"Scared blank check journalism appears to be the status quo"
Shacknews' new CEO Asif Khan on the latest incarnation of the site and the challenges of games journalism today
Shacknews has never been huge like IGN or GameSpot, but the consumer website has always had a dedicated following in its nearly two decades online. The fact that it's been around for that long (it began as a Quake fan site in 1996) while other gaming websites have come and gone is a testament to its loyal readership. Shacknews has gone through numerous changes during the years, most recently being acquired by Gamefly in 2009 and subsequently sold off at the end of 2013.
Its new owner and CEO Asif Khan, a long-time financial analyst covering game and technology stocks has been largely quiet about the Shacknews purchase and the transition away from Gamefly until now.
We caught up with Khan to find out why he decided to acquire the website, how he intends to continue to evolve its coverage scope and how Shacknews ultimately fits into a games media landscape that's not only littered with YouTubers and bloggers but has an audience that's been increasingly skeptical of games journalism and its ethics.
[Full disclosure: Khan has been an occasional contributor to GamesIndustry.biz, offering analysis and opinion on video game stocks]
The Shacknews acquisition was done over a period of a couple weeks at the end of 2013. I can't talk about the purchase price, but I will say that I believe it was priced very attractively.
An important part of my investment strategy is speculation. I also focus on fundamental value analysis. Lastly, I love to invest in contrarian investments where the market may be overly bearish of a company. When Shacknews was previously acquired in 2009, it was for a considerably higher valuation than what I bought it for in late 2013. This is due to a number of issues: increased competition, a downtrend in traffic, and an aging user base. Clearly Shacknews is a turnaround story. I strongly believe that we have been given a great opportunity to bring Shacknews back to what it was when it was founded, and in turn create value for all investors and employees. Shacknews is a site that has been through a lot over the last 18 years, but it is clearly a site with staying power.
I can't speak for past ownership or past management teams, but I can tell you more about our plan for the site.
"One could make the argument that the games media has taken a huge step back. It appears that the gaming media is more afraid today than ever before"
Our mission at Shacknews is to keep tech-savvy gamers informed about what's worth their time today and how they'll be playing tomorrow through compelling articles and video features. Another aspect of the strategy we are implementing involves community engagement. We have a vibrant forum on Shacknews called Chatty. Our users are knowledgeable gamers ranging from fans to folks in the industry and they hold us to high standards. It is as if we have our own in house Quality Control/Customer Feedback system. The Chatty users don't hold back when they dislike something we are doing and they are the first to applaud us when we get something right.
During the last year, we have seen the entire games media come under attack by the gaming community in the name of journalistic integrity. We believe Shacknews' relationship with our Chatty users can help bridge this gap, and we are engaging the community the best we can. Our weekly podcast is called the Chattycast and it revolves around community suggested topics. A Chatty user organized a community Top 100 PC Games list, and we worked with him to turn it into a featured series of articles on our site. We are planning Shack Battles (online multiplayer gaming events) where users will have a chance to play games with our Shacknews team on our Twitch.tv channel.
When we recently relaunched our website's design, we reached out to a number of our Chatty moderators and users to take a sneak peak at the site to make sure we were on the right track. The only way for us to create trust within our Shacknews community is to communicate and collaborate with our users. Our Twitch.tv channel is another great example of how we can increase user engagement. We have daily shows on our Twitch channel and we have really amped up our streaming schedule with the new Shacknews redesign.
I want to bring back Shacknews to its rightful position as a premier video game news website. We are back, we are more nimble, and we are more diverse. We have a user base of early adopter hardcore PC gaming enthusiasts whose income is higher than that of the average gaming news site. We believe that emerging technologies like Oculus VR or the latest Nvidia chipsets are areas where we can differentiate our news coverage from other sites. It is on us at Shacknews to do our best to leverage our advantages while addressing any weak points.
One area we have focused on is the creation of original video content and streaming. We want to be the site that people go to when they want to see a new release or preview stream. We want to be the community that people of all races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and nationalities feel welcome in. We want people to join our conversation on Chatty. The games industry should be fun, and we will do our best to inject as much amusement as we can.
There are plenty of competitors to list, but that isn't my focus. We have our own user base, and it is our job to grow it. I believe Shacknews has to run our own race, and we have a great revival strategy for our site that we are implementing.
One could make the argument that the games media has taken a huge step back. It appears that the gaming media is more afraid today than ever before. I can't tell you whether this is because the games media is full of folks that, frankly, are too close to their sources, or too afraid to really engage their very own community. I can look at what have been the recent massive successes. Twitch.tv started with a thousandth of the budget of an IGN and it is now the centerpiece for gaming conversation. It's because the old way of doing things isn't working.
"Most publications are either too close to their advertising dollars, being given a blank check from a much larger parent company with little accountability, or devolving rapidly into click bait"
Look at GamerGate. We aren't afraid to engage our audience, and we are extremely proud of the reaction that our letter about GamerGate got. We said it was something that had to divest itself of the extreme misogyny that the fringe put in a movement that, otherwise, may have been taken seriously. That ship seems to have sailed. They have to hit reset and be more inclusive or get shunted to the corner.
I'm proud that we made our stance very clear, and more proud still that after we posted our letter a lot of major sites followed suit. It isn't easy for us to take that kind of stance given our hardcore PC gamer audience. Advertisers from our sector are now apprehensive about spending with sites in the high-tech gaming realm, but we did what we felt was right. It's amazing to see our influence. It isn't a coincidence that once we posted our letter, several other sites followed us a couple of days later.
Our industry seems to be afraid to really speak their mind. Scared blank check journalism appears to be the status quo. Most publications are either too close to their advertising dollars, being given a blank check from a much larger parent company with little accountability, or devolving rapidly into click bait. One of the main reasons I bought Shacknews was that it was my chance to do something about this. The long term effects will be great for our industry if the new Shacknews can provide even a little course correction to the path ahead for the games media starting right here and right now.
As much as people like to say that the games media has changed in recent years, it doesn't feel that way to me. There have been a few booms and busts in our industry, and every few years there is consolidation or a few sites even die. There is always the potential for power to corrupt any person in any industry, and I think GamerGate is stating what was obvious to me for years. The one thing that remains is that people need gaming news. The industry is evolving. I think the games media sites that reach out to their communities while embracing emerging technologies and services will benefit. The ones that don't will fade away and die just like in past cycles.
It is my job as CEO of Shacknews to not let anything slide, to execute our turnaround strategy, and to have fun while I do it. I believe that when it is all said and done Shacknews will be viewed as one of the websites in the games media that met our industry's challenges head on and came out ahead.