Ad-blockers, the games press, and why sexy cosplay galleries lead to better reporting
We’re going to talk about ad-blocking software, online publishing, and why much of the game media is the way it is. If you block ads, I’m not going to shame you or browbeat you, and there’s nothing I can do to stop your use of ad-blocking software. I am going to explain why I hope you whitelist this site, but that’s the extent of my arguments.
Besides, I don’t think the current state of ad-funded publishing will be sustainable in the long run. This is why:
A few things first
First, let’s talk about what I don’t know. I don’t know anything about the ad sales of Penny Arcade or the Penny Arcade Report because I just write the content. I don’t know how much we charge for it, or how well it does. I have no prior knowledge about what ads will be on what part of the properties. Ad sales are handled by people I see a few times a year when I visit the home office. I could pick up the phone and ask, but I’m not sure they would tell me and frankly I would never want to know.
Let’s clear up some misconceptions about ads. Most sites make money by putting ads on their content, and you don’t need to click on those ads for them to get paid. Just having the ad on your screen is enough. Ads are usually sold in blocks of 1,000 views, giving you what’s called your “CPM.” This is what you charge per 1,000 views. So if you are running a site that has a $5 CPM, which is pretty good, you’d make $5 for every 1,000 people who visited the site.
Some sites make more, many make less. But that $5 CPM is a good starting point. This means that every visitor to the site is worth just half of one cent. Let that sink in for a bit, and you’ll begin to see how many visitors it takes to justify one full time writer, not to mention an entire site of professional writers. The amount of money most sites pay for good work is going down, and many publications are closing entirely. Publications aren't being assholes to writers on purpose, under those economics it’s very hard to make enough money to keep the lights on, much less pay your writers well.
Want to play a fun game? Pull up the official site for an ad network such as Federated Media, go under technology, and look up the cost of ads. You’ll be able to find out the CPM for a number of popular sites, but keep in mind these are just the jumping off points. In many cases things are negotiated. But again, it’s good base information to have.
So okay, under that economy it takes me 1,000 viewers to get $5. Except that number is misleading, because blocking ads from your favorite sites is a very easy thing. Trivial. And a whole lot of people are doing it.
Niero Gonzalez, the founder of Destructoid, ran a test and found that around half of the site's readers were blocking ads on the site, and that’s a common occurrence when it comes to gaming and technology sites. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re probably a male between the ages of 15 to 40, and you’re engaged with your technology enough to know how to block ads, and you find it increases your enjoyment of browsing the Internet and viewing content. Which means that about half of you are blocking the ads on this site.
I’m still glad you’re here, but hear me out.
So now it turns out I need around 1,500 readers to get that $5 for my hypothetical site. Say I want to pay myself $500 for the month. It’s not a ton of money. I need 150,000 page views. That jumped right up there, didn’t it? Now look at sites that employ a number of highly skilled, professional writers that are full time and making a livable wage. You’re suddenly looking at millions and millions of page views required to keep everything afloat, much less expand. Tens of millions of page views. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unique readers.
There are other ways to get money from advertisers: You can let them skin your site with their branding, which isn't ideal when you're trying to build your own brand. You can get them to pay for stories that run on your site, which earns them a “presented by” tag prominently displayed somewhere, or they can sponsor trips and coverage, again in exchange for massive branding that lets everyone know that your particular E3 coverage is brought to them by whoever. These usually pay better but, as you can tell, you're giving up more to get that money. I've included an image of what a sponsored post can look like below, pulled from Cracked.
Page views, and lately, unique readers, fuel the industry. You do not get paid without them. Do you wonder why so many sites like to break stories into multiple chunks? Page views. Do you wonder why so many sites re-use content from other sites? Page views. Sensational headlines? Page views.
I stopped getting mad at the 'Top Ten Japanese Panties I Jerked Off To Last Night' stories on certain sites when I realized that the hundreds of thousands of page views those articles received helped pay for a writer to spend a week gathering sources and do original reporting for a feature
Do you wonder why I tweet stories twice, once with the official headline and again with another thought from the story? Because that way I get to go after two different audiences with the same content. I’m after those unique readers. I’m trying to get page views.
People like to say that the games press is just chasing page views with certain stories, but let’s be honest: We’re chasing page views with every story. This is the reality of the business. It takes so many page views and so many uniques to stay in business, you find yourself going after stories you know will be popular. You may pass up covering games that don’t have a large following. You may break one long story into two chunks to stretch it out. You do anything to get people to click.
This doesn't mean you have to be evil, and you can play this game without giving up your soul. The Cut is an easy way for us to run more content, but it's designed so we don't rewrite stories, and it actually boosts the traffic of the sites we're featuring. This isn't a passive process, as I've talked to people from prominent sites to check in on the process after our redesign, and I was told that outgoing traffic actually went up. If it turned out the system was parasitic we would have returned it to the previous form.
