Saturday, May 19, 2007

Taking out the Trash: Death of Print edition

Taking out the Trash: Death of Print edition

Media Coverage takes a look at a quintet of stories that show tough times ahead for the game magazine market.

There's a rule of thumb in journalism that it takes three occurrences of something to make a trend. So you could say that these five articles on problems with print gaming journalism might almost constitute almost a double-trend of popular opinion against the medium.

The conventional wisdom that game magazines are being replaced by their online competition is nothing new, of course. But the confluence of chatter around the topic in the last week is notable. Be warned, game magazines – the vultures are circling, and they're hungry.


Perhaps the biggest buzz around the print-is-dead issue this week came from an IGN report that the venerable Nintendo Power magazine may be shutting down or restructuring in the wake of massive layoffs planned for September. The report remains an unconfirmed rumor for now, but IGN's Matt Casamassina has shown a talent for breaking Nintendo-related scoops in the past -- see his prediction of Super Paper Mario heading from the GameCube to the Wii, for instance.

The rumor has led many to speculate that the magazine might decide to go completely digital, perhaps being reborn as a downloadable channel on the Wii. It's an intriguing theory, especially in the wake of Sony's decision to shutter the demo-disc-based Official PlayStation Magazine in favor of direct demo downloads to the PS3 and PSP. The possibilities are exciting -- imagine reading a review for a Wii game on your TV and then being able to click a link to download and play a demo immediately.

Frankly, I'd be surprised if either rumor turns out to be true, though. Nintendo's record with online content for the Wii has been spotty at best, and they've shown little to no interest in downloadable game demos thus far. As for the print edition, if Nintendo Power can't survive with its strong brand loyalty, relatively healthy subscriber base, and a marketing subsidy from one of the big three console manufacturers, then what chance does any other game magazine have?

Undercirculation overseas

In overseas death-of-print news, reports on a group of game journalists that seemed all too willing to pile on the dead tree medium during a panel at the recent Nordic Game conference. Apparently, the game press market in Norway and Denmark is relatively magazine-free already, and what magazines do exist have a pretty bad reputation. "They're really driven by advertisements, so it seems to me there's a really unhealthy relationship between the PRs and the people who write the magazines," said panel moderator and Denmark journalist Thomas Vigild. "We don't have magazines like in the U.K. where you can say, 'No way, I won't print your PR bulls**t.' That's much harder to do in Denmark because they still need the income from the advertisers."

But the once-proud English print market is also in decline, according to panel member Patrick Garratt of EuroGamer. ""For the unofficial magazine arms race in the U.K., where we had 20 - 30 magazines in massive bags with two discs on the cover and stuff like that - no one cares anymore. It's over." In other words, in England you can lead a consumer to a newsstand full of gaming mags, but you can't make him read.

IDG's advertiser/editor troubles

Speaking of magazines putting up with PR bulls**t, PC World editor-in-chief Harry McCracken decided he'd had enough of it when he resigned his post last week. You might know PC World as the highest-circulation part of IDG, publisher of age-old gaming mag GamePro. McCracken's departure was spurred on by an executive's refusal to run an article critical of Apple, one of the magazine's biggest advertisers.

The article was later run and McCraken reinstated, but the PR damage had already sunk in to an extent. A NeoGAF thread title sums up the opinion succinctly: "Money-hats confirmed at GamePro Publisher."

Accusations of advertiser interference are rampant in the game press, and while both the print and online fields are affected, magazines seem to get the brunt of the "sell out" labeling. Perhaps this is because online outlets are by their nature a bit more transparent and inviting of reader discussion. Perhaps it's because some magazines tend to devote most of their limited space and cover opportunities to heavily advertised games. Whatever the case, these accusations are notoriously hard to prove unless someone makes a principled stand like McCracken did. By the way, if anyone wants to go on the record with insider info, let me know.

Ziff Davis on the down swing

Folio, the magazine about magazines, joins in the fray with a meaty feature on the ailing health of tech mega-publisher Ziff Davis. The piece is full of dreary numbers and quotes, but the most damning bit comes right at the beginning when an Edelman PR rep reveals that his freebie subscription of PC Mag goes right in the trash can. If you can't even give the thing away to PR people, you know you're in trouble.

The article goes on to tell of Ziff's slow but steady transition from print to web, which seems only natural for a tech-savvy audience. Ziff Game Group VP John Davison admits that the publisher's gaming properties were "late to the online world," but 1UP's quick rise to prominence in the online gaming world shows just how much they've made up for lost time.

Disposable Media on disposable magazines

Online magazine Disposable Media rounds out our look at print naysayers this week with an excellent examination of the relative pros and cons of online versus print in the U.K. market. While print magazines take the brunt of the abuse, the feature makes sure to look at the problems with the online game press as well, most notably issues with their reputation. "To be honest, it annoys me that the reputation of games journalism is dragged down by everyone who can afford a domain name," says British freelancer Kieron Gillen. "But when professional ones screw it up on such a regular basis, it seems a little churlish to moan."

Still, the general consensus seems to be that print magazines are having a tough time adjusting to their new position in the order of things. As EuroGamer's Rob Fahey puts it, the people behind print magazines have to "accept that they'll never be the dominant force in games coverage ever again, and I think that might be too painful for a lot of magazine writers to accept just yet."

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