The Burnt Offering

Content is the Opiate of the Masthead

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  • The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private. 

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    This is a reprint of the letter from the editor in Unwinnable Weekly Issue Sixty-Eight. You can buy Issue Sixty-Eight individually now, or purchase a one-month subscription to make sure you never miss an issue!

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    Earlier this week, an anonymous, crowd-sourced list documenting the rates outlets are willing to pay freelancers for videogame related writing began to circulate. From this list we learned two things. First, it is only a matter of time before an open document on the internet gets penises drawn all over it. Second, game journalists and critics are fighting over scraps.

    As of this writing, the median wage for a story is $126.

    If you were somehow incredibly prolific and lucky and managed to sell a story every business day of the year – a highly unlikely state of affairs – you’d bring in $32,760. That means journalists need to either be independently wealthy or will age out of the profession in their late twenties.

    Let me put it another way: we’re probably all fucked.

    And not just us. This is endemic to the entire media industry. This is a dry rot that set in about 15 years ago in Big Media and has slowly been destroying us ever since, even as the internet democratized publishing. It could be we were already dead before we got started and we just didn’t know it yet.

    There’s a lot of whys and wherefores regarding how we got here. You can read about them in more depth in this excellent analysis of the recent death of ESPN’s Grantland. For now, let me introduce you to the broad strokes of the commodifying death spiral we are currently trapped in.

    As a general rule, publications need advertising dollars to stay solvent and pay their people. On the internet, these dollars are generated by readers clicking on your stories and having the accompanying ads displayed to them. For the past decade, the name of the game has been to maximize your reader traffic, thereby maximizing your advertising revenue. Sites have developed countless dastardly tricks in service of this. You’re on the internet right now, so you’re probably picking up what I’m laying down.

    Some sites, like BuzzFeed, the Gawker Network and the Daily Mail, are frighteningly good at drawing in huge numbers of daily visitors. Consequently, ad rates shrink to meet the demand. This raises the threshold of profitability of mid-sized sites, who are forced to imitate the larger site’s methods – lists, galleries, news rewrites – to compete, which raises the threshold even higher.

    UW68-smallWorse, it commodifies writing. Writers no longer create stories, they develop clickable content. A solitary piece of content is almost valueless – who in their right mind would pay for 150 words summarizing a press release? – which allows media companies to buy them in bulk for cheap. As the threshold for advertising profitability continues to rise, the rate of pay for content producers necessarily shrinks in proportion, despite increased demand. Despite titles like Staff Writer and Editor, many of these positions function as glorified in-house content aggregators.

    Unfunny story: when it was a slow night at the Daily Mail, we’d all look around the local internet news sites for stories to…uh…reimagine. Anything would do, really. There was a stretch where it always seemed to be stories about bears getting stuck in trees. Better, though, was a story about a missing woman. Better if she was a mother. Better yet if she was pretty and blonde. And when I say better, I mean that in a mathematical sense – check each of those boxes and the number of people clicking on the story would grow exponentially.

    This is how our world ends, with advertisers paying tiny fractions of cents for people to visit stories no one wants to read, written by soul-crushed drones getting paid fractions of fractions of cents for their trouble. Eventually, one of those fractions will shrink so small that is ceases to exist. That is the heat death of the written word.

    * * *

    I run Unwinnable under two assumptions. First: writers want to write good stories and often those stories often don’t work well in existing editorial agendas (too weird, too many cuss words, etc.). Second: readers want to read weird, cuss-filled stories. There’s a hypothesis here, too, that all of this is worth paying for – the writers by me, me by the readers.

    That hypothesis is shaky on the best of days.

    Back in the beginning, pay wasn’t something any of us worried much about. The site was really just my blog and a bunch of people from all over thought it would be fun to try writing. We were learning. As time went on and things got more serious, people still didn’t ask to be paid that often. When they did, I paid them out of my pocket.

    I bailed on advertising because it took away from the reader’s experience and paid jack shit. I replaced it with a donation button. The first month, I had a shocking number of donations. The second month, and every month after that, I had none.

