‘The Biggest Will Survive, The Rest Will Die’: Nathan Grayson on the Decline of Traditional Journalism, Aftermath’s Survival, and the Future of Games Media

'The biggest will survive, the rest will die'- Nathan Grayson on the decline of traditional journalism, Aftermath's survival, and the future of games media - Spiel Times

The shift from 2023-2024 has been a shocker for online publishing. Many small publishers dependent on Adsense revenue got shut down due to Google’s crazy core updates one after the other. Thousands of websites got affected starting the Helpful Content Update back in September(including ours), and with May’s Core Update, it was the final nail in the coffin for hundreds.

The situation was grim for the video games media industry as well. IGN Entertainment acquired Gamer Network, the owner of publications like EuroGamer, GamesIndustry.biz, VG247, and more. Many got laid off and big structural changes were bound to hit the newsrooms.

Amidst the chaos, I decided to hit up Nathan Grayson, a long-time video games journalist who now runs Aftermath, a reader-supported publication writing video games and internet culture. The site has been doing well with more and more readers turning into paid subscribers. “Paying real money to read about video games? Hell, no!” said one of our readers when we surveyed them regarding online media and subscriptions. But at Aftermath, that’s not the case.

Here’s my interview with Nathan Grayson where we dive deep into the business of running a publication about video games, the demise of Washington Post‘s Launcher, their discontinued video game vertical, the struggles of surviving in New York, the fated downfall of Kotaku, ads, the state and future of journalism, Google’s AI shenanigans, optimizing for SEO, Jason Schreier, and finally, Nathan’s best and worst gaming experiences so far.

Keep in mind all the “quotations” in the interview are paraphrases.


Introduction

Pingal Pratyush: I’ll introduce myself. I am Pingal and we run Spiel Times, which is basically what you call an SEO-based gaming news website kind of a thing.

We don’t do much original journalism, except for this one, I hope. But yeah, we’ve been researching the media industry a lot, especially since the Google Core updates and stuff, which affected a lot of websites, with a lot of smaller websites getting shut down or acquired. We all know what happened to Gamer Network as well.

As we were diving deep into it, I thought maybe we should talk to a few people in the industry like yourself. I’ve also reached out to a couple of others like Patrick Klepek, Ben Hanson, Stephen Totilo, and Tom Henderson. Let’s see how that goes.

Nathan Grayson: Yeah, those are some good folks.

(Pingal’s remarks: At the time of publishing this interview, Patrick Klepek, Ben Hanson, and Sal Romano have agreed to an interview with us. Stay tuned to hear their thoughts on everything video games. Coming up, very soon!)

Pingal Pratyush: I’m a great fan of yours. I’ve been reading your content since the Kotaku days. After Wall Street… no, not Wall Street. Actually, it was…

Nathan Grayson: The Washington Post.

(Pingal’s remarks: Gosh, I’m such an idiot!)

Pingal Pratyush: Yeah. I read your stuff there on Launcher, I believe.

Nathan Grayson: That’s correct.

Washington Post Shuts Launcher

Pingal Pratyush: But then they shut down Launcher. Did The Washington Post ever reveal why they had to shut down Launcher?

Nathan Grayson: They never said anything publicly, but they didn’t even say anything directly to us. The reason, at least as I understand, why The Washington Post closed Launcher is because they decided they didn’t want to have any more verticals. Basically, any more little sub-sites that were not part of the paper directly. They had two left at the time. One of them was Launcher(the other was KidsPost which ran for almost 23 years). They are just like, “Well, we’re shutting that down then. Irrespective of performance, irrespective of how many people are reading these sub-sites, we’re just going to cut them.” And that’s what they did.

It was, in my opinion, a very bad decision because The Post was trying to attract a younger readership at the time. And of the various parts at The Post, we had, maybe, the youngest readership of all. So, that was a dumb decision on their part. Also, we exceeded all of their traffic expectations every quarter that we existed. So, you know, it was not a great decision. And now you see, for example, Rolling Stone just launched a video game vertical last week(RS Gaming). Ever since The Post closed Launcher, I’ve always felt they’re going to reintroduce video game coverage or they’re gonna make another one of these basically. They still have Gene Park but you know he writes pretty sporadically and you can’t have one person cover an entire multibillion-dollar industry.

I still bet that someday The Washington Post is going to be like, “Yeah, we’re covering video games!” Like it’s not a thing they already tried. It’ll be really funny when that day comes.

Pingal Pratyush: So the numbers were great, the traffic was great, and yet they decided to shut it down, just because it didn’t align with the main newspaper? That’s it?

