Why Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter is an admirable move
Many of the ethics codes of media organizations around the world directly address conflicts of interest or, more specifically, the “perception” of conflicts of interest. In other words, newspapers, magazines and websites tend to avoid situations where readers can conceivably question their objectivity.
Many gaming outlets, for instance, have strict policies regarding publisher-funded review trips. They’ll decline such offers on the basis that reader knowledge of their participation in such trips damages the integrity of the publication, rightly or wrongly. For another example, Penny Arcade Report’s policy dictates that it will not cover or promote any of the games developed or associated with its parent site.
One such perceived conflict that’s something of an elephant in the room, though, is advertising. It’s common in gaming media to see a review for a blockbuster game sandwiched between grandiose skyscraper advertisements for that very same game. There’s no denying that it’s harder to take such a review seriously in light of this; doubts surface about whether a reliance on such advertising and the desire for continued goodwill has colored the review in any way. This is absolutely a perceived conflict of interest. And while readers may point this out from time to time, it’s one conflict outlets that rely on advertising revenue are seemingly happy to ignore.
This is why, from an ethical standpoint, Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter campaign to fund its operations for one year completely free from advertising is an admirable move not just for gaming media but for media in general: It removes the final barrier to perceived objectivity for an ethical media outlet. Earlier today on Twitter, I saw Penny Arcade’s Gabe himself discuss the difficulties of taking money from a publisher and then poking fun at their games in the comic strip. Despite its necessity to most sites, the advertising factor creates all manner of awkward situations, even if they are merely internal.
Obviously, it’s not for everyone. Not every website or magazine out there can feasibly crowd fund its operations. But if an ethical media outlet can do so – if it has the community support to realistically free itself from any perceived conflicts of interest – isn’t it almost obliged to?
Of course, it’s not the first attempt in this online landscape to remove advertising from the revenue equation. Many sites have toyed with subscription-based paywalls. Unfortunately, only the largest of sites have generally enjoyed any real success with these, and often these same sites are still supplemented with advertising revenue anyway.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to the success of Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter, however, is that there’s little incentive from the consumer’s perspective. Aside from the pledge incentives, there’s very little “What’s in it for me?” appeal. This is in stark contrast to another games-industry Kickstarter that launched today: the Ouya console. Pledge toward this initiative and you increase the likelihood that an interesting, potentially game-changing console. Pledge towards Penny Arcade’s drive and you’re merely contributing to a revenue model that will make life easier for its staff and possibly aid you in trusting the site that little bit more. Despite honorable intentions, it does perhaps come across as a little self-serving.
So the prospect of advertising-free revenue for media outlets presents a long and difficult road. But if an ethical media outlet can pull it off, isn’t that a positive thing? I realize that what works for Penny Arcade may not work for other sites, and few others are in a position to attempt it. But I can’t help but feel that it will set a bold precedent, if successful, for all manner of websites.