Every year, PAX East, the biggest video game convention on the East Coast, hosts a panel about breaking into games journalism. Editors from multiple outlets have advised aspiring writers how to pitch a feature story or self-publish — but rarely have they said what happens next. Once you’ve established a reputation as a talented and reliable writer, what’s it like to actually make a career of games journalism?
To explore this question, I assembled and moderated the PAX East 2016 panel “You’re a Games Journalist! Now What?” Joining me were Susan Arendt, managing editor of GamesRadar+; Samit Sarkar, senior reporter for Polygon; Alexa Ray Corriea, editor at GameSpot; and Holly Green, features contributor for Paste Magazine. We discussed the hard and soft skills necessary to make it as a journalist; collaborating with editors to produce better writing and writers; the difference in turnaround time for news versus features; how video is being incorporated into daily reporting; and the financial realities of the profession.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Thanks to Lon Seidman for recording this audio and video, which are embedded past the jump along with a transcript. See also the summary at Pangyrus.
Ken: Hello! If you’re looking to see what it’s like to be a games journalist, you’re in the right room. Welcome! I hope you’ve all had a wonderful first day of PAX.
Ken: This is on, yes? Great. Thank you for coming, I hope you’ve all had a wonderful first day, I’m glad you weren’t part of the mass exodus when the show floor closed at six o’clock.
This is about, “You’re a Games Journalist! Now What!” The reason I’m doing this panel is because several people on this stage right now have done panels at PAX about how to get into the games industry. How to pitch a freelance article to an editor.
They have had that conversation so many times. I’m curious. What happens next? What happens when they accept your pitch and it goes really well and all of a sudden you’re a contributing features writer for a major gaming magazine? Is it really everything you hoped it would be?
Tonight, you are going to learn what it’s like to actually work in the games journalism industry. The people we have speaking on this topic include Samit Sarkar who is a senior reporter for “Polygon.” Hello.
How many years do you have doing this line of work?
Samit Sarkar: When did I start at Dtoid? Eight. Eight-plus.
Ken: Eight years. Wow. We have like 50 years total experience.
Alexa: I’m gonna guess I’ve got eight years.
Ken: I think so, they’re the newcomers. This is the kiddie table.
Alexa: I deserve it.
Ken: I’m completely kidding. There was a lectern here that was preventing me from seeing the rest of the panelists, so we removed it, hence the gap. There is no actual gap between any of the speakers here.
Susan: It’s the wage gap.
Ken: Yeah. They’re the ones making the big dough over there.
Ken: Then we have Susan Arendt, executive editor of GamesRadar, formerly of Joystick and The Escapist magazine, also co-founder of Take This, whose AFK room you should check out. What is Take This?
Susan Arendt: Take This is a non-profit dedicated to increasing empathy and awareness about mental health issues within the nerd community. The AFK room is 251. If you feel like you’re getting too stressed out from the show or you just need a break, please do come visit.
Ken: Thank you. You are, as I said, executive editor, but up until a month ago you were managing editor.
Ken: Is it the same thing as, now you get to execute people?
Susan: Yes. [laughs]
Ken: What is the difference?
Susan: Here’s something you will learn about working as a games journalist. Different titles mean different things at different companies. In the UK, they don’t really do editor-in-chief. They do executive editor. To make my position in the US match the position of my peer in the UK, they called me executive editor.
Here, if it was the other way around, he would be editor-in-chief.
Ken: Very good, thank you. We also have. over here, Alexa Ray Corriea, editor at GameSpot, formerly of Polygon. Hello, Alexa.
Alexa Ray Corriea: Hi, Hello, is it on? Thank you for having me.
Ken: Thank you for being had. Any major oversights I have made in your introduction?
Alexa: No, that about sums it up. I think maybe I do have the least experience of everyone sitting on this panel.
Ken: This is the second of five panels she’s on this weekend. You’re on…
Susan: She’s on six, I’m only on five.
Alexa: Wait a minute, I’m including the PAXAMANIA as a panel, so maybe…
Ken: Oh, so that’s six?
Alexa: Five? It kind of counts.
Holly: No, it counts.
Ken: PAXAMANIA totally counts, she was on an amazing panel just earlier this afternoon about Tomb Raider.
Alexa: I love Tomb Raider.
Ken: Excellent. And finally, well not finally, we also have Holly Green, Features Contributor at “Paste Magazine”, formerly of Gameranx and Destructoid, and author of “Fry Scores,” a cookbook of video game recipes.
Holly Green: It’s OK. [laughs]
Ken: Hello Holly, nice to finally meet you.
Holly: I know we did a podcast together and we’ve never actually met. [laughs]
Ken: I know.
Holly: That was a lot of fun, though.
Ken: Yeah, so welcome.
Holly: Really glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ken: Thank you. Finally there’s me, I’m Ken Gagne. I’m am the host of a podcast called “Polygamer,” which advocates for equality and diversity in gaming. I also have a YouTube channel, Gamebits.
I’m the editor of the last remaining print publication dedicated to the Apple II computer, currently in its 21st year. More locally I’m also on the faculty of the publishing department at Emerson College here in Boston. Any alumni or students here? None? OK, you all fail. Great, thank you.
Susan: OK, we’ll clap for the teacher, guys. For real.
Ken: These are our Twitter handles, you’re welcome to follow us or tweet at us, you can also use #paxjourno which is in the low right corner if you wish to contribute to the discussion while it is being had.
I will be following that stream and incorporating your comments into the conversation. There will also be Q&A at the end. In the meantime, I want to start the conversation by opening up to the panel with the question, how awesome is it to get paid to play video games all day?
Susan: I wouldn’t know.
Ken: What else is there to do?
Ken: What does a typical day look like for you, Susan?
Susan: For me, I’m in kind of a unique position in that I’m managing a team in two countries in three different time zones in the US. I do a lot of actual editing, I will edit two to 10 features a day.
