Press Pass: Blogging by the Numbers
When I talk about the subject of blogs (and videogame blogs in particular) with fellow journalists, PR people, developers and readers, I keep hearing the same few complaints:
While these arguments may apply to some blogs (and have perhaps fit all of blogging at one point), they didn't really apply to my experience writing for Joystiq from 2006 through 2008. Sure, a lot of our day was spent summarizing and linking to the work of other people, and we posted our fair share of screenshot galleries and picture of cakes. But we also did a lot of original reporting, and wrote consumer-focused reviews, previews and other features that tended to get lost amidst the never-ending drumbeat of news posts.
Of course, I could make this firsthand argument to anyone who cared to listen, but I never had any hard data to back up my claims. Until today.
For a full week (April 27 to May 3), I read and cataloged the posts of three of the largest gaming blogs out there: Joystiq, Kotaku and Destructoid. For comparison's sake, I also included Wired's Game|Life (a much smaller blog attached to a major media outlet) and the News section of 1UP.com (a prime example of a major "non-blog" gaming news section, although, as you'll see, it's not that different in practice from a blog). The end result was a data set detailing the contents of nearly 900 distinct posts* covering over 550 different stories.** What did it show? Keep reading to find out.
* For simplicity, I compared only content that showed up on the front page of each site. This disregards content from subsites like Kotaku AU, Joystiq's console-specific sections and Destructoid's community blogs.
** For the purposes of this analysis, an overlapping "story" is the same basic information posted in two different places -- two blogs linking to the same Gamasutra interview, or discussing the same press release, or posting the same trailer, for instance.
Where do the posts come from?
The first major gripe to address: Blogs only post press releases and links to other outlets. While that's certainly largely true, it's hardly exclusively true these days. In the week's worth of blog posts I looked at, a full 21 percent of the blog posts were "original," meaning they included substantial original reporting or editorial writing by the blogger. Granted, this figure pales in comparison to the roughly 41 percent of blog posts that come from "official" sources (directly or indirectly from a company press release or statement) and the 34 percent from "linked" sources (links to content created or originally unearthed by another outlet), but it's hardly nothing. In fact, it lines up nicely with a 2008 study that found 80 percent of quality UK newspaper content came from newswire or PR sources. On average, the "big three" blogs I looked at (Joystiq, Kotaku and Destructoid) published over 57 "original" posts each in a single week. To say that these bloggers only take content from other sources is obviously unfair.
While the 1UP News section doesn't end up looking so good as far as original content (the only news post that could be considered "original" was a promo for 1UP's Game Night), comparing it directly to the blogs is not quite fair. 1UP posts plenty of original content (previews, reviews, interviews, features, etc.) that does not show up in the news feed. Still, the news section itself seems stereotypically blog-like in its reliance on official press releases and links to other sources for its content. I'm not trying to pick on 1UP News here; the same could be said for many other non-blog "news" sections on other sites. A few exceptions -- such as Gamasutra, VG247, Siliconera, Shacknews, and Edge -- tend to include more original content, and, not coincidentally, end up getting links from a lot of blogs in the process. Future studies may look into these sites in more detail.
Of course, the blogs got a bit of help in their original content this week. With E3 coming up, Gamers' Day Events from the likes of Capcom, Namco/Bandai and Sony provided plenty of fodder for previews. A full 38 percent of the original content on the "big three" blogs for the week were previews and/or impressions of games from these events (see Fig. 2). But the blogs' original content was much deeper than that. Joystiq had a video tour and interview focusing on the historic Funspot arcade, for example. Kotaku featured a video interview with Dead Rising 2 producer Keiji Inafune alongside a thoughtful editorial on the future of art games. Destructoid featured a wide range of reviews for both classic and current games, as well as "musings" columns culled from its numerous user blogs. Each blog had podcasts, contests, community outreach and plenty of other content that's hard to deride as simply being transcribed from somewhere else.
Not just that, but the blogs managed to break some news as well. Joystiq broke the release date for the long-anticipated (but as of Joystiq's posting not-yet-confirmed) arrival of Peggle on the iPhone. Kotaku found new information about wearable Achievements for Xbox Live Avatars through a tipster-submitted survey. Heck, even Destructoid found a great deal on The Eye of Judgment at Wal-Mart for its readers. These might not be groundbreaking investigative reports on the scale of Watergate, but they show how blogs are adding to the information stream, not just taking from it.
