Game Journalism U: Pick Up the Phone

This research post is going to be short and punchy, since it’s a simple rule:  Pick up the damn phone.

There are a lot of misconceptions about game journalism, but one of the biggest is that you need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of games.  You don’t.  Do you need to know a lot about games?  Sure.  Do you need to know more than the average consumer?  Absolutely.

But here’s a secret: Whenever someone at a Q&A or on a forum says, “I could be a game journalist, ’cause I know a lot about games!” real game journalists laugh.  Or drink.  We forget which is which sometimes.

Journalists don’t know facts, they find them.  It’s not your job to know everything about games.  It is your job to know where to find information when it’s needed.

But sometimes you just don’t know, sometimes your online sources fall short, sometimes you’re staring at a blank screen and PR hasn’t answered your emails and Google Books has turned up nothing and oh God, the deadline’s in three hours what am I going to…

Why yes, yes you can.

In fact, phoning people up and getting comments from experts is Hadouken of journalism.  It’s easy, it’s quick, everyone can do it, and it pretty much works in all situations.  Also, phoning up PR reps you haven’t answered your emails is a great way to keep them from giving you the ol’ inbox dodge.  Alternately, you can call up an expert on the subject you’re looking into and take advantage of their depth of information.

Subject experts are especially great to contact, either in or outside of the game industry.  The latter can be especially fun to interview, since they’re not used to being interviewed or thinking about games, and can offer a fresh perspective.  For example, while writing an article about GRAW being banned in Mexico I interviewed Fred Burton, who’s the Vice-President of Intelligence at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, a former State Department antiterror agent, and former Terror Czar for the State of Texas.  Did he know anything about videogames?  Nope.  He didn’t even know Tom Clancy licensed games.  But you know what?  He knew a whole lot about the Mexican Cartel War and border violence.  Every word he contributed made my article a little bit better.

If it’s well-conducted and you choose the quotes carefully, an interview can be the backbone of your article.  Just like in fiction, dialogue tends to break up long passages of prose and make articles easier to read, and the vast differences in language and colloquialisms can spice up even the dullest topic.  People who know a lot about a subject are generally passionate about it, and that passion and excitement is contagious.  Consider Neil deGrasse Tyson and astrophysics–would anyone enjoy listening to him if he wasn’t always so jazzed about the power and expanse of the cosmos?  Nope.  We all know what it’s like to have a boring science teacher that doesn’t care.

Now the tricky part is to develop that network of contacts.  This could be a whole post in itself, but let’s start with this: Just be aware.  Talk to people.  If you see someone at a conference who you think might be good to contact on a future article, walk up and talk to them and give them a business card.  Hell just straight-up say: hey I might want to contact you for an article in the future, would that be alright?  Chances are they’ll say yes.

Also, don’t be afraid to cold call or email people. Be nice.  Tell them who you are, who you’re working for, and what you’re doing, and be straight with them about the topic you’re writing about–even if it’s negative.  Yeah, I know, nobody likes to cold call, but tough–it’s part of your job now.   If it makes you feel better, I’ve never been hung up on, yelled at, or told to go away.  No one’s ever been mad.

But if you don’t call?  If you don’t do your research?  If you don’t call to confirm a rumor and get something wrong?

That’s when people get mad.

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