The Escapist's Editor In Chief, Russ Pitts, led a panel of print game journalists to discuss the viability of videogame magazines going forward.
Ever since the rise of the internet as a content delivery mechanism, pundits have predicted the death of print journalism. Videogame journalism is just as vulnerable, if not more so, because of the prevalence of videogame websites (ahem) and the fact that most of the content in print videogame magazines is readily available on the web for no charge. Russ Pitts assembled a panel to discuss how print magazines are able to support themselves in this landscape: freelancer Julian Murdoch, Jeff Green from EA, Chris Dahlen, managing editor of Kill Screen, and John Davison, E.I.C. of Gamepro. Most of them believe that even though the market for print magazines may be shrinking, there are many things that print does more effectively than online such as more copyediting, a better eye for design, and the fact that sometimes you just don't want to read something on a digital screen, like "on the toilet."
Pitts opened the discussion by asking the panel straight up, "Is print dead?"
To which Murdoch responded, "Yes, and you killed it." You heard it here first, folks, The Escapist killed print videogame magazines. "The stuff that happened early on in The Escapist was kind of definitive not in killing print but reinventing what we mean by print." He continued, "The nature of what we expect out of a magazine has changed because of the internet, and, to some extent, the early experiment with The Escapist format was one way of tackling that."
There are several challenges in printing magazines that handicap it when they are trying to compete directly with online game journalism. First off, it's an extremely wasteful industry, because you have to stock newsstands and bookstores all from a central printing location in the Midwest U.S. "Any magazine, and I'm not just talking about gaming magazines, if any magazine sells 30% of what it prints, that's fucking awesome," said Davison from Gamepro. "That means taking 70% of what you print and just pulping it, which is just absurd." He then stated that just the manufacturing cost of assembling a magazine is about a dollar, before paying writers or any other overhead. So, with a cover price of just 6 bucks, you have to sell a lot of copies just to break even.
Which is hard to do when "you have to throw away two copies for each one you sell," as Murdoch put it.
Despite all that, Chris Dahlen is starting up a new magazine called Kill Screen which wants to be the early Rolling Stone of videogames. "With print you have the ability to run art, to run nice features, to have someone obsess over your em dashes," Dahlen said. "What we compare it to is more like vinyl [records]. Vinyl has been the niche but it's actually growing a little bit. If you go to any indie rock show, they've got vinyl for sale as well as tee shirts." He continued: "These [consumers] are people who have already downloaded the content but they buy it because of the art means something, the cover can do things, it feels permanent and you can put it on a shelf. Some of us have that lizard in our brains where we have to have something on a shelf, and I think that's what [Kill Screen] caters to."
There's something great about having an artifact to hold in your hands. For example, Jeff Green still has all of the old Mad magazines that he had when he was a kid and he's busy collecting more.
Print has the ability to be a great product. Green thinks that's because of a certain role that is lacking from a lot of websites. "Copy editors are the unsung heroes of print," Green said. "The reason they're important and, what often gets lost online, is that they're not reading it for the content. You really need a technician, a grammar technician, a spelling technician, someone who's looking for consistency"
Murdoch agreed, "It's a totally different skillset [than writing]."
Davison later echoed these ideas. "Magazine-craft is more than just words and pictures. It's the sum of everything. It's piecing an article together but it's also piecing an entire issue together," he said.
The future of gaming journalism is not either in print or in online but perhaps rests in a hybrid business model. Murdoch was extremely excited about the iPad application that was demoed for Wired. "We all saw the Wired demo, which was the first one we've seen for what an iPad magazine would look like, that's pretty exciting from a design perspective. It doesn't do anything to create an artifact and I don't think we'll see a lot of publications exclusively go in that direction."
Jeff Green said it best: "You still have the toilet, you still have the living room couch, you still have the airplane. Even with things like the iPad, I don't think that changes the fact that sometimes I don't want to look at a digital screen."
Green then mentioned the Kindle but made one great point. "I noticed on the airplane that a lot more people have Kindles now, I'm jealous, I wish I had one, I was carrying a big fat book. But, when they came on and said that I had to turn off all electronic devices, including electronic books, those people were fucked and I could keep reading."