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The uncertain, unflinching future of games media

Upon his departure from Kotaku to Bloomberg News, Jason Schreier talks about his experiences as a reporter, and games journalism's present and upcoming challenges

Over a decade ago, Jason Schreier was a local news reporter sitting in a zoning board meeting, listening to "a bunch of old dudes arguing over whether a fence should be allowed if it's 20 feet tall or 15 feet tall," as he describes.

"And I was just like, 'Oh my god, this is not what I want to do with my life.'"

His search for something more interesting led to video games, where he freelanced across multiple outlets before landing a perma-lance job as a contributing writer at Wired. He remained there for several years before a call from the newly-promoted Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo got him a full-time job as Kotaku's news reporter.

I spoke with Schreier last week on the heels of his departure from Kotaku after nearly a decade. Now, he's on his way to Bloomberg news, where he will join the tech reporting team to cover the video game industry -- and he's also starting a new podcast under the Maximum Fun network, Triple Click, along with his former Kotaku colleagues Kirk Hamilton and Maddy Myers.

Like when he started at Kotaku, Schreier has some freedom to figure out what his role at Bloomberg will be as he goes. He tells me he's looking forward to learning from Bloomberg's larger newsroom and trying his hand at more business coverage, all while continuing the kind of industry and labor reporting he became known for at Kotaku.

That notoriety came as part of the evolution of his former job, which he took in 2011. Back then, he says, Kotaku was already well-established and had a large audience. And along with the rest of G/O Media -- formerly Gawker Media -- Schreier says Kotaku had a penchant for valuing editorial freedom above all else.

"We were given the autonomy to essentially do what we wanted," he says. "We do have a pitching and approval process, and you certainly said 'no' to things that didn't work. But there's a lot of flexibility in that if you see something fun in a game that you want to highlight, if you have some stupid idea for satirizing something, you can essentially get anything on the page."

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Jason Schreier

Though Schreier certainly exercised that editorial freedom at Kotaku to write on a number of different subjects, he has perhaps become best-known for longer investigations into some of the industry's less pleasant subjects, especially those surrounding crunch and labor. He tells me this beat sprung from his early days at the site profiling developers, and evolved naturally as he began talking to more and more people throughout the games industry.

"The problem with systemic issues is that they're systemic," Schreier says. "So oftentimes they don't get talked about because they're just seen as normal. And I think it takes an outsider's eye, or an outsider's ear to hear about that sort of thing and go, 'Wait a minute. What?'

From his discussions, Schreier began doing "broad, zoomed-out perspective pieces" on topics like crunch. Over time, he realized that stories talking to 20 different developers at 20 different companies didn't resonate as much as focused, more specific stories calling out individual organizations in the industry.

"The problem with systemic issues is that they're systemic...I think it takes an outsider's ear to hear about that sort of thing and go, 'Wait a minute. What?'"

One of Schreier's final pieces for Kotaku was somewhat of a reflection on such a story. After a 2018 report into Rockstar Games' longstanding culture of crunch, Schreier wrote that, 18 months later, efforts had begun to actually improve working condtions at the studio. I ask Schreier how often his reporting prompts actual, meaningful change.

"It's really hard to say because it's not like these problems are just like an on-off switch...I think it's been rare for me to see the type of thing that I saw with Rockstar where it's very clear from the very top that they are serious about changing a lot of the ways that they do business for various reasons. That sort of reaction has been uncommon.

"But I'm sure that in a lot of subtle ways, some lead somewhere might see an article and maybe recognize some behaviors that they saw in an article in themselves and say, 'You know what, I've got to do a better job of that.' Or maybe someone somewhere decides, 'Hey, you know what? Crunch is such a perpetual problem here, I'm gonna go home at 6 pm every day, no matter what.'

"Ultimately, I don't think my goal as a reporter is to change things. It might be a net effect of what I do, but my goal as a reporter is to inform people and entertain people. Informing people often leads to change. And that's one of the reasons that a reporter's job is so important, because if you're informing people that the governor is taking bribes from the entertainment industry, then that'll help the police take action and maybe the governor will go to prison as a result of that.

"I don't think my goal as a reporter is to change things. It might be a net effect of what I do, but my goal as a reporter is to inform people and entertain people"

"But it's not the reporter's job to say, 'I'm going to get that governor to go to prison.' It's a reporter's job to say, 'I'm going to inform people of what's going on in the governor's mansion.' I've always taken the approach of being the person who tells these stories. And as long as these things are true and accurate and resonate with people, I see that as a job well done, and if they help people, that's fantastic."

Nearly a decade at Kotaku has positioned Schreier well to witness changes in the overall games media landscape. One major shift that he's been quite happy to see is the reduction of exclusive reviews and announcement previews -- what he describes as "access reporting that just serves as marketing."

He also thinks that games media is now better at pushing back against attempts to make it a positive marketing arm for companies in general.

"It's been really good to see some of the traditional outlets be totally unafraid to report on the people that they cover and do stuff that might piss them off," he says. "I think that eight, nine, ten years ago, it would have been more likely for a news outlet to sit on information or sit on a story for fear of pissing people off. And I don't think that happens quite as much now, although I'm sure it still does to some extent. But I've seen a lot more of a willingness from games reporters and websites, especially in the biggest ones, to be adversarial."

