Monday, August 17, 2009

A few thoughts about the blurry WoW journalism

The last few days, the WoW community has been boiling with rumors and speculations about the next expansion. It's hardly a coincidence that it happens just a few days before BlizzCon. MMO-Champion has put their reputation as a very reliable source of information at stake. Soon enough we'll know if they were right.

Should we believe what has been said? No, according to Tobold, who has declared his skepticism, while Green Armadillo made an analysis that showed that this is a plausible development of the game.

If you ask me, I wouldn't be surprised if MMO-Champion was right. But this conclusion is based on my gut feeling and general trust for the source than on any solid proof that backs up the story.

Ethics discussion
There has also been a couple of interesting blogpost discussing the ethics of it. Matticus commented on the publishing about the new races at a few days earlier. He defends the use of anonymous sources - after all you don't want to get people sacked.

Too Many Annas points out the difference between a personal blog and a news provider. People who break news that Blizzard may not want to get out are doing their job- it's standard practice in journalism - but it's not something Anna herself would do in her role as a blogger.

The new media landscape
When I read those posts I start wondering how I should label sources such as and MMO-Champion. Are they really news providers in the same manner as my morning paper or a professional niche magazine about business, sports or literature? How does the staff work and what guidelines do they have for their work?

I have no idea and that's not special for those WoW sources; it's part of an ongoing trend in the media business. The borderline between journalism, infotainment, opinion and marketing has become blurred not to say erased. Anyone can call themselves a reporter these days and get an audience on the net, as big - or bigger than the major newspapers. For good and for bad.

Fossil old-school journalists like me are somewhat confused in the new media landscape. We were special, we were needed. We had ethical guidelines which we respected. We honored credibility, we looked for sources, evidence and above all an unbiased, independent perspective in everything we did. I don't say we always succeeded - that would be hypocrisy; we failed too from time to time. But since the competition wasn't as fierce as it is with the online publishing, where Deadline always is "Now", we had better opportunities to work through our stories, and check up the facts once again.

Critical thinking
But confused or not - there's no going back. We can't fight it. We must embrace the changes. What we can do though is to try to reach out to young media consumers as well as those new, self-appointed producers, and make them understand the value of critical thinking and independency, to always ask themselves if there's some interest hidden behind.

I for one must say that it puts me off a bit that so many blogs and websites which borrow manners from journalism (although they don't exactly claim that that's what they are) seem to be in cooperation with different all sorts of commercial companies. I don't mind that those semi- or all-out professional sites have ads to get an income, what I DO mind though is that there isn't a clear distinction between what is an ad and what is edited, journalistic material.

I don't know if someone running those sites is even remotely interested in what an old local newspaper reporter like me has to say. Probably not. But if you would ask me for advice I would say: try to keep the ads and the news articles clearly separated from each other so you always know what is what. A little bit stricter policy towards sponsors may hurt you economically initially, but I'm convinced that it will pay off in the long run. Your credibility should be as precious to you as your sponsors.

Anonymous sources
Now back to the issue about the anonymous sources. Is it good practice to use it or not? Well, if you ask the teachers I had at university so many years ago, they would argue quite much against it. Of course there was this myth about the "big scoop". Everyone wanted to become the new Watergate investigators. But at the same time, using anonymous sources, you easily become a victim of manipulation, bonding to people in charge, trying keep the good relations you build to them. You won't bite the hand that feed you. What we were taught was that anonymous sources could be used in exceptional cases (which I hardly think that the release of Cataclysm is to be honest), but that you always must find solid proof, documents and such, to back it up with. One anonymous source just isn't good enough.

If someone wants to look more into the pros and cons of the use of anonymous sources I recommend this article from American journalism review. It is a bit old, but the arguments are still valid.

A reader request
As by a chance I received a letter from a reader a few weeks ago. He knew about my background and suggested that I should make an "interesting post to compare news and news appetites for the real world and how it is similar or dissimilar to the microcosm of wow news.”

Well Tristan, I don't know if this post was what you had in mind. Probably not.

I had planned to write something about the different sorts of WoW news providers and how those easily could be divided into different departments, just like in any newspaper. There's a general news section, there are business news, the sports which deal with e-sports and Arena rating. There are comic strips. And a lot of lifestyle with instructive articles like "10 ways to become a better healer", similar to "10 ways to become a better lover". And of course tons of columnists, sharing their opinions on different sorts of things.