I have to do all the boring stuff like sitting in on budgetary meetings, and feature planning, and overall strategy. Like right now, when I get back from PAX, we’re having a meeting about the brand. What does the brand mean? These are the kind of things that will suck your soul, but they’re absolutely necessary and part of what makes a website go.
Ken: Samit, you are a little bit more on the ground, pounding the pavement, writing stories. How do you find all those stories? How many stories are you writing?
Samit: Depends on you know what sort of the focus of the week is, because I’ve also started in the past year or so doing a good amount of entertainment coverage, as well. GamesRadar has started doing entertainment as well, you’re seeing that at a lot of places.
I’m located in New York, so there’s a good amount of that coverage there to be had. For example, I was just doing regular news stuff and then like last fall I got an email from a PR person at SyFy and they were like, “Hey, would you like a screener with The Magicians?” which premiered in January.
Susan: It is really good. It’s really good.
Samit: It’s pretty good, it’s not as good as the books, but it’s pretty good.
Susan: Oh, I disagree, but anyway.
Samit: I talked to my entertainment editor, Susana Polo, and I was like, “Hey, they’re offering us these screeners. Do you think we would do recaps, or like a review or something?” She’s like, “Well, why don’t you go for it and see what happens.”
I ended up doing recaps of every episode in the first season and so that’s obviously very different from maybe what a lot of people might be accustomed to, or expect people in the video game journalism field to do.
I think it really varies from outlet to outlet. A lot of my job is like, “OK, there’s an interview opportunity from a game developer,” or whatever, and then I will go talk with those people on Skype or something about their game. Or, I’ll go to a press event in New York City and get hands-on with the game, and talk to developers and things like that. It’s really pretty varied.
Ken: Over here, both of you have been or are editors. Do you get to do much writing or are you mostly editing?
Alexa: I think in the past maybe year and a half I’ve spent maybe, I think two weeks is the most I’ve actually been home at any given time because I’m traveling a lot for this. I know that I don’t post as much anymore, but usually I’m doing a lot of writing.
Like I do a lot of investigative, and a lot of long form, so while I may put a preview of Mafia III up on one day, you won’t hear from me again for another two weeks because I’m LinkedIn stalking people for a story. I probably mostly write. That’s most of my day. Stalking and writing.
Ken: So, it takes a long time to write just one article?
Alexa: If you’re doing something investigative, yeah. I know the last big one I did was I talked to the people that were working on the canceled Final Fantasy XII spin-off at Grin, over in Sweden, and that was about 10 months of work.
A lot of LinkedIn stalking, I’m really good at stalking people on LinkedIn. I don’t know if that’s a LinkedIn worthy skill.
Ken: You have the premium account?
Alexa: Very expensive.
Ken: Because I imagine that a lot of websites, and I’ve seen this happen, they have a quota of how many articles you need to pump out a day, because video games is a very fast moving industry.
Holly: That’s how Gameranx was…For me I didn’t get to be just an editor, my role was so intensive. So for me waking up at 6 AM, the first three hours of my day are spent correcting stories, directing stories, assigning stories, fixing other peoples’ work.
Then getting to my stories, a quota of six a day, usually between 6 AM to 2 PM writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, looking over other peoples’ work, strategizing headlines, directing how the coverage is going to go for any particular article in terms of how thorough it is, back-linking, etc.
And then for rest of the day, maybe four to five hours I get to game, but even then there are so many games on my schedule it becomes very difficult to manage. Look on my Steam account, you’ll see how many hours I’m spending. You got about 40 hours two weeks, maybe 60, if I’m doing a really good fortnight.
Now that I’m at “Paste Magazine”, I’m getting paid more but my workload is completely different and now I’ve switched to features instead of just news reports and reviews and interviews and that sort of thing.
The focus is quite different, where I’m instead trying to optimize search engine optimization needs, just in terms of what’s going to be push, what’s going to get traffic, but also be informative and proper for the audience.
That’s what I’m doing over at Paste Magazine now, moving into an editing position later this year. A lot of strategy going into it even as a freelancer doing the features for Paste right now. Overworked, underpaid, that’s all I’ve got to say. [laughs]
Ken: It sounds like there’s a variety of tasks and skills and roles in the video game industry, even just represented right up here on this panel. I am curious to know, what is your favorite thing to do at your job?
Whether or not you actually do it, something that you have done or wish you could do, whether it’s video production, audio editing for a podcast, writing a long form feature, editing a freelancer, a particular kind of article you’d like to write. Why don’t we just go right down the line here?
Samit: One thing I didn’t mention, a lot of my day, I’m a reporter but a lot of my day is actually spent copy editing, which is a thing that I enjoy doing because I’m a weird person. Alexa will know this.
Alexa: I know it.
Holly: He’s so good at it.
Alexa: I know.
Samit: I just happen to be really good at it and a lot of times my co-workers will just be like, “Hey Samit, are you free to look over this thing because it’s 3,000 words, and I’ve been working on it for a month and a half and I just can’t look at it any longer? Please make sure that it doesn’t make me look like an idiot.”
I think it’s a skill people don’t appreciate as much, but the readers will notice if it’s not there. I enjoy doing it and I enjoy filling that role and providing that service.
Susan: Editing. I mean easy.
Ken: You love editing?
Susan: I do, I love editing. What I do is in addition is basic copy editing, is substantive editing which is taking whatever you’ve written and said, “OK you haven’t quite made your argument. There’s no through line. I know what you’re going for but you’re not quite connecting the dots enough.”, and helping the author hone their craft while also making something really, really good.
It’s kind of a luxury almost in our industry to take something that could run as is, like, “It’s good enough, it won’t embarrass us, it’s decently written.” And then saying, “Yeah, this is good but it could be better. Go make it better.”