We're playing a slightly different game with the Penny Arcade Report, and we're also looking at the long term, but the two words before “Report” in this site's name grant us a lot of freedom and privilege. I don't think it's fair or healthy to judge publications that are dealing with a very hostile business and don't have the sort of backing PAR enjoys. We're also a very lean operation, with only two writers at the moment, and that's not an accident.
But let's get back to the general ecosystem out there: How do sites justify running longer, in-depth stories that won't bring in the huge page views? I have bad news. They write shit. Popular shit.
I stopped getting mad at the “Top Ten Japanese Panties I Jerked Off To Last Night” stories on certain sites when I realized that the hundreds of thousands of page views those articles received helped pay for a writer to spend a week gathering sources and do original reporting for a feature.
The “Sexy Cosplay” galleries are worth an epic amount of page views, and they get passed around social media, so the uniques aren’t bad either. The sad truth is that the content you hate on most gaming blogs is usually incredibly popular, and helps them pay for any solid reporting you do enjoy.
The next time you realize a reporter had the time and support to spend hours, if not days, on a story and you liked the result, don’t just thank that particular reporter. Thank the writer who spent all that time re-writing press releases, adding creepy pictures to stories about sex dolls, or who simply took the picture from another site and added a snarky headline. Those stories do big business, and they paid for the good stuff.
This system sucks
This system sucks, and many writers and editors involved with the system know it sucks. The writers who are often asked to create these stories know it sucks. You think you hate to read shit, imagine having to create shit that you know will do way more business than a well-researched and thought out story on a topic you’re passionate about. Now imagine making a pitiful amount of money for both stories. Is it any wonder so many talented writers leave the business?
We talked about talented, older developers leaving game development, but the same thing happens to reporters. Few sites have the money to offer writers a full-time position, and even fewer offer benefits. It’s incredibly hard to spend the years building up the contacts, expertise, and skill it takes to report a story well when there is no money in doing so, and it makes more business sense to simply re-write an existing story or go with that cosplay gallery. We want people who know the business to report on it, but the current system doesn’t allow them to making a living wage doing so, and in fact it often punishes unique work.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know how many times I’ve spent a long time reporting a story, only to see my quotes chopped up and repeated on other sites, sometimes with no link back to my original work. Often those nearly-plagiarized versions of my stories hit Reddit or other popular aggregators, and their repeated version of my reporting gets way more page views and uniques than the original story. I'm not alone in this complaint, it happens to anyone who writes original content.
It drives one to drink, and it happens often enough that even good writers can get demoralized and either quit the business or simply stop doing original reporting. If they spend 20 minutes repeating the story it took me a day to put together, and they get the same or better traffic, they’re being the rational actor in this industry, not me. I get angry, and sometimes I have to take it out on the punching bag, but the cold reality is that they’re not being assholes about things, they’re merely reacting to a massively fucked up system. They're working smarter.
Look at it this way: You have no reason to strive for accuracy in modern game reporting under this system. You get clicks when you write about crazy rumors, and you get clicks when you repeat them to say they're not true. It doesn't matter if your readers trust you, as long as they click. I've heard stories of writers being told to write up rumors and speculation they don't believe to be true in order to gain clicks. Editors call it “joining the conversation.” Most of us call it “fucking bullshit.”
Ready for irony? The better your audience is - the more mature, intelligent, and plugged in - the more likely they are to run an ad-blocking program of some kind. People who read parenting blogs don’t often block ads, and are probably barely aware it’s a thing they can do. If you’re a 25 year old guy who has a job in IT, makes a good living, and reads a ton of blogs, odds are you’re blocking ads. I love you folks, and you're my people, but from a business perspective, you’re a really crummy market to go after.
If you don’t block ads, but you visit that site with a 50% rate of ad blockers and a $5 CPM, your visit is worth around one-quarter of a single penny. There is nothing about this system that is good for anyone. It sucks for everyone. I’ve had game developers tell me happily on Twitter that they block ads, and I feel like that’s the same thing as telling them I pirate games. Blocking ads directly hurts the people who write content, and it hinders our ability to make money and stay in business.
There are publications that have millions of page views, and they're drowning.
I want to help!
You can! You can do two things to help the sites you like, whether it be the Penny Arcade Report or any other. They are very simple. Whitelist your favorite sites from your ad-blocking program, and share your favorite stories on your favorite social networks. Tweet a story you like, or share it on Facebook.
These two very simple things will make you a powerful force in buoying your favorite content. It’s like being able to choose to be a Neilsen family. Share good stories, whitelist good sites. That’s it!