    Unwinnable Weekly and the Kickstarter that funded it was conceived as a path to sustainability: pay everyone, the writers, the editors, the artists. Growing subscription numbers would allow me to slowly scale everyone’s pay in proportion. Together, we’d make something cool and save publishing, all in one fell swoop.

    When the Weekly launched, I paid a flat rate of $50 for every story and paid the editors and myself a reasonable part-time salary.

    We’re still paying $50 and while I still get a meager salary as the lone full-time employee, the rest of my editors and staff are back to volunteering. The budget, a combination of subscription and sponsor dollars, has zero wiggle room – delays or unexpected expenses mean unpaid writers and unpaid bills.

    This is sustainable only by my endless capacity for stubbornness or my deep belief that Unwinnable is slowly changing and enriching our little corner of the world. Your pick.

    * * *

    I recently hired a group of writers of diverse backgrounds to act as a staff pool for the site. We’re still working out the kinks, but you might have seen some of their stories over the last two weeks. I hope you did. Their perspectives are so varied, their interests so surprising, it is a real joy to read them, even if these stories generally fit the “news” mold I usually find so dull.

    These aren’t dull stories because these writers are excited and I have given them free reign. They can write about whatever they want. In the coming months, I am sure they are going to be digging up all the cool things we’re going to be talking about six months from now.

    They are, in no particular order: James Murff, Gita Jackson, Megan Condis, Brittany Vincent, Charles Singletary Jr., Dave Andrews, David Whelan, Declan Taggart, Riley MacLeod, Thomas Howell, Tim Mulkerin and Javy Gwaltney.

    I am going to be honest: they aren’t getting paid nearly what their stories are worth. Hopefully, together, we’re going to change that. Every new subscriber raises their pay in proportion. We get 250 or so new subscriptions, they’ll be on par with the magazine contributors at $50 a story. After that point, additional subscribers will raise the pay rate of everyone writing for Unwinnable. Call it a profit share. Call it fair’s fair.

    I call it the latest in a long list of experiments. I hope it is a success.

    * * *

    I am not telling you this to guilt you into subscribing (though, you know, that’d be nice). Despite its hardscrabble nature, I have the best job in the world.

    I am telling you this because it is my personal experience in independent publishing. I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that it is much the same for the folks behind Five Out of Ten, The Arcade Review, Ontological Geek, Electro Bureau, Don’t Die, Critical Distance, Postmortem and countless Patreon creators going it alone.

    As far as I know, none of us have angel investors or parent companies or anything remotely resembling the infrastructure of sites like Kotaku, Kill Screen, Polygon and company. All we have are our readers. You.

    And while this might seem like a problem for writers, the people it affects most are the readers. No matter how great an outlet like Buzzfeed’s long form reported features are, the bulk of their time is spent churning out trash – it’s a factory that pumps toxic waste into the ecosystem. Any site that chases advertising dollars with lists and re-writes is the same.

    No, I am not saying you should support Unwinnable. I am saying, if you want to read good stories, support someone. Anyone. Engage with a publication and stay engaged. Help spread the word for them, get others engaged. Talk about them, not all the time, but every once in a while. It’ll warm their hearts.

    Think twice about clicking on those links from the word factories.

    None of this is easy or convenient, I know, but doing it could change the future of internet publishing.

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    This week, our Unreal Engine 4-sponsored column, Revving the Engine, returns to interview Adam Orth about ADR1FT. The rest the issue is dedicated to superheroes. Matt Paprocki accuses Batman of being a totalitarian. Holly Green argues that Saint’s Row IV is the best superhero videogame. Brock Wilbur confesses to his addiction to Xbox 360 achievement that culminated with a dark day of playing Superman Returns (Brock’s story is long, but my goodness, does it pay off – stick with it). Michael Edwards rounds us out with a story chronicling all the ways he has been disappointed by Spider-Man since the mid-1990’s.

    That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, folks!

    Stu Horvath
    Jersey City, New Jersey
    November 5, 2015

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