What kind of stuff are they writing about?
On to the second major criticism of blogs -- that they pad their post counts with screenshots and rumors and cultural fluff that's not real news. Even disregarding the blogs' original content (which, as discussed above, is often real news by any definition), my survey showed that blogs cover plenty of topics besides cakes that look like game systems.
Unsurprisingly, nearly 40 percent of the blog posts I saw discussed specific information about a game or games: release dates, newly revealed gameplay details, information about downloadable content and so on. If this shouldn't be the bread-and-butter of any gaming news site, I don't know what should. (Indeed, these game-related posts made up 54 percent of 1UP's news section for the week.) On top of that, another 30 percent of blog posts dealt with the industry itself -- the kind of behind-the-scenes news you'd see in the business section of the newspaper. These categories heavily outweighed the 20 percent of posts that were simply devoted to screenshots or trailers and another 20 percent that dealt with cultural ephemera (like cakes). Another 10 percent dealt with consumer news -- deals, product announcements, etc. [Editor's note: Percentages don't add up to 100 because one post can fit into many categories.]
As for the allegation that blogs post too many rumors, in the week I looked at, only 8 percent of the total blog posts were based on "rumored" information. This was comparable to 1UP's news section, which included rumors in 13 percent of its news posts. The overwhelming majority of these rumor posts were simply a repetition of rumors reported elsewhere, and many were followed up with official information from the source soon after. In all cases, the rumors were reported clearly and with due skepticism. Used sparingly and responsibly like this, I think reporting on credible rumors can give readers an early edge on key information without hurting a site's credibility.
Who's stealing from whom?
Another favorite gripe of blog readers and blog detractors alike -- they all just steal content from each other. While this is true to an extent, there's by no means a 100-percent overlap between the content of the blogs and news sites I looked at. Even discounting the totally original content on the blogs (remember, that's 21 percent of all the blog posts I looked at), over half of all stories and nearly one-third of all distinct posts only appeared on one of the five sites I looked at. To put it another way, almost one in every three non-original posts you see on one of these sites discussed a story you would not see on the other four. For one reason or another, there were a good number of stories that one outlet considered interesting enough to point out, that the other sites did not. By comparison, only roughly 2 percent of the stories were so important that all five sites decided to cover them.
This story breakdown highlights the blogger's important role as a curator of sorts for the Web. There's an incomprehensibly large amount of game information floating around out there on the Net every day -- press releases and screenshots and videos and trailers and tidbits about games you've never heard of. A blog could simply post every bit of this news that comes across its desk (see: GoNintendo) but most bloggers pick and choose what to include on the blog, sifting through this information and finding the stuff they think their readers will be interested in. This is a large, unseen part of a blogger's job, and results in different focuses for even the biggest, most all-encompassing blogs. Which one you read depends largely on how well the bloggers' tastes in information match with yours. And if the big blogs are too broad, there are plenty of smaller blogs with narrower focuses that might be a better match for you.
Even when blogs do overlap, it's not like these sites are stealing words wholesale from each other. Joystiq, Kotaku and Destructoid all covered David Reeves' "exit interview" with GamesIndustry.biz, but each focused on slightly different elements of the interview and included different editorial comments on the move. Sure, reading all three doesn't get you any additional information, but neither does watching CNN and MSNBC at the same time when there's breaking news. You pick which one you like most, based on its reporting style, and leave it at that.
As for the accusation that any one blog just takes its posting ideas from another, this is easily disproven just by looking at the timestamps for each overlapping story. As you can see in the chart above, no one site has a monopoly on getting the stories up first. When Kotaku and Joystiq overlapped on a story, Kotaku's post preceded Joystiq's nearly 55 percent of the time and Joystiq's preceded Kotaku's more than 45 percent of the time. To say that either site is just copying from the other based on this breakdown is ludicrous (and remember, this doesn't include all the original content and stories where the sites don't overlap). While the outlets I looked at probably took posting ideas from each other, no one of them can claim to be the primary source for the others.
I'm not trying to absolve gaming blogs of all their sins. They're often too glibly snarky, too poorly sourced and too focused on quantity over quality of posts. But I hope this little study has proven that they're not the leeches they're often made out to be. In fact, the largest gaming blogs are starting to resemble full-service gaming sites in their scope and depth.