Maybe I'll write that post another time. This one about how a traditional journalistic thinking possibly could or should be applied to WoW news media felt more urgent. I'm not entirely sure that I managed to make all my thoughts on this come through. It is as if my mind is still processing the new media landscape, trying to understand what is happening and how the journalists of tomorrow will think and act - if there still are any around. So if I'm somewhat messy in this I ask you to forgive me. I'll probably come back to this topic in the future, hopefully a bit better sorted out.

And now I just can't wait to hear the official statements from BlizzCon...


Kestrel said...

Outstanding analysis from a wonderful perspective. While I was not a reporter, I did work for a newspaper for several years, so I think I developed an appreciation of how one functions.

Indeed, the lines have become blurred in recent years--so much, that traditional newspapers, for instance, are at threat to survive.

With newspapers, I generally had the impression that I knew what was news, what was editorial, and what was advertising.

In the new media of today, it's often hard to distinguish: It seems the tighter the niche, the harder it is to make that distinction.

Kromus said...

Personally, I think people want a response out of Blizzard, and have used to method to get a reaction- and they got the reaction they wanted. Blizzard started covering "Tracks" on forums.

Damn I love how you write your posts. You put it in a way i'm always sat like "yeah, yeah, I get that".


Zaph said...

As Mark Twain said, "If you don't read the newspaper you're un-informed. If you do, you're mis-informed." Just as patches are released "when it's ready", we'll know the truth when it actually happens. The rest is conjecture, imo.

Gevlon said...

The newspapers and the blogs are and can only be regulated by the readers. If someone's readers tolerate in-text ads, he will post these for money. If readers whine in comments AND unsubscribe in significant numbers, the ads (and the unreliable sources) are gone.

There is no other way to make jurnalism better than making the readers smarter.

Anonymous said...

I hope that the races-thing is false, because it would be so wrong to make a race that there are so many NPCs of as the goblins into a playable race that is aligned with ONE faction.
and the worgen? come on! they are just evil.. doesn't fit anywhere.

(except maybe: "Umm, Hi, darkshire? This is the worgen, we have recently come to understand that you do not like the undead, we agree with this and apologize for trying to kill you. soo.. wanna come have a few beers? no hard feelings?")

Tim Howgego said...

A general factual WoW website can attract up to half a million people each day. That's borderline commercial (you can make money out of it, but it's a lot of work for mostly short-term earnings), which makes WoW's "fansites" fiercely competitive.

In my experience, a successful factual fansite (not opinion/rant-based) *must*:

1. Be correct about what it publishes: WoW-players are very information-centric (the game is impossibly complex for most players to explore, so "knowing how to find out about" is becoming the main WoW player skill). You don't have to report everything, merely more than the competition. For example, MMO-Champion often misses substantial in-game changes (which cannot be data-mined) yet remains a respected source. Ideally it should be correct first, but like ( it can also add value by explaining someone else's news in a clearer manner for its readership.

2. Not get readers' accounts hacked: Seems obvious. But many of those half-million people have an account worth $100+ on the greymarket, so you're a target for organised crime. So popular sites can become overwhelmed by work that the readers don't see.

There are other things that make a factual WoW website popular (such as not writing for yourself), but if you do those first 2 things badly, you'll fail/decline/be marginal/be opinion.

There are a few skills that help one "be correct":

1. Community: The best sites are supported by a few "expert" trusted sources.

2. Lurking in the shadows: A lot of raw information is lurking in places like MMOwned or 4Chan. Of course there's a lot of outright misleading rubbish to.

3. WoW data-mining/exploration: Hard to explain, but gradually one learns the technical limitations of the game engine, and so can rapidly assess what's likely.

4. Informed critical evaluation: Instrintively know what they've said, how their designs are changing, and evaluate all that to determine what's likely to be correct, or where changes are likely to have been made.

5. React fast to feedback: It's inevitable you'll be wrong sometimes. The faster you correct that, the fewer people will notice.

There are probably others. But you can see where I'm heading. A site like MMO-Champion, requires a lot of "journalistic skills". It wouldn't be popular if it was wrong. It's value is in reliable information. Probably the most valuable commodity in WoW.

For me, the more interesting aspect of this is whether sites like MMO-Champion have become *more reliable* than Blizzard...

We Fly Spitfires said...

The WoW news sounds very interesting and exciting indeed. I would be thoroughly impressed with Blizzard if they did something of this scale but, call me a cynic, I highly doubt it. They have both a reptuation for being incredibly tight-lipped and for being relatively unimaginative with new content. I believe it when I see it :)

As for anonymous sources and rumours. I've got no problem with it so long as it's clearly marked as being just a rumour :)

Larísa said...

