['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]


On his personal weblog yesterday, Dan Amrich (former editor at Official Xbox Magazine US who left recently to work on a new, secret Future project) brought up a point that I've also been thinking a great deal about lately: Why do gamers (and online media) seem to willfully ignore print media even when they are first with something?

OXM mentioned in the September issue that Guitar Hero 5 would let 360 users put their custom avatars into the game. That news was not noticed by the online media -- in particular, the game blogs whose lifeblood is bite-sized news like this -- until yesterday, when Activision sent word out on its press-release spam list.

Someone brought up on Joystiq that OXM was first with the news some two weeks ago, but that led to the classic "Fuck print"/"Only good when I'm on the shitter" backlash that shows up whenever a print mag gets mentioned on sites like these. (It's little surprise, considering that the most prolific commenters on sites like Joystiq establish names for themselves not for their smart, useful feedback, but by being as arrogant and sassy-pants as possible.)

In his entry, Amrich sees this as laziness on the part of blog editors. His argument: Relying on forum tips and PR people and ignoring the print press is not doing one's part as a game "journalist," which requires research and insight into what you're reporting on. I agree with him completely on this point, but I think he's fighting an uphill battle, because for the past five years -- despite the diligent efforts of editors and art people -- American game-mag publishers have been subliminally teaching their audience that print mags are disposable, insignificant, and only good for when you're on the shitter.

What am I talking about? Mainly, the cheap-o subscriptions. As I've discussed in the past, many magazines in the US -- not just game ones, although game mags joined in the practice pretty quick -- price their subscriptions as loss-leaders, a fair bit below the actual cost of production, printing and postage. This is because cheap subs boost circulation, and higher circulation entices advertisers...theoretically.

What it's also done is cheapen the value of print in readers' eyes. Even worse, that model doesn't work anymore, because even before the current recession, advertisers were running away from print in droves -- every US magazine in existence is smaller than it was in 2006, to say nothing of 2001.

This needs to change if print media wants a place of its own in video games. I'm not saying that magazines need to get more expensive -- I'm saying they have to offer a product more tied to the newsstand and more worth whatever money is asked for. You're beginning to see some very small baby steps toward this, what with Future putting out legions of newsstand-only specials and using better-quality paper stock for the newsstand editions of their mags.

Editors and publishers have always rated how successful a magazine issue is by how well it sold in the newsstand -- readers who buy a mag from the bookstore make more money for publishers than a subscriber, and unlike a subscriber, you know for sure the newsstand buyer actually wants the issue in question. And now that advertising is losing its place at every magazine's top priority, the readers need to retake that spot in a real way.

This is perhaps a message I've harped on before, but if print media sees itself as lacking respect in the game industry, then it needs to change itself. It needs to focus less on advertising -- it doesn't have any choice in that respect, really -- and more on product. Why does Edge get so much advertising from development outfits and game companies, far more than the size of its readership would seem to demand? Why is Game Informer now just as thin as any other video-game print title, despite now beating Time in circulation?

I think it's because one publication is "just" a video game magazine, and one is a perfectly-targeted, tightly-crafted, saleable product. Europe's print media still runs on a different set of economics from America, of course, but I think this comparison still has merit.

If US print media wants to survive -- screw thriving, I'm just talking about surviving -- it'll need fewer GIs and more Edges, fewer circulation machines and more small-time outlets that live and die by the dedication of each individual reader.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]