What Is Journalism Anymore?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It’s weird how our sense of things change. In the early blogging days it was often apparent that the market was about personal branding, audience building, maintaining integrity within that audience (such as disclosing whether posts are sponsored), building authority and posting frequently. The exact same mechanics apply to micro-blogging, tweeting and YouTubing, with the result that there are so many new voices replicating the functions of a traditional press. Are they journalists? In the past we’ve often made distinctions between “journalists” and “bloggers” etc. to enforce an impression of authority. But I’m not sure that really holds true any more.

One example is the active media presences of Gamergate. Some of these fans have very large followings and have created jobs for themselves doing things like running Lets-Plays of popular games. Some of them make serious money doing so through advertising and sponsorship deals, paid plays and so on. They argue for “ethics in game journalism” while claiming to not be journalists themselves. But clearly they’re sort of in the same space, and increasingly have a much greater reach or influence than any official channel.

The question of “what is a journalist” is personal for me too. Because I write this column I’m often emailed by PR people who say they love my work before quickly segueing into asking whether I’ve heard of the thing that “everyone’s talking about” (i.e. the product they’re representing) and asking would I be interested in covering it. I get maybe 10 of these emails a week and always say the same thing: I’m a game designer and columnist, not a journalist or reporter. But that distinction doesn’t seem to matter.

If journalism means (1) reporting on news, (2) disseminating opinion, (3) building a readership and (4) a business model off the back of it, that model applies to so many kinds of outlet these days that the distinction of “journalist” feels irrelevant. The future that we predicted is coming true.

Back in the olden days we foresaw the rise of the citizen journalist and the destabilizing of the old order. Then blogging happened, and with it came numerous voices from across the spectrum. Some of those voices landed book deals, TV shows and so on. Then the same thing happened in microblogging and podcasts, and is now happening on Twitter and YouTube. We live in a world awash with self-made voices, from the broad-and-popular to the narrow-and-focused, and largely at the cost of our traditional understanding of journalism.

The difference is in the balance of advocacy versus information. Culturally we retain the idea that a journalist should be someone who reports objectively, who provides a critical eye or otherwise represents a voice of reason. That the sort of principled navigator of shows like The Newsroom or movies like The Insider should still be real. But that’s not really what we reward. Ever since Rousseau’s claim that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” the capacity for media to play up to emotion first has been known, and online we reward it far more often than the coolly neutral.

Successful journalism is often about the advocacy of narratives because the audience has long flocked to the subjective over the objective, to emotion and identity and expression of belief over information. The nobler part of the press used that knowledge to build front-to-back products, with leader and support articles or segments. The newspaper model. And in building such a product the sense of integrity mattered to particular audiences. Tabloid journalism asserted that integrity didn’t matter so much, and was often more successful for it. Yet it too was built on packages.

Many sites try to do something similar as the noble or tabloid press, but they find it hard going trying to make it work. Readers can say that they want objectivism and the like, but when they vote with their clicks they tend to do so with their hearts. They reward the sole advocate more, discarding all sense of a need for a package. The information is already out there, but the audience wants to know what to feel about it. Objective presentation is an inefficient externality in the Information Age.

This online world that we’ve embraced disrupts everything by eliminating inefficiency and externalities. From taxis to postal services, purchasing to libraries, its greatest advantage is generally in removing intermediates. This, it should be of no surprise, has caused a great deal of pain in the media. Online the audience flocks to the advocate and largely stays with her as long as she continues to advocate. Regardless of whether said advocate is the highest of the high or the lowest of the low, it’s the same.

And this is why I’m saying that I don’t really know what a journalist is any more, not in any real sense. The effect of advocacy is so strong at this point that it’s overwhelming. A single YouTuber getting paid to play a game and be enthusiastic about it – even while being open about that fact – is on the verge of carrying more weight than the whole of IGN. So why bother with the regular press? Especially if advocates are willing to be uncritical and not try to add their own spin?

Online the audience always flocks to the advocate because the advocate represents them. For example YouTubers often represent certain kinds of gamer, and they tend to attract echo chamber communities that in turn develop a sense of “normal” and “objective” that can stand in opposition to other groups. A lot of the Gamergate fight over ethics, for example, stems from this disconnect. In their world an “objective” journalist is actually a representative. That’s what they think of as fairness and balance.

These days the reporting of real news happens outside of journalistic organs, direct to the public or through social media. Meanwhile the reporting of company news (such as Blizzard’s new Overwatch game) is so co-ordinated that multiple sites post coverage within minutes of one another. Thus it’s all equivalent, essentially just marketing. Meanwhile the other functions of the press (opinion, readership and business model) are so disrupted by advocates that the only option seems to be to follow the advocate model.

I know that I’m largely speaking from a games perspective here, but I feel the same pattern is repeating everywhere. We don’t seem to really know what a journalist is any more, nor particularly care.