Private provision of public goods

This piece by Patrick Miller in the wake of the 1UP/UGO/Gamespy closures is bracing, painful, and absolutely necessary. It details the desperately broken economics behind game enthusiast websites: they have to rely on advertisements, but the audience just isn’t valuable enough to advertisers except in mass quantities, so the sites are forced into churning out lowest-common-denominator, hit-focused pabulum like lists and slideshows and “best ofs” and whatnot. Good articles get overlooked while clickbait rules the day.

And why?

“Compared to, say, selling cereal/hamburgers/cars/video games, journalism works on a different model–a strange kind of model ostensibly designed to produce something approximating a “public good” but produced through private enterprise.”

There’s your problem right there. Good journalism and criticism is absolutely a public good that will pay off for decades or centuries to come. But there’s no possible way that anybody but the wealthiest individuals could pay for it. That was fine back when advertising was valuable, but that’s the problem: nobody’s willing to pay more than a pittance for online advertising. So, now, it seems like there’s only two options: either cater to smaller, more valuable audiences (specialist trade publications and the paywall thing both do this), or try to convince unpaid or underpaid writers to churn out as much material as quickly as they possibly can to the broadest possible audience (the Huffington model). Neither is healthy. Neither rewards skilled writers with fair pay and solid public exposure. Yet those are the only two options.

(Well, okay, unless you’re Yahtzee. But you aren’t Yahtzee.)

Even if you aren’t just writing, you still aren’t better off. The most valuable part of 1UP for me was always its podcasts. The articles and reviews were fine, but 1UP’s podcasts in its heyday were quite simply the best gaming discussions on the Internet. Only John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s Warcraft stuff even came close. Yet 1UP had to shutter its podcasts, because there just simply wasn’t enough money in it; and judging by what YouTube, it looks like the gaming-focused video market is flooded as well.

So what to do? Damned if I know. I wish I did. I have my own financial issues to work out, and nothing I’ve written about gaming has EVER been paid work. I’ve never even expected to get paid for it; it was all about building a solid portfolio of writing that I could point to when applying for paid work. But what I’ve seen is that there just isn’t a lot of paid work out there, and the people fighting over it are hungrier and more desperate by the day. Talented, skilled writers and analysts are having to look for day jobs or are going back to school to do something else.

And the truly sad thing? This was supposed to be what piracy does, but it’s not even about piracy at all. It’s just a straight-up broken market for writers and journalists, and for the life of me, I don’t see how it could improve. Maybe it isn’t going to. Maybe public goods really do need to be publicly provided. But how?

(I’ll tell you one thing, though…it certainly hardens my heart when it comes to shitty writers. Every time I see a terrible, lazy paid piece, especially from some smug editor or columnist, I just think of all the skilled people who  could put that money to better use. But I don’t think I want to name names here. I’ve picked enough fights.)

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