X-Surface and the Mess That is Online Journalism

xbox 720

Today, an anonymous guy “leaked” information about Microsoft’s expected upcoming new Xbox console. He did this by writing a long, involved email, in which he made up a lot of information — namely specs and other details that would make the leak seem legitimate. It’s obvious the guy did a lot of research.

Then he sent the email to several websites, posing as an anonymous guy from Microsoft. Some sites picked up the information, and then the information began to circulate as it often does with tech and gaming news. It got picked up a fair amount (here it is on Yahoo! News), although many big gaming sites — VG247, Kotaku and (humbly included) Game Front — didn’t publish it.

You can read the full account of what the guy did and what he thinks of this industry here. He takes it as proof of a failure of games/tech journalism. In a very big way, it is that.

It also is an indicator of a number of broken factors, not just bad work done by bad people whom you should hate, as the post would suggest.

When it comes to writing for the Internet, and more specifically writing about games, there’s a lot going on. At the surface level, yes — a lot of stories get picked up, passed back and forth, and regurgitated on lots of different sites. This is a common practice, but we see it in other, more traditional brands of journalism, too; specifically with the Associated Press.

In print journalism, newspapers participate in the collective of the AP and share news. You pay a yearly fee, and are allowed to print stories from other sources that are relevant to you, while sharing relevant stories from your area. At some level, it’s impossible to cover everything, and at least for publications, it can be stupid to miss a big story just because you live in Alabama and it’s taking place in Alaska. Put another way, not every newspaper can send a White House correspondent to Washington D.C., and so the AP makes it possible to still get that news to your readers.

I’m not a fan of the AP, by and large. I think it has contributed to what we’re seeing now: a series of undistinguished newspapers all running the same content. But the principle makes sense, and it makes sense on the Internet to some degree, too. Someone else broke the story — do you let your readers go get the story from someone else, possibly never to return? No, you rewrite the story, credit those who broke it, and bring the news to your readers.

Ideally, you wouldn’t just rewrite it. It’s possible to take a news item and give it an analysis, some additional reporting, a greater context not yet covered — something that makes the story more than it was. I don’t have a problem with journalists working together and expanding on each other’s work. That’s actually a good thing.

What the X-Surface hoax is trying to show is that no work is being done, and that’s often true. There are a number of causes of that, though, and one of those causes is that, as mentioned, the Internet is a huge place and there’s a lot of news out there. In order to run a site, you have to both create content almost constantly, and have the content your readers want.

But that leads into another factor: that almost all content on the Internet is free, and almost no one wants to pay for that content.

Yes, news gets regurgitated and a lot of the stuff you read on game sites is actually just a reworking of facts pulled from press releases. On one hand, that’s how information gets out; on the other hand, reporting is difficult. People go to school to be reporters. They develop skills. They dedicate their lives to reporting. But it’s hard to make a living on the Internet, and it’s hard to earn money reporting. Even in the greater landscape of journalism, good reporting jobs are diminishing. They pay like s–t, too.

And yet very few people are willing to pay for the content they read on the Internet, and by extension, for the work that it takes to create it. Some even employ ad blockers, which basically guarantees that your reading of my work (for example) is producing exactly no money for anyone. So not to play a tiny violin for journalists too much, but heavy reporting on simple, small news items? It’s not only difficult, there’s no money in it. You can’t work for free and also pay rent. And those tiny clickable news stories often generate a lot more money together than the more involved, longform work you see on sites a lot of times. They’re cheap to produce and they produce money for sites.

So I think it’s facetious if not plain wrong to act like all games or Internet journalists are falling down on the job because some guy set out to hoax journalists and managed to do it; there’s much more to the situation than it being easy and profitable to run that story. I also am a big proponent of the ethical standards of journalism as well — you don’t run something you can’t verify. And that failure is on the sites that ran it, and their integrity is compromised because this guy wanted to make a point (so good for him, I guess). They should have known better.

But a lot of us have to depend on the idea that the other guy who ran the story did the work correctly the first time, and that’s true in print, online, and anywhere else. There’s not unlimited time and money to spend fact-checking every single item. One hopes in most cases that the person who broke the story did their job, and 99 percent of the time, he or she did.

The last thing I’ll mention is that, specifically in games journalism but on the Internet at large, there’s a high number of people who aren’t formally trained. They’re writers and bloggers and not journalists, necessarily, or at least, they didn’t go to school for the gig. There’s a reason journalism schools exist: There’s a right way and a wrong way, and a lot of gray area in between.

But again, these are all the greater problems of the Internet age, and I think they’ll require a cultural shift to fix them. With the democratization of information, we’ve come to value that information a lot less, because it’s constantly available and constantly free. And that makes life harder for those who would gather that information. I’d rather not ever write news posts on Game Front when we have to take the information from other sites or press releases. But I do it, because I can’t afford not to do it.

The best way to affect that change is to reward the people doing a good job with your patronage. Go to their sites, unblock their ads, subscribe if you can, and spread the word of why they do a good job. It means a lot to writers, and it reinforces that solid journalism is valuable by actually making it valuable. And that makes it easier to do, which will make it more common.

By the same token, try not to give the clicks to those you think are falling down on the job. Making shoddy journalism unsustainable or a failing strategy is the only real way to kill it.

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