I'm a journalism student with experience that includes newspaper writing, academic research, video game reviews, and personal blogging. My passion is video games; I've been a gamer since the age of three, and have always striven to play a large variety of games in order to keep up with the industry that I cover as a journalist.
It's a question I asked several people this weekend, and one that journalists, publishers and lots of other random people have been wringing their hands over for years. A panel of game journalists with experience including both print and online tackled the subject Saturday during a PAX East panel aptly titled "The Death of Print."
The panel included GamePro's Editor in Chief John Davison, freelancer Julian Murdoch, EA's Jeff Green, Kill Screen's Managing Editor Chris Dahlen, and The Escapist's Editor in Chief, Russ Pitts, who led the discussion.
Pitts began with the very same question that had been racing through my mind: "Is print dead?" The overall tone of the panelists' reactions seemed to indicate that though print is struggling, it might be on the verge of a renaissance through reinvention.
left to right: John Davison, Julian Murdoch, Russ Pitts, Jeff Green, Chris Dahlen
"What you really have with print is the ability to run nice features," said Dahlen, who, with Kill Screen, has helped create a magazine filled with "nice features," and little else. Kill Screen is free of previews, reviews, news and, notably, ads. That's because, Dahlen said, finding out the latest video game news has become a simple matter of checking Twitter. Why would readers wait for a gaming news magazine to hit shelves, or their mailboxes, when they can get the same content on the internet practically instantaneously?
That's precisely why the focus is shifting for magazines. Take GamePro, for example. When Davison took hold of the reigns in Fall 2009, he realized the shift wouldn't be as simple as designing a new layout. They needed to "reinvent the brand, not just the magazine."
"They had a 20-year-old brand," he said, "and they didn't know what it stood for."
Freelancer Murdoch said the industry needs to "reinvent what we mean by a magazine."
"The nature of what you expect out of a magazine has changed because of the internet," he told those in attendance.
* * *
The panelists, and many audience members, agreed that print has certain inherent qualities that may just ensure it never dies completely.
"What we compare it to is more like vinyl. " said Dahlen. "The art means something, the cover.. it feels more permanent." He pointed out that vinyl, which was technically "killed" by cassettes (which were in turn slaughtered by compact discs), has been gaining momentum for a number of years, and he sees future print publications filling a similar role in readers' lives (and wallets).
Green said that the EA web site gets around 2 million hits a day, though he confessed that much of that traffic is composed of clueless non-gamers "typing the word 'video game' into Google."
"It's great to get the eyeballs," he said, "but what is the quality of those eyeballs?"
Regardless of their relative quality, those "eyeballs" are certainly important, but developers tend to place a disproportionate value on print coverage, according to Murdoch. He said that in today's world of the 24-hour news cycle, in which web sites' front page headlines are in constant flux, developers usually frame magazine covers that feature their games- even if it's just in a line of text in the bottom corner.
"Online it's all about reach," said Davison. "In print, it's something else."
"It's still a really big deal when a print magazine comes to visit [developers]," said Green, whose job is to maintain an "open dialogue" between consumers and EA. "It's all about the cover."
The panelists also revealed that print media has several advantages over online, as far as writers and publishers are concerned. As publications go online-only, they often come to rely solely on advertising. "A lot of the bullshit that we've seen over the last few years is because of that," said Davison. A move back to print would help knock overly aggressive advertisers down a few pegs.
Besides, the effectiveness of advertising as a revenue stream has been waning since the recent popularization of ad blocking software. Pitts chimed in at one point to say that though he may have helped kill print in his role at The Escapist, readers who utilize ad blockers are "killing online."
Kill Screen was on sale for the first time at PAX East; Issue No.0 is currently on its way to subscribers' houses
Davison also said that content for print is naturally of a higher quality, due to a little thing writers and journalists call the editorial process. Print articles are vetted, fact-checked, revised, edited and revised again until they're fit for the pages of a magazine.
"There's a luxury to print," said Davison. "There's a back and forth in the editorial process."
He said that "because of the immediacy of most online editorial processes," that degree of quality control often falls by the wayside.
"There's a flow to it, a real craft," he said. "It's sort of a lost art in a lot of ways."
* * *
The panelists agreed that print and online have the potential to work in tandem. "The real change in print is it's a small piece in a larger puzzle," said Davison. "Anyone who's doing print is doing a web site that's also a business."
Dahlen agreed, saying that the print version of Kill Screen is a foundation for them to build upon. "We're not going to make a million dollars off a print magazine," he said. "We will have a digital strategy."
"This has largely been a good will project so far," he added. "I haven't made a dime off it."
Despite that, Dahlen is dedicated to helping print find its place, and other panel members shared his views. "If you just distribute online," he said, "it doesn't have the same charm."
With the iPad's release imminent, Davison pointed out that there is great potential for magazines to become more interactive on newer platforms. "There's definitely room for a product that sits in between," he said.
Green neatly summarized the panel's conclusion with an anecdote involving a flight full of Kindle readers who were urged to turn off their electronic devices during take off and landing. Fortunately, Green had a real life, old-fashioned book on hand, but the other passengers were "fucked," as he put it.
"In the end, you still have the toilet, you still have the couch, you still have the airplane," he said. "Sometimes I just want to sit outside on a bench and read something not digital."