Online vs. Magazine Journalism

Print or Online?

Brendan Griffiths looks at the competing world of magazines and websites for video games journalism.

With the internet becoming cheaper to use and more accessible all the time questions are constantly being asked about traditional print journalism. Newspaper circulations are down, but what about magazines? With a website for any conceivable topic it must be difficult for the monthly magazines to keep up. Especially so with computer games magazines where their audiences are certainly no slouches when it comes to the internet.

Well for this article I’m going to speak to some leading editors of websites such as, IGN.com (Imagine Games Network), Computerandvideogames.com (CVG). For the magazines I will be talking to the Official PlayStation  Magazine UK (OPM).

The three journalists interviewed are: Chris Hicks, the Nintendo Channel Editor at CVG, Jason Ocampo the Editor-in-Chief at IGN PC and Ben Wilson the Deputy Editor at OPM.

What do they offer?
I asked the two online editors what their sites offered that traditional print magazines could not. Chris Hicks (CVG) said:

I suppose the real answer is what can’t we offer? Websites can now deliver multimedia content almost instantly, so you can receive news, previews, reviews and features as and when things happen in the gaming industry. Not only that, but you can react to your readership immediately. They like something? Do something more that way later on in the day. They have an opinion they’ve submitted? Do a follow-up piece the next moment. Online is quick, fast, reactive, collaborative and cross-media. You simply can’t provide all of this as simply and quickly using a magazine.”

This shows how some sites use their readers to help decide what stories to follow up. They can pick up on a hot-topic that by the time a magazine has gone to print may be considered old news or has been forgotten about.

Jason Ocampo (IGN) replied to the same question with: “Online offers immediacy over print. We can write and post about a game or event within hours of it happening.”

Like Hicks, Ocampo is keen to point out the speed advantages they have over magazines. In addition he points out the advantages and disadvantages of not having space limitations:

We can write a lot more about a game. That can be both a good and bad thing, as I find having a word limit can force you to write much more succinctly and focus on the important things, but online at least gives you an option to do both.”

But what about the magazines? What do they feel that will ensure their survival? Ben Wilson (OPM) thinks magazines can still offer a lot to their readers.

I’m a big fan of reading in what I’d call conventional places: on a bus, on a train, in bed. In those situations, you’re never going to think ‘Better boot up my laptop to read that Dark Sector review.’ Which is why mags will always have value,” he said.

Ben goes on to mention the common problem of reading large amounts of text online. On most websites there will be an occasional picture in a long review, but for the most part it is a half screen column of a block of text that can be very testing on the eyes.

Many developers still see magazines as the best way to sell their product. The best example of this is the recent release of Grand Theft Auto 4. The writers of OPM have been invited to more early testing sessions than any websites and they received their review copy before anyone else, and managed to get the review on the shelves before any sites. In fact, most sites did not have a review till after the general release date, meaning they had to buy their own copy or were not sent one till the release day.

Cover discs
A vital weapon for the magazines is the cover disc. The Official PlayStation magazines (including the PS1 and PS2 days) have always had the advantage of a demo-disc on the cover. The problem now is that most of the demos are available to download free online on a PS3.

Wilson could not confirm any new ideas for the disc at this time but said they were working on them. When I suggested new items such as games saves, videos, downloadable themes and pictures he said they were all on their list of ideas.

Other magazines don’t have the demos but lots of video footage instead. PSW’s disc is dual sided. One side plays like a DVD with a wide selection of videos while the other side is full of High Definition video files to play through a PS3. Many of the video footage you’ll find online are very poor quality in comparison.

Reader input
The internet is no doubt very useful to both online and magazines, and like in general journalism the public are having a huge impact with forums and comment boxes. Hicks says they are “essential” and they can be used to see what their audience is thinking and, “People buy into magazines because they like the sense of belonging to its readership. Websites can take that to a whole new level.”

They (forums) foster a community that people return to time and time again. Even the blandest story gets a few comments, because some of our readers like using the comments system to interact with one another,” he added.

The problem with this online is that comments can become increasingly unrelated to the subject. So if they are displayed with the most recent first underneath the story it is not unusual to see comments from one or two users talking about something completely different as the conversation escalates into a different subject based on previous replies.