@Kestrel: thank you for your kind words.

The thing with many of the new media that makes it so hard to discuss is that they don’t even claim that they are journalists. So they can always get away with it. One day they publish “journalism look-alike” news reports, just like any other newspaper. The next day they publish opinion material, without clearly saying that’s what it is. And the next day again – and that’s the worst thing – they have in-text ads, more or less well disguised. And if you question it, they can always answer: “we never claimed that we were a news site following any journalistic principles. This is just a blog. So what do you complain about”? And of course in one way they’re right. Unfortunately the readers who ask for critical thinking, credibility, evidence, a clear divide between opinion, ads and news material, are in a minority. Most of us don’t seem to care.

@Kromus: thanks!
And well, maybe all the writing has helped a little bit. At least I think that Blizzards seems more communicative now than a couple of years ago, appearing much more on the public forums for instance. They don’t only want to be written about. They want to try to take the lead from time to time as well, although this seems hard for them to accomplish.

@Zaph: Haha, yeah, I like MT quotations as well. And I try to not engage too much into the future of the game, but enjoy what there is now. Still I can’t help it, I have a curious mind that wants to pray a bit in what’s around the corner.

@Gevlon: Oh, you have a point. I don’t know how much time I’ve spent discussing and defending the journalists working at evening papers. People love to hate them for the “disgusting crap” they write. But they refuse to see that there own responsibility for the crap to be produced, being the audience who buys this stuff. “You get the journalism you ask for and deserve” I sometimes say to them, a bit harsh. This said, I don’t deny that journalists as well have a responsibility and should think through their ethics and methods. They can’t just hide behind the “there’s a market for it” argument. But the responsibility should be shared. The audience also has a part in it, which they according to my experience flatly refuse to acknowledge.

@Anonymous: I suspect this comment was intended for the post the other day where we wrote about the new races. But yeah, I too find it a bit hard to associate worgen with anything but some creatures I’m supposed to kill in Darkshire. However I guess I’ll adapt as time passes. The first gut reaction isn’t always the wisest one.

@Tim Howgego: ”a factual fansite”, that’s a good way to label those sites. I’ve got difficulties how to sort them. Not blogs, not real news sites, what are they? Factual fansites… Thank you for your analysis about what makes such a site successful. Very interesting. I never thought about the hacking aspect of it, that they have to spend so much time and effort trying to protect their readers. So much work that we never see.

By the way I’m glad to see that you’re producing posts again after some months of silence. I had to check out your blog since you commented and suddenly found that I had missed several articles that look very interesting to me. (No, I don’t read blogs through feedreaders). I’m so looking forward to read them closely. You’re absolutely outstanding when it comes to interesting, thoughtful and well written analytic posts about the MMO-world. The pearls that come from you are rare, but oh, how they shine compared to normal WoW blog posts!

@We Fly Spitfires: I’m a little bit surprised that you’re calling the idea to revamp the old world imaginative and impressive. Very few, as far as I’ve seen, do that. But as a matter of fact, maybe you’re right. Maybe this is a bolder step to take than to create just another continent (over or under the waterline).

Fitz said...

I've got absolutely no problem with the pseudo-journalism taking place on many blogs nowadays, as that's just a quicker way for people to get their news it seems. While I think anonymous sources and such are perfectly OK and a vital part of journalism, I agree that people need to learn how to critically think and sometimes question the sources of their news. I hope this will come more naturally to question the common blogger than the big newspaper conglomerates, as both have their own slants and their own marketing deals to worry about in the background.

As for the rumors of what we'll be hearing at Blizzcon, it feels like an update to the old world on the scale they are proposing would be a nice change. I don't know that they want to bother programming that much just so we can fly everywhere, but maybe this will be a proper excuse to add that coding time. I just see a lot of development money for something that most fans will be kind of "meh" about.

Green Armadillo said...

I didn't really consider the journalism angle on things. For an established site like MMO-Champion, the risk - being discredited as a reliable news source - outweighs the benefits of getting a ton of traffic for a week. If some no-name blog posted the same leak, I would be less inclined to trust it.

But yes, the fact that it seems plausible does also influence my thinking. ;)

River said...

Do bloggers have a responsibility to their readers?

As a person, I try to make sure my info is as correct as possible, and tell my sources, and get my facts straight.

But in the end my blog is just that, my blog. It doesn't say I have to do these things, I just do.