It just doesn’t happen a whole lot because most places are horribly understaffed. Taking the time to do that is a straight-up luxury.
I love getting to do that. I love working with all our writers. I get to work with some immensely talented people who always love the feedback. They are like, “Yes, please. Hack my stuff to ribbons. Make it better. Make me better at what I do”.
When you get to be a certain level of good in this industry, people stop touching your work because they go, “Oh, yeah no, it’s fine, it’s good enough to go. Boom.” You don’t get the opportunity to improve a lot, because you don’t get that critique. They are really responsive to it and I love getting to do that.
Now that we’ve merged with SFX and Total Film, I do get to write entertainment stuff. I get paid write about Doctor Who. Yeah!
Susan: Show, I’ve been watching since I was eight years old. Yes!
I also get to write about mobile games in a way that will get people to pay attention to them. There’s still a really big stigma about mobile games. Everybody thinks they are all, “Oh, it’s Freemium garbage with microtransactions…”
You just trust me. Let me put something in front of your face. You’ll be fine.
Ken: What you said about working with editors to become a better writer. That’s something that is lost when you go the Patreon route because a lot of people decide, “I don’t want to work with an editor. I don’t want someone telling me what to write. I want choose my own stories.” But then they don’t have a team supporting them.
Ken: You lose a lot of the synergy and collaboration that happens in a team based environment. That’s one Alexa said that you want to talk about.
Alexa: Sorry to interrupt the flow with my thoughts.
Ken: No, it’s your turn.
Alexa: The most valuable experience I have ever learned was actually while I was working at Polygon and writing features for Russ Pitts. I was super cocky in my first year writing and I really hated getting feedback. I was always very cranky about it.
Susan: Yeah you were, I heard stories man.
Alexa: I was like, “What, this is fucking worst!” I was so used to being told like, “I like the way you write, It’s great.” One day I handed in something that I just knew sucked and he didn’t yell at me, didn’t say anything, he just looked at me and he said, “Listen, let me edit you.”
I said, “OK.” I took a deep breath and from then on everything just got easier. Because of that one moment in time and letting someone edit me, and telling myself, “OK. I’m not perfect. This feedback is valid.” I’ve become a much better writer than I was when I started.
If you’re on a team, if you are working on a website, if your are working with a small team, if you have a Patreon, have someone look at it before you put it up. I cannot tell you how invaluable that experience is.
No one is perfect. The day you wake up and think, “OK, my writing is perfect and I can’t learn anything else,” you’re boned. There is always room for improvement and there’s always room to learn.
Ken: Ten years ago I was working on a piece and I sat down with the editor and she went through all these red marks that she had made. Every time she made a point, I interrupted her and explained to her why I had written it the way I did.
It was awful. She got to a point where she slammed the paper down looked at me and said, “Ken, you have to learn to listen.” It was mortifying for both of us. It was a life lesson for me.
I’ve become a much better writer and listener and editor since then. Now when I get a paper back with a lot of red marks, I’m thrilled, because that means I have that many opportunities to make it the better article that Susan was talking about.
It’s not video game journalism but a great example of the power of investigative journalism, like Alexa does, and editing, like Susan does, I recommend the movie Spotlight. If you haven’t already seen it, great movie, very powerful movie.
Holly, what is it that you love about your job?
Holly: Over the course of eight years, I’ve had to take on a lot of different roles. I have written so many different kinds of things over the years.
You put me in almost any role and I’m going to adapt really well whether it’s a feature, it’s a listicle, it’s a guide, I write amazing guides and daily news reports. I love absolutely all of it because I love providing information to people.
I love figuring out what information do they need, how are they going to start looking for it…Finding a way for them to get a pass to that information. I just like it, if I wasn’t a games writer I probably would have been a teacher or a librarian. It’s just something I love to do.
It’s hard for me to choose between which I like better, editing and writing. Sometimes I feel like if I could print out my employee’s posts and take a big red pen, I would love every minute of it, cutting it into shreds and giving that feedback and that guidance, giving other writers as they improve, is incredibly rewarding.
I got to see a lot of that over the past three and a half years at Gameranx. Incredibly rewarding to find really great talent and to cultivate that.
At the same time the stuff that I write personally for myself is also incredibly rewarding. I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with my work but I’ve write about depression, OCD, physical disability, child abuse, all these different things.
Every time I walk away, not only feeling like I shared a very vital important part of myself through the lens of video games and our relationships with them, psychologically through the avatar. I have people come to me and say, “This meant so much to me.”
It’s like, that’s it. That’s all I need right there to feel like people know me and that they’ve connected with my work and through video games and came out a better person for it or to have a significant emotional impact as a result that’s…I can do this forever.
That’s what I love.
Ken: Wow, it’s so great that we get to do that.
Holly: It is great.
Ken: There obviously a lot of things we love about this job and am sure there are some things we hate but there is also things that are really hard to do.
We may love them, we may hate them but I would like to know, what is one of the hardest assignments you’ve ever had to work on? Whether it was given to you or something you chose to tackle and hopefully something that at some level you found satisfying but was one of your greatest professional challenges.
Anybody want to volunteer?
Holly: Hey, I’ll start.
Ken: Go for it.
Holly: When I was with Destructoid, probably the biggest challenge I ever faced as a writer, was getting thrust into a situation that I didn’t know what I was getting into.
The new Tomb Raider had been just announced and their Creative Director, Noah Hughes I believe, was the person I was meeting with. I hadn’t been told by Hamza Aziz that I was doing an interview.
I had never, ever done an interview and I admit that to this date maybe am not great about it. I have a little hard time sometimes anticipating the questions. I should ask somebody about that.
Just got thrown in in the middle of it and I managed OK. And the piece that came out of it about Tomb Raider, examining just the feminist aspect of the reboot of the entire series and addressing some of the criticisms and contrasting that with the interview that I had had with Noah Hughes.