You don’t have to do either, but I’d really appreciate it if you did. If not for this site, then for others. Be a friend to good content.
The ad-driven model sucks. It takes the power away from readers because individually you’re worth so little in the financial sense. It rewards bad behavior on the part of reporters.
Newspapers and magazines saw each reader as a valuable thing, as their monetization strategies meant each reader was worth a good amount of money to them. Now each reader is worth a percentage of a cent. Talented writers leave the industry because they can’t make a living, and readers are left wondering why no one seems to know what they’re talking about. Everyone loses.
Another way to fight back is to think about direct funding.
“I feel like a lot of noise has been made about some of the big numbers people have been racking up on Kickstarter, but I have not seen much noise made about how many people those numbers came from, which can be surprisingly (and pleasingly) low,” a recent article about Strip Search contestant Alexandra Douglass’ Kickstarter stated. The first time I noticed this was on Daniel B. Young’s skateboard Kickstarter in March 2012, which raised a solid USD $43,217. By this time, numbers like these were not unusual on Kickstarter…what caught my attention was how many people it took to get that much money: 291.”
Kickstarter and other crowd funding services offer the opposite of an ad-driven market: it takes a relatively small amount of people paying a moderate amount of money for big things to happen. In publishing online it takes masses of people worth almost nothing to keep from drowning. Which sounds more attractive?
Assuming that $5 CPM, it would take 8.6 million page views to raise the $43,000. That’s assuming no ad blocking. At a 50% ad-blocking rate it would take just under 13 million page views to get the same amount of money. Daniel B. Young did it with 291 fans. Douglass reached $43,000 with 800 backers at the time of this writing. This isn't an academic thing for Penny Arcade; it only took 9,000 backers to remove ads from the main page for an entire year.
This is nothing new, people have been arguing for subscription services, a virtual tip jar, or just a way to send in a few bucks to their favorite publications for as long as I’ve been writing. The economics of direct funding are amazing: a few bucks is suddenly worth thousands of readers.
Let’s say a site has one million readers, and one percent of them give a dollar. That site is suddenly doing better than a competitor double in size. If 5% of the readers give $5, suddenly that site can afford multiple full-time writers, the cosplay galleries can go away, and the pressure to chase page views is gone. It takes very few paying readers to break this cycle, and almost no whales. The upside is that everyone gets to benefit from the few who pay, the better content benefits everyone. It's still free. That’s the power of a tiny percent of readers giving a tiny amount of money to a site that has a medium-sized audience.
It’s not nearly this simple, as credit card fees take a chunk, and only sites with existing fanbases can make this model work, but the reality of ad-blocking and the soft ad market are often talked about in vague terms. I wanted to show the direct affect this shit has on the quality of the news you read, especially on technology sites.
There is a more subtle side effect to supporting sites directly. We click on crappy stories or sexually suggestive images because we like garbage and it costs us nothing. It's the Honey Boo Boo of reporting, and we all read it more often than we'd like to admit. But what we'll click on and what we'll pay for are two totally different things. I don't have the data to back this up, but I'm willing to bet the garbage will always get more clicks, but the engaging, high-quality original stories will always get more money directly from readers.
I’m not sharing this because PAR is in trouble, we’re a young site and I have the luxury of not having to worry about the business aspect of what I do. I’m also not putting my hand out, as right now there is no way to support PAR directly and there likely won’t be for quite some time. It's something we've talked about, and something I'd like to offer, but it's nothing that's on the cusp of happening. This article isn't foreplay to get you to pay in a month or two.
But it's coming. The use of ad blocking software will only go up, and advertisers will be forced to get more annoying to compensate for a smaller audience. Cash-strapped sites without the community to support a model of reader-supported content are going to suffer.
Lots of problems, few good solutions
I wrote this to talk about the reality of publishing right now, why it's so hard for sites to make money and pay writers, why ad-blocking is a sensitive subject among writers and editors, and to give you some idea of the thought process behind some of what the games press does. If you read this and don't whitelist PAR from your ad-blocker I'll be a little disappointed, but I'm still happy you're here.
Think about doing one thing: Pick out your three favorite sites on the Internet. Think about how much enjoyment you get out of those sites in a year, and decide whether or not it's worth $5 to you. If and when those sites decide to accept direct funding, send that $5 in. It only takes a small percentage of readers for each site to do that to destroy the shitty and destructive CPM-based ad market, and you can simply be glad the cosplay galleries are gone, instead of thanking them for the few good stories you see each day.
A quick note: Considering research, three drafts, editing, and finding images, it will have taken around six hours and four people to create this story and the images in it. In that time, I could have written around a dozen shorter stories with content taken from other sites. It would have been a better business decision to do so.