Should we have an association for blogs, to keep us honest, and police our own?

Mike Schramm said...

Interesting post. I don't go in for the whole blogger/journalist comparison -- I think when you write, you write for an audience, and your responsibility is to them in terms of cohesiveness and clarity and things like morality and credibility. In my mind, the only difference between "new media" and "old media" is what it's printed on. Bloggers have just as much a responsibility to their readers as "journalists" do. You say they mix opinion and fact, but newspapers do this as well -- it's up to writers to be as clear as possible about what they're saying, and up to readers to determine whether it's what they want to read or not. Both the NYT and Fox News claim to be clear and objective, but only one has actually earned that reputation with what they've written and published. You can talk all day about being objective (and people can write all day that you aren't), but all that matters is what you send out there and how readers judge it.

Blogs create their own reputation with what they post. If you don't believe a blog is credible or worthwhile, that's your prerogative. And from the other side, it's up to the blogger to provide you with what you want: news, opinion, or just clear talk about whatever subject they're interested in.

Personally, I don't have a problem with a blogger telling me the facts of a story and then throwing in some opinion from their experience at the end -- I've read enough that I can tell which is which, what's fact and what's judgment. I may not agree with them, but I usually appreciate the insight, and if I don't, that blog doesn't usually stay on my RSS feeds.

Larísa said...

@Fitz: well, if they’re really changing the areas as it’s speculated, opening up areas that have been closed etc, it sounds as if it will add as much of a new playground as a new continent would have. I’ll wait a little on further commenting on the content of the leaked information until Blizzcon is over though. There’s no rush in making up my mind about this, after all it will probably be at least another six months or even a year before we see it come true.

@Green Armadillo:
It has happened before that huge and established news channels with a ton of credibility have been wrong. I wouldn’t rejoice if this turned out to be the case this time. I may be wrong, but my impression is that MMO champion isn’t run on a professional basis. In my heart can’t help hoping that this data-mining geek that runs it is spot on.

@River: Hm… some sort of certificate system, a quality assurance, a policy of ethics that you may declare that you follow? Interesting thought, although I honestly don’t think it would work. It all comes back to weather it’s requested from the readers or not. And in all honesty I don’t think it is. Still, for your own peace of mind, as a blogger, I think it doesn’t hurt to think about those issues once in a while.

About the responsibility: blogging can be about so many different things, with different goals. If your goal is to get a huge audience, to gain respect and become somehow important, make an impact, I think you’re wise to think a great deal about how you’re treating your audience. If your goal is nothing but to have fun in the creative writing process, and the readers/visitors are nothing but a little bit of added value, something you enjoy if you have it, but don’t bother too much about if they’ll go somewhere else, well, then your responsibility is definitely not as big. You’re more or less just displaying your writing for the drawer in a slightly more public media…

I think the responsibility very much depends on what kind of blogger you are.

Larísa said...

@Mike Schramm: woot, a comment from Mike Schramm himself! I’m honoured that you’re stopping by our inn, and I hope you enjoyed your stay!

As I just said in the answer to the previous commenter, I’m not sure I agree that bloggers should be looked upon as any professional journalist, that you should expect the same kind of responsibility and credibility. After all there IS a difference between someone who is paid to do a job and someone who is doing on an amateur basis, just playing around. The pro journalists are like pro football players, while most bloggers are kids playing around in the backyard with a ball, having fun, not paying too much attention to the rules, as long as they enjoy it. I don’t see most WoW blogs as any journalistic products. is an exception, but on the other hand I don’t see it as much of a blog to be honest.

I agree that the established news channels these days are full of opinions, way more than they used to be. And that’s fine with me, as long as you can tell what is what. Which you can’t always do.

I think that the difference between the new and the old media world is bigger than just the presence or lack of paper and ink. For one thing the instant-publishing-concept has made the competition harder than ever, tempting reporters to not check their stories as thoroughly as they would have in the old world. Another huge difference is that non-professionals can become just as important news providers as the established media, not the least when something unexpected happens, a catastrophe of some sort, and the first reports you get are the unfiltered witness reports and pictures taken by cellphones.

This development isn’t necessarily for bad. But it definitely puts new demands on the audience to value and sort out the flood of information, since the gatekeeper function that the newsdesks previously had is gone.

What we need is a public discussion about news sources, reliability and critical thinking. And we need to educate the kids that are growing up in this new media landscape. I guess this blogpost was intended to contribute in this, however small it is and little impact it will have on the big picture. You have to start somewhere.