Getting to the heart of the creative direction of the game and how much passion there was behind it and love for the game. That was so, so, so hard, but had I not been thrown in it like that, it was experience I really needed to have. We all need to be challenged like that and I made it OK. [laughs]
That was probably my worst moment, most challenging moment as a writer.
Ken: You grew as a result of it, and here you are.
Holly: Yeah. [laughs]
Ken: Samit, let’s hear your story.
Samit: It’s a weird one, I guess. This is a thing where I was…I do a lot of copy editing and generally people tell me that my copy is pretty clean. That’s really useful, I think, to people who are editing me because they don’t have to worry about, or they feel like they don’t have to worry about the technical stuff, like commas and things like that.
I think sometimes that tends to, when people are just looking over my work, they tend to maybe not look at it as closely. So, there have been times where I’ve made factual errors or kind of serious errors that maybe have not been caught in the editing process.
Something goes out on the page, and all the comments are like, “Hey, you idiot, what are you talking about?” I think, we’ve talked about it a little bit here on the panel, but writers definitely can have an ego.
Susan: You think?
Samit: And think that their stuff is awesome. For me, a lot of the time, especially earlier in my career when I was at Destructoid, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m awesome and my stuff doesn’t need to get edited, ever.” That might be true from a perspective of grammar, but when people don’t look at stuff as closely, it’s really challenging.
Because then, I feel terribly because I made a mistake, a factual error that needs to be corrected. We have to issue a correction. I have to talk to an editor about the correction process and all that stuff. I also feel let down by my team, because it’s like, “Oh well, maybe that error wasn’t caught because someone wasn’t reading it as closely.”
I think that’s the tough part, like Susan was talking about, the deficiency that we have in editing across, it’s a thing that’s an issue across journalism in general. I was just reading about this the other day on Poynter.
I think what’s really the thing for me to learn to be much more humble about looking over my stuff, not just for spelling errors but also for making sure that I’m doing the best I can from a fact standpoint and also that I’m making sure the people who are editing me are looking it over more closely.
Ken: Great, thank you. Alexa, do you have a story to share?
Alexa: About my most challenging assignment?
Alexa: Literally every review I’ve ever had to write, because I hate writing reviews.
Ken: Even if it’s a game you like?
Alexa: Yeah, especially if it’s a game you like. If it’s a game that you like, you’re going to want to, so that people think, you’re going to want to slap a good score on it. If you like it, if you’re biased towards it, it’s your favorite franchise.
My thing with writing reviews is I have met enough people in my lifetime and talked to enough other critics that we will never all be on the same page. No game will ever be a straight 70 or a straight 50 or whatever. You get them all over the place.
When NeoGAF goes crazy because Star Fox comes out, and some people are giving it 90s and some people are not scoring it at all, that’s because every critic is different. I’m so exhausted by the discussion of the objective game review, because it doesn’t exist. Thank you.
Alexa: Thank you, sir.
Holly: Put a reaction shot in there.
Alexa: Because it doesn’t exist. Reviews are a reflection of the person playing it and their knowledge. Which is why, say, we have Mike Mahardy, who’s a writer for us, write Dark Souls because he’s a Dark Souls expert. It’s why I reviewed Fire Emblem, because I am a Fire Emblem crazy person. You give them to the people who can best look at it through an educated lens.
Part of the reason that I don’t like writing reviews and part of the challenge of writing them is the aftermath can always be a little strange. There’s never been a moment in my life where I’ve published a review and then maybe a day later been like, I don’t feel like I want to change it, but you definitely think about it and you definitely second guess yourself.
It’s the only line of work in which, or the only kind of work in which I think about it and think like, “Could it have been better? Could I have fixed something? Was I wrong about this? Was I right about this?” It’s the only time I ever second guess myself. I don’t like doing them.
Ken: Going to what you said about the objective game review, Brandon asked, “When doing a game review, do you think it’s better to push your own opinion into the writing or provide only the hard facts?”
Holly: How are there facts about a review? A review is personal taste.
Samit: Are you in this room, Brandon?
Alexa: Hard facts? What are we talking about hard facts? Like you press A and you swing a sword, like mechanically?
Ken Gagne: Push X to pay your respects.
Holly: A review that consists only of facts is a product listing.
Alexa: It’s a guide.
Holly: It’s a product listing at the end of the day. If that’s what you want, you can go get the press releases and sign up for their emails and get the, you can get those unfiltered any day of the week if you want. They will let you do that.
Alexa: With reviews, I want to help people decide like, “Three games came out this week. Which one is the one that I should be buying first.” That’s essentially what reviews are, right? To help inform people what to buy. Inserting opinion or only facts, I don’t…no, I think, no.
Ken: I used to have a newspaper column reviewing video games and I would tend to review only the games I liked. Not because I wasn’t able to be critical, but because if there are a hundred games out there for you to spend your money on and I give one a bad score, OK, you’ve eliminated that one. There’s still 99 for you to choose from.
But, if give a game a good score, you can eliminate the other 99 and go buy that one. I feel like that’s better advice, when I review a game I like. Also, I hate wasting time playing games I don’t like. I figure. [laughs]
Ken: Susan? Any tough assignments or has it all just been easy street?
Susan: Mine’s a little different, and if you want to know how it really actually is, having a job as a game journalist, “Hey Susan, I know your team just had back-to-back the two best months in the site’s history, choose 30 percent of your team to lose their jobs.”
I had to do that. I had to go through a list of people and find six to make unemployed. We didn’t do anything wrong, wasn’t our fault. We worked for a big company that had a shareholder’s report that was going to come out and they needed to make numbers look a certain way.
They made changes across the entire company, wasn’t just us. Everybody had to make cuts. But we did literally the best that site ever had and six people still lost their jobs. Yeah! Game journalism.
Susan: That’s not unusual. That’s normal.
Holly: It is normal.
