The Slimy Underside of the Hardware Industry and Our Assurance to Readers

By Published July 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm

We've gone through a series of concerning conversations over the past six months. The website has grown. GamersNexus now draws nearing one million pageviews per month through the website alone; YouTube traffic has tripled in a little over a year. This growth is something I firmly attribute to our dedication toward neutral, methodical analysis of software and hardware. Our readers have strongly voiced support of our methods and primary objective to deliver fair content to the industry.

The site has gone from a position of almost no power to one of small, but measurable negotiation positioning. We've got two rooms full of components that are tested on a daily basis, and that's because we've proven we're capable of delivering quality analysis.

This growth has placed us into a tricky position at times. There's a balance to be walked. Cliche as it may sound, our core principal when writing is to “just be fair.” If a product is bad but has merits, we explain that. If we feel strongly that a product should be avoided at all costs, we'll put that out there, too. Generally, we try to just present data.

I've been the Editor-in-Chief of GamersNexus for seven years now, and I've only recently been exposed to a side of the industry that I find intensely offensive.

In recent months, we've been asked with carefully-engineered phrasing to review components using specific narratives; this is generally on the implied contingency that the device won't otherwise be supplied. “We're looking for editors who will write our narrative,” I've been told. I've fallen silent on a number of occasions when the forward nature of a request has left me shocked, like in one conference call where we were told that “we're hoping that, by making this easier for you, you'll make it easy for us.”

My fingers feel slimy just from typing it. No thanks.

Following unfavorable articles featuring specific companies, we've been asked – on more than one occasion – to “just change the title.” We've been told that we won't receive a product unless the review is “more firm” and that “we [company] need you to say if you'll buy it.” This, for example, could be in response to a video card round-up – like a specific model card – where all products are functionally identical but have various advantages by way of warranty, silence, etc. For some manufacturers, stating the pros and cons of each card is not enough; they want us to tell you what to buy. That's not how we operate in a round-up piece: we present the data, then let the reader make the decision based on our listed pros / cons of each option. Apparently that's not direct enough because it isn't “influencing,” a topic we'll return to momentarily.

We've been through drawn-out discussions on advertising campaigns, followed shortly with a request to remove an article. That action has been refused 100% of the time.

How We Deal With It

Here's the deal: I don't do this to get rich, and neither does anyone crazy enough to work for me via contribution of their profoundly appreciated time and writing. We do this because we love it. Hardware is fun to learn about and test. I come from a test engineering background and have the most fun when I'm learning about a component's inner-workings, trying to devise new methodology, and publishing our findings. Automating tests is particularly exciting and has been a personal project of late.

That's the fun part. All of that.

The money, I believe, will come with the territory of producing reliable, trustworthy reviews that never enter with a prescribed “narrative.” We derive our conclusions from testing, and that's the only way it should be.

If I wanted to sacrifice my values to make money, there are many other ways to do that and make a whole lot more. I'm here to learn hardware, test it, and write an opinion based upon the facts we've gathered through intensive testing procedures. I'm here because I don't want to do anything else. I don't allow any third parties to tell us how to write our content or what “narrative” to follow because, frankly, there's a reason I'm running this ship – I don't want to work for someone else.

That's the deal.

We have never pulled an article from publication following any company's demands, money or not. Direct advertising sales are not our forte and, following this, I suspect that will remain the case. Most of our revenue is sourced from affiliation with websites like Amazon and Newegg, from network ads (not directly sold and more user-specific), eventually from our new Patreon campaign, or similar.

Regardless, we do occasionally manage to sell an ad; when we do, we've got a deep contract that explicitly spells-out what an advertiser should expect. Part of that is a journalistic independence clause, definitively stating that we will, if necessary, advise against that company's product if it proves unworthy of purchase – ads or not. When the rare company does lay integrity-offending demands on the table, we walk away from that table. We've purchased products out-of-pocket in the past if we feel it is necessary in order to publish a fair analysis. This kills the profit potential of an article but, if done sparingly and where most critical, is worthwhile. From a business standpoint, I also view such endeavors as an investment capable of ROI through greater reader respect down the road.

This stuff doesn't happen all the time – I've encountered these events four times since December 2014 – but it's often enough that I've begun to feel a little irked about the boldness of it all. Some manufacturers have begun seeing media outlets as “influencers,” a term originally used for YouTube channels that don't operate as review outlets, and that's something I've always quickly corrected. We don't “influence,” we inform. It is not our objective to manipulate the readers, which is what “influencing” sounds like (to me); it's our objective to educate on how things actually work because, just like in school, learning the why and how is more valuable than the answer.

We produce high-quality, in-depth analysis of products; there is no guarantee that this analysis will be favorable. Ever.

One of the rules I pass down to our writers is that “there are no 'good' companies, only good products.” We start by analyzing a device in a vacuum, so to speak, and then expand outward to its immediate competing offerings. No company is thrown into some ubiquitous “good” bucket.

These few manufacturers who have asked for pulled articles, who've demanded narratives, and who are seeking “influencers” know precisely who they are. That's not why I'm here. Our readers can continue to expect fair, trustworthy, and tested content from GamersNexus and its editors.

I don't want anyone to get the impression that this is a sweeping problem in the industry; we work with a lot of great folks who encourage fair coverage and learn from it, advancing their products after each post. The pushy side has been encountered from a select few companies over the past months. That said, it does happen, and it does need to stop. These actions are a threat to journalistic independence in a time when it is already impossibly hard to make a living with honest reporting, and culling-out reporters who refuse to bend will only net less innovation for the industry.

- Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke.

Last modified on July 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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