Transparency: Cons are still very important to gaming journalism
Games journalists get news from a myriad of sources: news tips from readers, press releases from developers, other websites, social media, emailing developers, and of course, speaking to devs face-to-face at a convention.
A huge chunk of the news has to cost very little for a website to obtain and should actually make the site money. This usually comes in the form of news tips from readers. Tips net positive for websites because the news is coming from those who already read the site, and that’s why many sites will go out of their way to thank tippers.
Press releases work similarly to news tips, but are just slightly less effective than tips because sometimes there is relationship building that needs to take place before a site will get press releases from developers. Emailing developers directly is the next step beyond press releases, but that requires an even greater relationship than press releases.
And of course, gaming news sites don’t like to have to source other websites because that means someone have scooped them for a story. But even the best sites have to do this from time to time.
Conventions: the most expensive information-gathering tool
Attending conventions is by far the most expensive way to get information for a gaming website. Most of the time, gaming news sites cannot afford to send people to conventions. It could literally cost thousands of dollars to send a single person to a convention. Of course, as you add people to the roster of convention-goers, it costs less per person, but the upfront investment will be similar.
Conventions also represent another problem to the games journalists themselves. Most of the time, convention-goers are the first to hear about a new expansion or the announcement of a new game, but they are usually not the first to report on it because developers will release the information on their website within minutes of the announcement which is usually less time than it takes for a reporter to find her computer let alone a solid internet connection. (Internet is notoriously horrible at conventions.)
Of course, many websites will get news from those who are already going to attend an event by offering a free pass to the convention. That is how I did it for years. None of my expenses were covered by any website. I've also heard of journos getting parts of their expenses paid if they covered certain things for many different websites. I've done a little of that, but I know some who have had their whole trip covered in that manner. This can be advantageous for both the website and the reporter.
But the question remains: Why is it worth it for gaming websites to still have reporters on the ground at conventions?
I can think of two major reasons why websites -- even smaller ones -- need to have people at conventions: legitimacy and developer interaction.
I use the word “legitimacy,” but you could also use the term “commitment,” or even, “vision.” A website that is looking for growth isn’t going to sit on its laurels and wait for things to happen. It’s going to do what it can to make sure that it’s on the frontlines of reporting and speaking to developers personally. It will have a reviewer trying out the latest demo from games that have yet to release. Not only is this a wonderful service for the readers, but it also gives the reporters first-hand insight into what she's reporting on.
Readers want to hear your thoughts. Most sites have very loyal followers and its own distinct voice in the gaming community at large. Players who read GameSkinny expect a certain flavor from this site. Most of the time, it’s reflective of an Editor-In-Chief, but it doesn’t have to be. Regardless, loyal fans want to hear your thoughts on the matter, not some generic impressions from the random, no-name reporter of a media conglomerate. Even if the reporter on the convention floor doesn’t just work for your site, he will carry your site’s voice because you’re editing and approving his work.
Secondly, developer interaction is key. It’s also important that the person attending represents the site well. Having a reporter speak to a developer face-to-face allows the reporter and the developer to speak to a person and not some random screen name.
If I might digress for a moment: I met Linda “Brasse” Carlson, the Director of Community Relations at Trion, at PAX Prime a couple of weeks ago. Because of my work reporting for MMO websites, we had had a few interactions via Twitter and PR correspondents. She didn’t know what I looked like and I had only seen her in her dwarf costume (pictured above), and I probably wouldn’t have recognized her if she was standing next to me.
However, during one of her panels, I made a short introduction, and immediately, she knew who I was. Then after the panel we talked for quite a while. I don’t feel comfortable repeating any of that conversation because it was assumed to be off the record, but I can tell you that my perspective of game development changed. And that kind of interaction could never have happened without my attending the convention.
When looking at the bottomline, it’s hard to justify going to a convention. The return-on-investment is hardly quantifiable, but in the end your site and the reporters going will be better for it. It’s a lot of hard work for the reporter, and sometimes it’s tough to get that little bit of news that makes your coverage better than others. However, nothing can take the place of the respect your readers will have for the site after the convention is over.