale
— George Broussard 🎮 (@georgeb3dr) November 19, 2015
Maybe we as the press have an unknown or inconsistent effect on how we drive sales to games. But we can provide legitimacy, and at least inform our audience. But Bethesda, and any large-scale publisher, has better tools to drive sales than through the press. It’s why they pay marketing departments the big bucks. Regardless, the press will still publish stories about these popular games because, well, people want to read them, and we live in a time where clicks = currency. There’s a fine line between publishing “clickbait" (a dramatically overused term), and publishing relevant content about popular games, though. But basically, for large publishers, the press needs their games…their games don’t need the press. And the day might come when they decide that the press doesn’t provide any value to them at all, and might cut off access entirely. It’ll be a dark day when that happens, but it feels like an understandable reality.
But for those without massive marketing budgets and endless resources, the press serves an interesting role in that the balance of power has shifted to the press. Especially working in mobile for my writing career, I’d much rather work with indies who are grateful for whatever coverage they provide. Indies are making cool, unique games that I want to tell people about, and they’re usually very generous with providing access and information, because we provide legitimacy and attention to their games that is very difficult to provide otherwise. Maybe our ability to drive sales is limited, but there are often ancillary benefits. A game featured on TouchArcade might not drive that many sales directly from coverage, but it might get it in the eyes of someone with more influence to feature a game in some form, or to provide a quote that helps drive more sales invisibly. Marketing is an art, not a science, and the press’ role in that is an intangible. But we’re not marketers.
But this all comes with the trust that the press isn’t going to spill secrets with impunity or say things that could hurt people. Leaking a game while it’s in the middle of the creative process before it’s ready to be revealed can hurt developers and negatively impact that process, especially when the public might now have unrealistic expectations. Heck, in general, care should be taken before revealing any secret to the world, unless the revelation of that secret is of greater benefit to the public than keeping it secret. It’s hard to see where Kotaku’s leaks were of journalistic value, rather than being just gossip. And this scenario should serve as a heads-up to outlets to re-evaluate their priorities in reporting. If outlets want to be gossipers, then that’s their right. But gossipers shouldn’t confuse themselves for journalists. And gossipers shouldn’t get mad when suddenly their sources don’t trust them because they gossip.
And of course, while Kotaku laments the loss of some access, sister site Deadspin still proudly boasts “sports news without access, favor, or discretion."