Journalists and Patronage

(See also my essay on Patreon and its literal problem with nazis.)

It's about ethics in journalism. Seriously, it is. The rise of direct funding of creative and business projects through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and others, and the ongoing support of same through Patreon (which is not sui generis, but generates the only substantive volume), brings out new issues regarding conflicts of issues between journalists and the people and organizations they cover.

This has been highlighted speciously as a major component of GamerGate (GG). Somewhere a few months ago, it became a trope in the harassment campaign against Zoe Quinn (that morphed into GG) that journalists contributing to Patreon projects were de facto corrupt: their collusion in helping a creator make things on a regular basis (Patreon is per item created or per month) meant that they couldn't fairly review or write about that creator's work.

There's a kernel of truth in this. It's not absolute, and the basis on which the conflict arises isn't the one that GGers maintain.

Journalists are expected to avoid conflicts of interest. As I wrote a month ago, personal ethical standards and disclosure to one's editors are key tenets in avoiding conflicts. Editors have to be vigilant as well, especially when dealing with large numbers of freelance writers, to ensure that policies aren't violated.

Journalists can write about friends, enemies, family members, projects towards which they have donated money, financial vehicles in which they have invested, companies in which they own stock, firms they have founded, etc. But that can only be done when the publication in which the article appears has been fully informed of all the connections and, typically, disclosed them all to readers. (Some publications fall afoul of this by deciding not to disclose even when a writer has provided full disclosure, and then get called on it later.)

Hanna Rosin penned a remarkable example of this in The New Republic recently, describing getting back in touch with noted fabulist Stephen Glass, who was a good friend of hers at that publication before his lies were uncovered. It's both a work of solid journalism and a deeply personal essay that's informed by her biases and emotional response, which she reveals as she goes.

The odd part with patronage and conflicts, though, is that journalists typically aren't prohibited from buying things — we're allowed to pay for stuff we want and use. The exception is investment. If you work for a news organization, you're typically required to not invest in specific companies; if you have a financial planner who handles this for you, it can be ok. It depends on the publication. This is done to put reporters and publications beyond reproach, although most reporters, except with penny stocks, cannot move the price of an investment. (Reporters may obtain inside information, however, which is illegal to trade upon, so that's another reason to be disinvested from individual companies.)

Reward-based crowdfunding was essentially zero in 2009, and now represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A recent US law also enabled investment-style crowdfunding, which will likely grow into the billions per year, but is more easily dealt with, because a return on the investment is expected, and thus conflicts must be avoided.

If I give $50 to a Kickstarter campaign and am both supporting a person making a thing, but also expect to get a DVD and a poster of the final result, is that a conflict? The answer would seem to be no. In that case, it's like a pre-order, even if it costs more than the final result, because I'm getting something premium. Do I expect something from the creator as a result? Only the reward.

It gets murkier, in my view, when you go into purely patronage level support. If I give $1,000 to become a Supreme Angel of a project, and get my name emblazoned in the credits, can I credibly write about the project later? Again, disclosure matters. If I want to write about it, I have to be clear with my editors that I paid that money and my name is splashed all over the place. I have a bias towards the project's success as a result.

In Patreon, the equation is typically different. Patreon offers ongoing support for creators, where you pledge a fixed amount that is billed either monthly or at project milestones, such as the creation of a video. The nature of support is different. The goals may be specific (an artist plans to make five new casual videogames over two years), but the intent to me always seems more warm and fuzzy than with a goal-based, closed-end crowdfunding campaign.

However, money is still a key defining attribute. If someone gives $1 per month to Zoe Quinn, as I have done for months, does $12 per year actually make a difference in Quinn's life? Does it give me undue influence over her work or make it possible for me to demand an exclusive interview that would boost my pageviews? (Never mind that I don't write about or review games, and that I don't write for any outlet that pays me based in pageviews.)

It's de minimus: something so small, that it doesn't matter. In aggregate, 5,000 people giving $1 per month each is significant; but my individual contribution is nearly meaningless on its own, except as a point of morale and support. If I were giving $20 per month, that's not much each month, but it starts to add up to something decent over a year.

I think the crux is that aspect of support versus purchase. If the primary intent, expressed even by the low dollar amount, is for me to indicate that I agree with someone, that is a conflict, even if there's no "corruption" to use GG's favorite word. I am not corrupted by giving money, nor the recipient by receiving it. But it does indicate the basis of a relationship, and should be disclosed. When I give $25 to a Kickstarter campaign, it's both de minimus and it doesn't indicate that I care for more than the value of what I'll get in return.

I supported Brianna Wu's Kickstarter campaign to bring Revolution 60 to Windows for $25, but I don't own a PC, and it was a gesture of support. But I also publicly promoted the Kickstarter, and as someone rallying others to contribute, it would only be fair for me to be clear in writing about the game or Brianna that I was a booster.

It's a problem to try to impose a blanket ban on patronage by journalists and reviewers, and not just because it's seemingly a demand of GamerGate. (In the confusion that is GG, some of the leading voices — represented by the graph of those who profess support for GG and who follow those people — have used crowdfunding and are game designers or writers. And many people cited as being "corrupt" aren't writers or aren't involved in games journalist whatsoever.)

Rather, it boils down to personal agency. Most people who write about games are freelance or independent. Freelancers (like yours truly) are allowed a lot more leeway, because we don't strictly represent a publication. This requires that we disclose more to ensure our editors aren't tripped up by connections they don't know about. But it also means we're more free to engage outside one aspect of our professional lives. Some games writers make games; some game developers also write. Full-time writers face many more restrictions already against what they can do because of that paycheck. Kotaku decided Patreon, for some of the reasons I mention, is simply too entangling in general, and now bans contributions through that means by all their writers.

Part of the irony in GamerGate is the idea that many indie developers and games journalists make robust livings from their work. One trope in GG has it that both categories are nearly entirely comprised of those with parental wealth, trust funds, or millions earned through other means. Yes, GGers seriously believe this.

It's the thought that counts more than the money: if all publications banned all contributors from using Patreon, I would suspect the reduction in patronage would be slight for any individual creator. Most games journalists don't make enough money to support anything heavily.