But alongside those triumphs, Schreier has been able to witness games media's stumbling blocks. I ask him what he sees to be the biggest challenge facing games media right now, and he firmly responds in a word: "Money."

He specifies that the money problem is multi-faceted. Companies need to have the financial stability to let reporters focus on difficult, in-depth stories, because those stories take time. Financially stable companies can afford to give reporters that time, because other writers can make sure the site has content.

But there's also the more obvious problem, Schreier says: games media just doesn't pay its reporters well enough to begin with.

"I think it's a problem that you can potentially work in media for a long time, have a senior-level resume, and be making an entry-level salary in any other industry"

"I think it's a problem that people aren't making living wages," he says. "I think it's a problem that you can potentially work in media for a long time, have a senior-level resume, and be making an entry-level salary in any other industry. And I think it's the biggest reason that we see so many people just abandon fledgling careers in journalism because they just can't afford to stay in journalism. There are only so many of the top, well-paying positions, and you have to wait for someone to leave one of those positions to have one. It's just an unsustainable system.

"I don't have a solution for this. If I did, I would just start a website or something. Some of the solutions I've seen work for people are subscription positions and user-funded content. And ultimately, I think that's the only way to go. This idea that things on the internet should be free just because they're on the internet is what has just been catastrophic for media, among other industries.

"I am heartened a little bit when I see people finding success on Patreon and other crowdfunding sites...There does seem to be some model that works, but it's just so personality-focused. I wonder how that could possibly work for other forms of games media, and yeah, it's all just a bummer."

Another issue obvious to anyone who's followed the news surrounding sites like Kotaku and Deadspin over the last few years is the problem of G/O Media Group as a whole. Formerly Gawker Media, Kotaku and its sister-sites -- including Gizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, The AV Club, The Onion, and others -- have been shuffled between owners for the last several years following a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan. The current owner, Great Hill Partners, came in 2019 and installed new management, but Schreier says it quickly became clear that the new management's goals were not aligned with what the media group's members loved about the company.

"It's been really tough working for a company that is run by management in whom trust has been completely eroded"

This conflict manifested in a number of ways over the last year, including the shut-down of news and opinion site Splinter News and the implementation of auto-playing video ads across several sites in the network. Things came to a head when the writers at Deadspin, a sports site known for regularly deviating into numerous other topics such as entertainment and politics, was told to "stick to sports." Interim editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky pushed back, and was fired. The rest of the editorial team quit in protest.

Since then, G/O Media and Kotaku specifically have seen a larger-than-normal exodus of employees, Schreier among them. He cites these issues as one of the reasons he left Kotaku, saying that Deadspin was "pretty much the breaking point."

"It's been really tough working for a company that is run by management in whom trust has been completely eroded," he says. "Our union announced a few months ago that we had taken a vote of no confidence in the CEO. [97% of the union] voted to have him removed...That is not the type of thing you see often. And I think that says it all about how our company has been managed over the past year since Great Hill bought us. If there's any takeaway here, I hope that Great Hill realizes that if they don't replace management, they're just going to lose everybody."

Schreier, who was part of the original bargaining committee that created the GMG Union in 2015, says that the original point of the union was because employees were generally happy working under Gawker, and wanted to protect what they had.

"The only real way to make media sustainable in the next ten, 20 years is to flip that switch in people's heads and make them realize that journalists need to get paid"

"I wish I had a takeaway that was like, 'Here is the silver bullet. Here's the shield you can use to protect yourself from people who come in and don't know what they're doing and don't really care.' I will say that workers do have power [when] organized, and being part of the union is great. And being able to organize collectively is great. And using that power in a strategic way is really important and can really be the only way to fight back against this sort of thing. But ultimately, without some sort of regulation in the US against these sorts of vampire takeovers, I'm not sure what the solution is."

Between funding struggles, the possibility of more situations like the one at G/O Media due to corporate takeovers of other media groups, and the current challenges brought on by COVID-19, games media has a lot to worry about. Schreier doesn't have solutions, but he does urge readers to reconsider how they both consume and pay for -- or not pay for -- the journalism they care about.

"I think Patreon and subscriptions in general are going to be the most important business model for the future," he says. "I don't really see news working in any other way. And I think if the takeaway is anything, I hope it is that news for free is not really free, and eventually is going to kill news. If you're a reader, it's so important to be willing to pay money -- and I'm not saying a lot of money -- but just any sort of subscription or premium service or support, or any possible way you can support the journalists and the organizations that you love, that you like to read every day. Just being willing to do that is critical.

"I think that the only real way to make media sustainable in the next ten, 20 years is to flip that switch in people's heads and make them realize that journalists need to get paid. Otherwise, you just get robots, SEO-bait, and a lot of bottom-of-the-barrel stuff that is so prevalent everywhere. I hope that things can move in that direction and that people can realize that news is worth paying for."

For the record: We've amended the article to correctly state that Schreier was hired at Kotaku just after Stephen Totilo's promotion to editor-in-chief, rather than his initial hiring.

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