The life of a journalist is complicated. It’s a craft with many ways to ply it. When we don’t do our jobs right, critics view us as paid shills for the industry. When we do our jobs well, we find out secrets and publish them, regardless of whether the companies sanction these “scoops” or not.
Much of the time, we get manufactured news from PR people who create events or press releases where we only learn what they want us to learn. In that kind of world, we fail our readers, and we might as well live in a place with no free press, with blinders covering our eyes.
Doing the job right will sometimes mean getting access to the right people. And if you work at a big outlet like the New York Times, you can get access to the CEO of Sony a lot more easily than I can. In that case, I’m not entirely helpless. I can say in my own pitch to the PR people that I will cover the company thoroughly on a regular basis, long after the big media are gone. That may get me some measure of access — at least enough to do my job.
I certainly wish that Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America, would do interviews with me, as he once did. But he has chosen not to do that for some time, perhaps because he’s not only judging me but also my outlet, VentureBeat, in comparison to some other outlet. Because we have no media monopoly, highly sought after sources can often play the media off against each other. Maybe one day he’ll come around. But I can talk to other company leaders, like Tim Sweeney at Epic Games. That doesn’t mean I favor Tim in my stories, but it does mean I understand Tim’s views better. As a journalist, you fight for access all the time, because it can result in you getting the right story to tell.
Once in a while, companies may discover who your secret source might be. The consequences for that person can be pretty severe. Companies can fire employees for revealing secrets or bring litigation against them.
Once, a source of mine decided that he wanted to name himself in a story. He fully knew the consequences of sharing insider information about the company, but he believed that the information should be shared and in a public way to establish credibility. As expected, he got fired. I had mixed feelings about writing that story, but I did. The spotlight of the press is a very powerful thing, and it can take a toll on people who are in the spotlight. Is the story that you have to tell worth risking your livelihood over?
Some companies make you sign non-disclosure agreements before you can get into their preview events. Journalists generally hate NDAs because they can be abused with legal ramifications. But company lawyers often see them as the only recourse if a journalist betrays a company and publishes ahead of time in the name of getting a scoop. Other companies will make you abide by an embargo, which is a promise not to publish until a certain time.
If you agree to such agreements, they better be worth it. Because these deals put journalists in the business of keeping secrets. These journalists have to worry about whether other enterprising journalists, who make no such binding agreements, can find out about the news and publish it earlier. I find myself in this position when I’m writing about an acquisition. I may agree to an embargo because I can interview the CEOs of the two companies doing the deal and get the inside view. But that represents a bet on my part that no journalist will find out about the deal. I played a game this week, but I can’t tell you about it yet.
To investigate or not
If you find you’re spending too much time writing embargoed stories, you may find that you have no time to do real investigative work. I admire the journalists that step back and do investigative work. We at GamesBeat and VentureBeat compete with those other journalists, but the others out there do great work that makes us better.
- Cecelia D’Anastasio wrote a story at Kotaku last year entitled, “Inside the culture of sexism at Riot Games.” It sparked a discussion about “bro culture” at game companies and forced Riot Games to change its ways. The writer interviewed dozens of current and former Riot employees for that story. Was it enough to make a judgment about the thousands of employees at Riot? The editors at Kotaku who oversaw that story had to make that decision.
- Harold Goldberg wrote a story for Vulture about Red Dead Redemption 2, interviewing co-creator Dan Houser, who almost bragged that people in the company were working 100 weeks as one of the biggest development projects in video game history came down to its final months. That sparked a controversy about forced “crunch,” or unpaid overtime.
- Blake Harris, an author, spent years of his life telling a single story, the tale of virtual reality pioneer Palmer Luckey and his inspiration for the Oculus Rift. I’m reading Harris’ book, The History of the Future, now.
- My colleague Jeff Grubb scored a scoop about Battlefield V’s return to World War II before Electronic Arts revealed the news. Getting such scoops are feathers in the caps of these journalists because they tell readers things that they wouldn’t learn, absent the efforts of the journalists.