Ken: I was an editor at computer…
Holly: That’s the big secret is nobody’s making money, and nobody knows how to sustain a site. It’s almost a lost cause. There are very few places for anyone to have a paying gig, and you’re looking at, this panel up here? You’re looking at people who have paying gigs and it is by the skin of our teeth. We are very lucky to be in this position.
When I was at Gameranx, guess what? I wasn’t being paid very much. I had to fight for people to be paid a living wage, not even a living wage. The only person who’s actually making a living wage at Gameranx is Jake Baldino. We had 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube when I left, the only person making a livable wage at that site.
Here’s the workload at Gameranx, before I got there and pushed for a better wage. It was $250 a month, six posts a day, five days a week, at least 1,500 words a day. That’s four to six hours of work. Do you think that’s worth $250 a month? It’s not. I pushed really hard for that to get bumped up to $500. Guess how much I was making as the editor, doing all the work I just listed on top of those six posts a day? I wasn’t making any more than those writers.
My editor-in-chief was making three times as much as me for less work. So that’s the reality you’re looking at. You’re not going to make it in this business unless you have enough initiative to be a reporter but also enough initiative to push hard, hard, hard when you know that it’s almost hopeless.
If you can’t push hard enough with that initiative to make a spot for yourself, than you might bot belong here, to be honest. Because that’s what we’re looking for as reporters. If you don’t have anything important in you to say, you’re not going to get a position anywhere, and maybe you don’t deserve it.
We have a lot of people out there who want to say games are great. What are you going to say that’s new and different?
Alexa: Susan and I had a really good panel at PAX Prime about getting in to the industry and if you don’t write for free was number one. Value yourself, I think, was number two. If you want to do this and you’re freelancing and you go to an editor, go in and say, “I am $30 an hour,” I don’t remember, I freelanced a long time ago, but if you’re going to do this you have to value yourself. If you show the person that you want to write for that you value yourself, then they will value you as well.
Ken: I used to be an editor at “Computerworld” magazine. Computerworld is the same company that did “Macworld”, “PCWorld”, and “GamePro.” All of which are now out of print, they’re all just websites. I left that company three years ago, because after six years I was making as much as when I started. Which was a living wage, but no raises for six years.
In the three years since I left that and went in to health care social media, I’ve doubled my income. That’s how much more I make. The most money I’ve ever made from video games was my YouTube channel, where I have multiple videos that have several millions of views each.
I’ve made in the last three years $20,000 total, across three years. That’s about $6,000 to $7,000 a year, or $500 a month, which is about how much Holly was making at Gameranx. Maybe even twice as much. That’s not a lot of money.
I’m actually the only one up here who I don’t think has done gaming as a living, games journalism. I do it on the side, but this does tie into the question somebody asked. We’re all doing, some people are doing investigative journalism, some people are doing five posts a day. Very different extremes there, but we’re all doing writing and video has become very sexy in the past few years.
Susan: Because it’s easier to monetize.
Ken: Yes, it’s very much easier to monetize. I mean YouTube takes a 45 percent cut, but they still give you quite a bit of money, in my experience. You have to make several millions of views, but it does start to add up. Where does video come in to play if we are all writers? Are we going to be out of a job soon?
Holly: This just took a dark turn.
Susan: Here’s the dollars and cents of it. Again, if you legitimately want to be in this industry, there is stuff you need to understand about the way the money works, right? So ads on the website don’t do dick to put any cash in the pocket because everybody uses Adblock, nobody’s seeing them. You got to get too many impressions to pay the bills.
The ad rate for video? Way higher, and much harder to skip. That is a big part of why the push is for video. Also, people don’t want to read no more. They’re like, “Oh, I’ve got too much to do.” Or also, alternatively, they just have it on in the background while they’re playing Minecraft, or they’re playing whatever, they’re doing other things.
If you want to increase your value, learn how to edit video. Straight up.
Holly: YouTube and Twitch, that’s the future. That’s it, guys. That’s it. I really tried to secure my position over at Gameranx, but the only thing really we could do was in terms of, we could see the writing on the wall.
YouTube is coming, our channel is becoming so popular that at some point we were figuring the publisher’s not even going to want to do the site anymore. What’s even the point?
We were trying to secure our positions by writing the content. Writing the…Here’s an idea for a video, here’s the bullet points, here’s some things that Jake can say.
Eventually we got phased out of that so that we couldn’t secure our positions there but man, if you’re a writer, I don’t really see any other way other than starting to pursue video. I really don’t. You have to be a personal brand so much of the time now and that’s hard for any one writer to maintain. Most of us just want to write.
We don’t want to have this social media presence and streaming nights, and all this stuff just to get people to pay attention to our careers but what else can we do? Its all futile at some point.
Ken: There’s a place for writing but you say that prepare for the future as well.
Holly: You need to be adaptable, that’s all.
Susan: You need to have an array of skills…
Susan: Fall-backs, be personable on camera or know how to edit video, or know how to edit audio for a podcast. Write, or know how to write scripts as opposed to writing news stories or reviews or features. The idea that you’re going to be just a reviewer? Forget it.
Susan: That is no longer sustainable, unless you want to do it on the side as a hobby, as a supplement, then totally absolutely you could specialize like that. If this is a thing you want to do to pay your bills on a regular basis you need a lot of skills because you are going to be asked to do a lot of different things, and the plus side of that is, they’re mostly really cool.
They’re mostly really entertaining and challenging and you’ll get to do creative things and see your ideas, and play with stuff and “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we tried this?” and that’s really, really awesome and fulfilling when it works out. That’s the upside of all this.
Ken: 1 And there is a place for journalism, I have a friend who used to work for CIO magazine, then she went to Information Week and got laid off from there so while looking for a full-time job she decided to go into freelance and she now makes $12,000 a year more as a freelancer, because she’s getting paid a buck a word.
Susan: Oh my God!