The Official PlayStation Magazine may not have an official website but it does have something infinitely cheaper to run with a huge potential audience. A Facebook account. Here their readers can comment on any posts that the staff put on (all of them are involved), or they comment on the discussion topics forum and start ones of their own.

It’s crucial to know and understand your readership, and forums are one of the best ways to do that. The nature of the net is that people are, I think, naturally cynical, but at the same time it’s crucial to accept and learn from feedback whether good or bad. We’re proud of the relationship we have with readers and we always take in their suggestions with a view to improving the magazine,” said Ben Wilson (OPM).

OPM used Facebook recently to see what their readers thought about the cover-disc and used it to gather new ideas and feedback; they can do the same when changing the layout style of the magazine. Possibly by showing a few sample pages online and asking readers to vote for their favourite before committing one to print.

Comparisons between online and print
Hicks has not worked at a magazine before but has worked alongside a few at the Future Publishing office where he is based.

Generally, working days on print magazines can have room for relaxation, where online there is no rest. You’re working every minute, 9-5. Having said that, print magazines are often are up against their deadlines at the end of their monthly schedule. Plus, print magazines have to contend with publishing an all-new document every month. Unless you’re in charge of site development, there’s very little design involved online. Online is a daily hard grind through 9-5, whereas print magazines are like waves, rising and falling in stress throughout the monthly schedule,” he said.

Ocampo has worked for some of the older PC magazines and shares similar views to Hicks, saying that a magazine schedule is a lot more casual.

It’s still a lot of work, but at least you can spread it out over weeks, instead of days or hours. Online is certainly much more of a daily grind. Magazines have their crunch times, too. You’ll burn the midnight oil to get a magazine put to bed. But for the most part, that’s something you worry about one week out of four,” he said.

He goes on to point out that he needs to worry about a new ‘cover’ for the site 250 times a year, whereas a magazine editor need only worry about 12.

While Wilson has not worked for a games website he has a background in web editing on the official sites of magazines like Nickelodeon, Bliss, More and Zoo. “They’re very different environments,” he said.

He shares the same views on time constraints as the above editors and adds: “Depending on your personality it can be a huge thrill, or terrifying. I always loved it. But at the same time games is my true love, so to speak, and I’ve never regretted moving over to mags. This is my passion,” he said.

Many feel that print still has more prestige to it. Anyone can start an online site with just a computer and an internet connection. Print requires a lot more money, organisation and people. Game developers like print, because they know if they can get a cover article they’ll have their game on the front of a magazine that will be displayed in thousands of stores and newsstands for a month. Online is a lot less tangible and its rapid pace makes any kind of coverage fleeting.

The Future
Young journalists may be wary of where they should begin tailoring their portfolios towards. Online or magazines? Some of them may be considering how much longer magazines will be around.

Hicks thinks the two can co-exist and doesn’t see magazines ever disappearing.

Magazines are more reflective. The web is more reactive. It’s rare you’ll get a thought-out feature on a gaming website, because the writers are constantly reacting to what’s going on, always competing against their rivals (often a second is all it takes between getting the credit for a story and not). With magazine writing, you’ve got time to think on a feature, reflect on what’s going on, and actually write something of value. Ultimately, the web is disposable. Magazines have a greater likelihood of being something treasured,” he said.

Ocampo does not share this view at all though. He feels print is in decline and that the advertising revenue growth is “stagnant.”

If a newspaper feels outdated by the time you get it in the morning, how does a magazine feel if it shows up four to six weeks after an event? We’re already seeing large numbers of gaming magazines fold due to economic pressure. There will certainly be a role for print, but it is shrinking to a handful of major players,” he said.

Lucky for Ben Wilson that he’s employed at what would be considered a major player magazine then. When asked what he thought about many so called ‘experts’ saying print would be dead in our lifetimes he said: “I strongly disagree, for the reasons outlined earlier. The two types of media can and will co-exist for a long time yet.”

So some opinions are split as to the future of games journalism, some think it’ll be dominated by online, ultimately leading to the demise of the magazines. While other see both being able to co-exist for years to come as both can offer different things. Magazines are more convenient and offer reader friendly material with more time for reflection, whereas online offers lightning speed and more interaction from the public.

For now it seems that both will be able to co-exist for the foreseeable future and readers have plenty of choice as whether to pick up a mouse or a magazine.

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