- The stories we tell aren’t always pretty. I wrote an exclusive story last year about a Dallas venture capitalist who pleaded guilty to attempted assault and extortion in a case where a woman was severely injured. Months later, he was again arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife. That story had to be told in service of readers, especially anyone who might have considered doing business with such a person.
Not everything has to be a scoop about facts. You can also have scoops of perception, where you see something that nobody else sees. When you’re a game critic, for instance, people rely on you for your pattern recognition, or your ability to spot a great game amid the chaff.
The investigative work is truly important in an age when journalism is under attack on a daily basis by the White House. I admire the work being done by outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, which are truly protecting our democracy.
But I feel like game journalism has been an honorable pursuit as well, and I enjoy the work that I and my colleagues do. It’s like a daily chronicle of an industry that, at its best, produces a lot of happiness in the world. We recognize it’s not always important who gets a story first, but who tells it best.
My colleagues — Jeff Grubb, Mike Minotti, and Jason Wilson — are part of a co-op team of writers and editors who offer smart coverage that explains the business and culture of games and conveys why they matter to sophisticated audiences and an intelligent games community.
We are capable of covering everything from moment-to-moment gameplay to the strategic view of the industry as it fits with other technologies (like blockchain) or entertainment media — which gaming’s market value has long surpassed — such as films, books, and music.
We are as comfortable interviewing the lone creator of an indie game as we are the CEO of Electronic Arts, as either side of this spectrum can come up with the ideas that can change the entire industry. I have the most experience, but that doesn’t mean my colleagues need to be like me. Our team, like any team of people playing a co-op video game, can be strong because we are different.
Minotti plays more games than I do, and that shows when I prove incapable of beating games like Cuphead. Grubb enjoys podcasting and staying in touch with gamers on a grassroots level. Jason Wilson stays at home, reads a lot, plays his favorite games, and oversees us as an editor. Rowan Kaiser edits what other people write for us, such as op-eds.
I interview a lot of people — some I know and some I don’t know — from developers to CEOs. That gets me good interviews. But it doesn’t always mean I always get the best stories since those can come from other sources. And if I do too many such stories, I may not get a lot of time to play games.
And I try to go to a lot of events so that I can meet people in places where they are able to meet me in person, trust me, and share things they won’t say otherwise. I also create our own events, like the GamesBeat Summit, where they can come to us. I look at the seam between technology and games. But the most accurate information comes from seeing it with your own eyes or hearing it with your own ears. As a journalist, you have to turn down a lot of people pitching stories. But you can’t put too many gates up.
As in any co-op game, it pays to have a diversity of members in your squad, rather than the same kind of person. We talk to executives and investors, but we also review games and understand players. We need to cover investment funding, but we also need to understand the indie scene that venture capitalists completely ignore. The lesson we’ve learned is innovation can come from anywhere.
On any given day of the week, our different methods for gathering information could pay off with good stories. I strongly believe that my own colleagues are unprofessional and crazy, but on any given day, they may beat me with the best story of the day. Diversity matters. Everybody can be a storyteller. And everybody has a story to tell. You have to live and breathe and practice these ideas as a journalist.
As we know in other parts of the media business, some people will actively try to stop journalists from finding out secrets. People who mean us ill occasionally attack us. In an age of social media and “corporate journalism,” it’s not easy for our voices to be heard. But it’s not us against them.
I wouldn’t say that all PR people are bad. They do their jobs honorably, and some can tell be sources for journalists too. Times change too, and that affects your sources. I remember two people in an organization that banned me from participating in their events. I was patient. Nowadays, I consider them to be confidants.
At the risk of oversharing about my profession, I will be talking about this topic of journalism sources in a couple of roundtables at the upcoming DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where gaming’s elite crowd gathers, in a couple of weeks.
As a journalist growing older, you have relationships with people who have reached important places in the industry, and they reward your trust with good information. You do not pay them money or do favors for them, but as a journalist, you might one day have to go to jail to protect their identities. The people who trust you can give you so many good stories.
But you do have to remember this. You serve no one, except your readers.