Alexa: Freelancers make dope cash, just saying.
Ken: That’s how much I make as a freelancer.
Susan: Oh my God! What are you writing?
Ken: I’m writing for IDG, for Computerworld.
Susan: I’ll write that down.
Ken: They don’t do video games at all. My friend and I, we’re writing about enterprise IT but yeah, freelancers pay really well.
Susan: Yeah, that’s the thing. You will make way more money doing this same exact thing in another industry. You will. It won’t be nearly as cool, you won’t get to do rad stuff like get on a panel at Pax and nerd-out over Overwatch or something, but you’ll make a lot of money.
Ken: And a lot of the skills are transferable. I learned to do podcasting at computer world and now I have my own two video came podcasts which everybody on this panel except Samit has been on, which is really cool.
Samit: I think the important thing is to just always be open to to trying new things in terms of expanding your skill-set. I started out, I was just doing news posts, and then I was the only sports guy at Distructoid. I started doing reviews and those are really bad, please don’t look them up. [laughs]
I got better. Maybe. Then, I was on a podcast at Distractiod and at Polygon I’ve been doing like I said entertainment coverage and I’ve also been doing video stuff. Alexa and I were both on this fun TV show called Speed Run that you may have seen.
Alexa: I miss it.
Susan: I liked that show.
Alexa: That was my baby.
Susan: I really enjoyed that.
Samit: That was Alexa’s baby and she wrote all the scripts and sometimes I was on camera and initially I was terrified at the prospect of being on camera for an Internet video.
Alexa: You’re adorable.
Samit: Yeah, I think that was something where I was really bad at it at the beginning and then I kept doing it and I got some modicum of experience and I got a little bit better and then we just did.
Now, we’re working with…Facebook is doing their Facebook Live push so we just took an order and yesterday we did a ten minute live stream talking about the Precision 4K, so that was something where it was just us sitting in the directors chairs and talking about the rumors about that and that’s stuff that has been offered to me, but I also think it’s really important for you to go out.
If you are at a site, try to argue for being given those opportunities. A thing that you may be familiar with if you read Polygon is that our features and reviews look really nice. We do a lot of work in making sure that the layouts are magazine-like and really pretty.
When I started at Polygon, almost four years ago I was like, “Oh man! That looks really cool, I’d like to know how to do that some day.” For the longest time, I never really asked about it.
At some point I think I saw another co-worker of mine and she had started doing review layouts and I was like “Oh, well hey, Arthur, Phil.” Arthur Gies and Phil Kollar are reviews editors “Hey, can I learn how to? Would you be willing to teach me that some time?” They did and now I do a lot of our review layouts when they’re really busy.
That’s a fun thing because its stretching different muscles that I’m not when I’m writing. Its a totally different skill-set and that’s only because I went out there and I asked to have that opportunity. Its really important for you, if you want to expand your skill-set, you have to be the one to try and do it.
Ken: We were talking about having diverse skill-sets, Susan, do you want to talk about the soft skills?
Susan: Yes, yes OK. Hands up if you know what is meant my hard skills versus soft skills…OK cool. Hard skills are things that you can bullet point: you know how to edit video, you know how to write a script versus writing a feature article for example, you know how to take beauty photographs of products. These are hard skills. It’s something you can go to school for, that kind of stuff.
Soft skills are the things that go in between that govern how well you deal with people, how you deescalate conflict, how you learn to communicate with different personality types, how you communicate to make sure that the person has both heard you and understood you, because people process information in different ways and these are things that you need to learn in order to be a cohesive working team.
Its the kind of stuff that no-one will ever tell you in a performance review that you need to work on. They’ll just know that you’re not quite meshing with people and they will very rarely say why. They will rarely say, “Because you sound like a dick in your emails.” That won’t come out. The ability to write an email and sound like a natural person is a skill. It is a skill that not everyone possesses but it is a skill that can be learned.
Ken: I’m thinking about an incident that I had at work last year where it was a very high pressure situation that if it escalated could have ended with millions of dollars of lawsuits and people losing their jobs.
Susan: Not good.
Ken: No. I dealt with it but in the course of doing so I wrote some emails that made me sound like a total dick when I should have just pricked up the phone and talk to the person. I would have been better at that in that tense situation.
Susan: That is a valuable thing to know. I should have this conversation verbally because if I try to do it via text, its going to spiral out of control. That is an excellent example of a soft skill: knowing that about yourself, or knowing that about someone else you work with.
When you need to resolve that conflict, what is the best way to boil that down so that we are working towards the same goal as opposed to we’re trying to win.
Ken: I’m going to open up to questions in just a moment but I’m going to ask one more question to the panel. What do you wish you’d known about this line of work before you started? Alexa?
Alexa: Can you get back to me?
Ken: Yes. Holly?
Holly: I think it would have been really good for me to know my own value going into it, that if someone isn’t willing to pay you for your work, walk away. If your work’s not valuable enough to be paid for, then work on it. Know your own value.
If someone’s getting paid for the clicks on their website, that means you should be getting paid for your work. Don’t let anyone push you around. Take no shit. That’s what I wish I would’ve known.
Ken: Thank you. Susan?
Ken: Do you want me to come back to you?
Susan: Yeah, come back to me.
Samit: We were talking about it earlier, skills outside of writing. When I first started doing this I had messed around with some video project, first semester of college, years before that and had never really tried any of that stuff, had never really done any on camera stuff. It’s not that I think that I’m way behind the curve and going to be out of a job soon, necessarily, though that may indeed be the case.
I do wish I had explored that stuff myself earlier, some time in the previous eight years or had started out with some kind of background in that arena because I think its pretty much necessary at this point.
I’m lucky that I have some other experience doing things like photo shop and photography and things like that but like I was saying before, it’s really important to do as much of that stuff as you can, and I wish I’d gotten into it earlier.
Ken: What I’d say, this is not quite that important but it makes a difference which is that time spent producing media about video games, takes away from time spent playing video games. I spend so much time producing my weekly audio podcast that I have not played a video game in the last month.
Ken: I’ve had other shit going on the past month but…
Ken: I could have really used video games this past month. I could have used that pressure release but instead I’m like “No, I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got to stick to my deadline.”
I love having this opportunity to share this passion with people and to have them donate and dedicate their time to coming on my podcast and to trusting themselves and trusting me to talk to them but I’d also really like to have a Saturday where I don’t get out of my pajamas so I can play video games. Alexa?
Alexa: I wish I had known that making a mistake is not the end of the world. That every time I made a mistake the world was not ending and I was not going to get fired and people were not going to come after me.
Whether it’s publishing a headline with a typo in it or pushing something live, or asking the wrong question at the wrong time. Because my blood pressure is so high.
Alexa: I am so stressed out that it’s not. If you make a mistake, if you publish something with the wrong date or the wrong letter or the wrong name, go in and fix it back off, uncouple and then get on with your life.
It’s OK and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes in this industry. People break embargoes accidentally and do a lot of other sad things and its OK. None of us are infallible and you have to know going into this that one of these days you’re going to make a mistake and its not going to be the end of the world and you have to be able to pick yourself up and go on because you will end up a stressed mess like me.
Susan: I wish, and again, I’m the weird one here, I wish I had known there was value beyond just being the writer because for so long I was agonising over the fact that I was not as good a writer as these people that I looked up to, as these people that I worked with. working ten months on a story? I will never do that. I am just not that person.
Alexa: I’ve done that a couple of times.
Susan: I desperately want to be that person but I’m not that person. I bring different skills to the table. I bring the ability to say “No, we shouldn’t do that and here’s why.” It’s a skill that people don’t have a lot in our industry…
Samit: And don’t value.
Susan: And don’t value. The ability to check in with your team and make them feel valued and make them feel like their human beings, is again something that doesn’t happen a lot in this industry. That has value. I wish I had appreciated what I brought to the table sooner, instead of lamenting what I didn’t.
Alexa: I’ve always appreciated you, Susan. Susan’s my mentor by the way, I’m here because of this wonderful lady, that’s true.
Ken: And I come in between them.
Ken: I’m going to spend the last ten minutes for Q&A and you’ll notice there’s no line for a microphone because I’m going to be walking around with a mic to people that have their hands raised, on one condition, that you understand that a question is a short interrogative sentence that ends in a question mark.
Susan: OK, I have a question but first I just wanted to comment on this… Don’t do that. Don’t.
Ken: We all know what you’re life story Susan.
Susan: I don’t think so. [laughs] What is this with warming up?
Susan: They really don’t! [laughs] They are either on or off. OK, alright, let’s switch.
Susan: What was the question? I didn’t hear the second part.
Ken: Could you stand? We can’t really see you.
Alexa: Hello, hi.
[audience asking question in the background]
Alexa: My favorite game of all of them is Awakening. I know it’s recent but I loved it a lot and I’m going to go with Birthright because I played both of them and I felt Conquest really limits your ability to do side-quests and to spend more time with your units and to really build up those relationships.
I could get no-one to hook up because I had so few opportunities in battle, so I have to go with Birthright. And I married Rioma, I went right for my brother.
[audience asking question in the background]
Susan: Peer review is a great first step towards getting people over the hump of, “I am critiquing your work, not you and I am telling you things that you perhaps don’t want to hear because I want to improve your work.”
What a lot of people do is they don’t give critique because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Peer review, if its an on-going, monitored thing so nobody gets too nasty about it, can be super, super constructive about building up critique skills, both giving and receiving.
Ken: OK, thank you.
Ken: Thank you, and by the way, everyone who asks a question gets a steam code for a Tell-tale game. Young lady?
Holly: I like Tell-tale games…
Female Audience: I’m reading it so I don’t misread. If you’re already freelancing or working with publications to get your word out, to get your story out, what’s the best route to go from there to an editing track?
Susan: There isn’t one currently.
Susan: Because editing is not particularly valued.
Susan: Everybody in our industry is called an editor, Whether they actually edit or not.
Alexa: I don’t edit anything and that’s my title. [laughs]
Susan: So what I would recommend, is…Let’s say you have a relationship with a particular publication right now. Do they need any help editing? And try to do some freelance editing for them or alternatively take on freelance editing jobs.
Female Audience: I was actually just going to ask clarification-wise, if that’s valid.
Alexa: The only way I got my editing position was by making myself invaluable. I showed up at the site and within days was like “Oh, this is a disaster, you need to do this, you need to do that, you need to do this.”
Tons of stuff, our employee chat-lobby, our employee email addresses, all these things I started pushing for, a new infrastructure on the back end. Pushing and pushing and pushing, pushing until finally Ian was like, “You should be my managing editor” That’s what I did. Don’t ever be satisfied for how things are.
Female Audience: I’d love to connect with you afterwards on how to handle people that aren’t…
Alexa: You should get hold of me on twitter.
Ken: Thank you. You don’t get all of them.
Holly: I don’t get all of them? What?
Ken: To follow up on that as well, 20 years ago when I started in the newspaper industry, I was told by my editor, anybody can write, but someone who can write and do layout is invaluable. They’re worth their weight in gold. Well that was back when we had newspapers.
Ken: Nowadays, what I tell my students in person is, “Anybody can write, a person who can write and load their content into a CMS is invaluable.” Always have that complimentary skill. Young man?
Peter: Hi, my name is Peter, I have cerebral palsy so I play video games one handed. I’m a Playstation gamer exclusively. This question is about reviews. One of the problems I have is I buy a game and I just can’t play it because the control scheme is difficult.
For example in The Witcher, when you use the touchpad to swipe up to get the inventory, that in battle would just keep happening, so you’d be in a boss battle…So one of my problems is reviews don’t talk about accessibility in games.
Susan: You’re right.
Holly: You’re right it’s a problem.
Holly: Are you familiar with AbleGamers?
Peter: Yes, I am, I love it.
Holly: You need to be reading everything they do, I’m in touch with them all the time, what they do is…
Peter: My question is do you or do your sites think about it more now that Playstation has custom button assignments and X-box has been doing things. You talked about three games coming out this week and I read reviews and its like, “Can I play this?”. It’s not a great feeling to buy a game and then figure out…
Holly: No, you are absolutely right, you are 100 percent correct. And I think that even someone disabled such as myself, I have a condition similar to MS, and I think that’s why I’m primarily a PC gamer, because controllers are very hard for me to use after a certain period of time.
It’s very hard even for me as a disabled person to remember that there’s accessibility issues that need to be addressed and that is something that we always need to be criticized on so we can take that into consideration. Just now we’re getting the awareness that we need to talk about, “Oh, are there color-blind options?”
Stuff like that. And it’s so hard to remember, even as someone who has those problems. You speak up and talk to us now and its something we can log away and keep fighting for. I really love what AbleGamers are doing because it reminds me every single day that I need to take that into consideration.
Too often we put the burden on disabled gamers to just figure it out themselves with different controllers and things and there’s class issues there that you encounter because not everyone can afford to do that. I’m not good enough about it.
Ken: AbleGamers is a non-profit that works with developers to make the software more accessible, and they work with the players to make sure that the hardware is more accessible. There’s also a group in the UK called Special Effect, which focuses on just half that equation. They work with the players to make sure the hardware is more accessible.
Susan: They are awesome!
Holly: Special Effect is great.
Susan: They are awesome.
Ken: I highly recommend seeking out both of those resources. Even if you don’t live in the UK, Special Effect has a website, so check out their resources. You guys Syn-Code. We have time for two more short questions or one really long one. I’m going to spend my time running all the way back here.
Male Audience 1: Hi, how you doing? I’m a senior editor of a website. Everybody that I work with, we’re all over the United States, Australia, and the UK and Europe. How is it? I know one of you all. [laughs] I’m trying to remember names. “Hello I know you are dealing with people in US. You are dealing with people in US and UK.”
How does that like, does that become cumbersome and how do you deal with that hump?
Susan: OK. Yeah. Absolutely that really a question it goes back to the soft skills we are talking about. Because the ability to manage teams remotely during different times zones, dealing with different cultures is a skill.
It’s something you have to aggressively work at. Because there is a whole lot of out of sight out of mind. “Oh well I will just send an email on that I will do it.” Yeah. Great. Programs like slack or The Last stance HipChat or invaluable.
It’s not that bad. It’s OK. Slack would be, would be your goal standard that it’s going to allow you to, for people to comment at each other and feel like they are all physically in the same space. Even if it’s a chat room you feel like you are all together and so you are talking like am talking to you as supposed to, even though it’s typing. And that can be a more personal communication than an email. I would highly highly recommend that.
Holly: Yeah. You can, you would change you entire team dynamic by having that communication constantly within an employee lobby. Share lobby every day. We were using this code which is great with app on your phone. Which means I was working twenty four hours a day. But it works.
Male Audience 1: Yeah. We use slack. We use slack because our Editor In-chief is set somewhere over there. He did recommend that but then also what about those that don’t like to communicate? How do you find work that out?
Holly: Good luck.
Susan: Your first task is figuring out why they don’t like to communicate. Because you do not assume intent. Do not assume this person doesn’t care or is being difficult or is a jerk.
First you need to figure out what it is about them and the way they processing information and the way they deal with people that is leading them to not communicate. They may not have any idea that it is a problem. So that what you need to start. “Here is, here is the thing,” and discuss the behavior not your assumption why the behavior is happening. “Hey, I know you care about this side much like the rest of us. It would be really great if you could be more communicative because that would be helpful. I noticed that’s not something you seem to do a lot and I was wondering if there is anything I could do to make it easier for you.”
Your job is to give your team the tools they need to succeed. Whether that’s your attention, whether that’s slack, whether that’s a conversation about why the F don’t you write a guarded email, what is your problem? Maybe you don’t phrase it like that.
Ken: And this is our question regard twitter, social media. I had a student in my class last semester who won the interview game journalism but he is not on any social media and he refuses to be. He called Will, from Imur, he was our guest speaker that night and he asked her, “Is it important that I be on social media?” And she said, “It is important that you know how to use social media.”
Ken: If you are not there personally, you need to know how to represent a brand.” She needs to know how twitter works, how Facebook works. Even if you yourself you’re not comfortable being on twitter. We have time for one more question…
Susan: You haven’t done the other side of the room.
Ken: That side. Yeah you are right. Actually am sorry I did niot mean to ignore half the population. Let’s go right here.
Holly: How are you yesterday, huh? [laughs]
Male Audience 2: Hi, I’m a writer, I’m not a journalist. I’m a poet and I write science fictions, short stories and I’m still working on creative assist and stuff like that. I find myself having to cue out codes as titles of like, “Gods blowing up a building” or something like that like am trying to incorporate technology into my writing.
Do feel like this just a place all writing is going and general like having to use technology to the best that you can use it?
Alexa: I don’t think you have to. I think it’s a way to expand your user base and also extend your possibilities for creativity. If you look at it less a burden and more of an avenue for new ways to express yourself, then it can be both useful and enjoyable for you. Thank you so much.
Ken: And who had a question and didn’t get to ask?
Male Audience 3: Here.
Ken: Did someone in the far have the hand up?
Male Audience 3: Yeah.
Ken: But you don’t get the question but you get the Steam code.
Ken: That all the time we have. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of the weekend.
Alexa: Thank you for coming everybody.
Ken: Thank you.