Nathan Grayson: Yeah, pretty much, because it was a vertical and not part of the paper. But even that doesn’t make a ton of sense because there were other verticals that they had folded into the paper. Even though those sections no longer existed, the people who worked on them still got to keep working at The Washington Post. It was bizarre decision-making and if you go look at The Washington Post now, in the time since they closed Launcher, they’ve offered buyouts to hundreds of people, which are basically layoffs by another name. The Post is definitely not in good shape these days. It’s tough to say how things will turn out, but they’re definitely trying to figure themselves out and not doing a great job of it.

Aftermath’s Finances

Pingal Pratyush: I was reading your interview with Johnny Amizich on Hard Drive where you said your ‘Inside Baseball Week’ worked really well for Aftermath. You mentioned how your goal at the moment was to hit a point where you can pay the team full-time salaries. How far away are you from your goal right now? Because I think, currently, you have 3,300 subscribers?

Nathan Grayson: We actually just passed 3,400. If you want to see all of that information, both in terms of how many subscribers we have, and how many we need to pay ourselves that kind of salary, we actually have a page for it on the site.

If you check out that, and scroll kind of to the middle of that page, you can see all the different subscription totals. 3,400 is where we are now. A comfortable full-time, albeit a full-time salary where we’re not making very much money, would be around 4,000 subscribers. The sweet spot for real would be 5,000 subscribers. If we have that much, then we could pay ourselves such that we would not be worried about things like, “Oh, I can’t afford anything, or I have to live in a really tiny apartment.” You know, all of that.

Pingal Pratyush: You guys are all based in New York, right?

Nathan Grayson: Most of us. Luke is in Australia.

Pingal Pratyush: For the international audience, could you throw some light on what’s living in New York like? What’s a monthly budget right now for you guys and how are you managing everything?

Nathan Grayson: Okay, bear in mind, the apartment that I’m currently in, [is where] I began living in when I was at The Washington Post. The Washington Post obviously paid pretty well, especially in comparison to other places that do journalism. So the place that I’m in right now costs like…God! It’s terrible. [It costs] around $2,500 per month, which is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for an apartment. But New York in general is a really hard place to live in terms of price. Everything here is super expensive and prices keep going up because there’s a lot of demand to live here.

The last time prices went down was during the pandemic because a lot of people moved away for the purpose of living in cheaper places. So yeah, that part’s rough. Honestly, my lease is going to be up in August and my plan at that point is to massively downsize. So, move into either a small studio apartment or get a bunch of roommates and try to cut like $1,000 or $2,000 out of my monthly rent. Because right now, I’m just draining my savings. It’s pretty rough.

(Pingal’s remarks: Spiel Times makes around $2,000 a month. While we are based in India and the Philippines, that amount is still not enough to cover even our basic living expenses. If you’d like to support us, throw in just one dollar for bread and tap water. You can donate here: buymeacoffee.com/spieltimes)

Pingal Pratyush: I can only imagine. I cannot relate at all. But yeah, $2,500, that sounds like a lot, really.

Nathan Grayson: Yeah, it’s not even for a very big apartment either. That’s just the nature of living in New York though. You’re paying for the location, not for the amenities.

Kotaku’s Downfall

Pingal Pratyush: Coming back to Kotaku. You said the place was really good but it was ruined by poor management. Can we know how? What went wrong?

Nathan Grayson: A number of things. But the biggest part definitely was [that], Kotaku, as with the other GM Media sites (Gawker Media was the original parent company of Kotaku when it first launched in 2004) got purchased by this private equity firm called Great Hill Partners(the parent company of G/O Media, the current owner of Kotaku). The people who were running Great Hill, sort of slowly but surely began to interfere more and more over the years, and make increasingly outrageous demands of us in terms of the kinds of content that we published. They would meddle in terms of laying people off randomly, and all sorts of stuff. They just did not seem to have any idea why people liked the sites that they bought. They still believed that they knew what they were doing. So they’ve made all of those sites demonstrably worse over time.

Kotaku now is not what Kotaku was, like, five or seven years ago. It’s a very, very different site and in many ways, [it is] not because of what the current batch of writers want to do but because of what they’re being forced to do essentially. You may or may not have read the article that Aftermath ran about Kotaku getting a mandate to basically pivot to guides, from mostly writing about news and events and stuff like that to mostly writing guides every week. A mandate that was impossible because basically, G/O Media was like, “We need you to do 50 guides per week,” which is ridiculous because Kotaku doesn’t even employ that many people anymore.

When I was at the height of when I was there, I think we had almost 20 people, probably closer to 15. Currently, Kotaku is down to like 7 or 8 which is significantly fewer but they’re still expected to compete with the IGNs of the world which is just super unrealistic.

Anyway, when that ‘guides mandate’ came down at Kotaku, their Editor-in-Chief (Jen Glennon) just quit because of how unreasonable it was. That is a level of dysfunction that you just can’t operate under. At this point, G/O Media is clearly selling off all of the sites they bought. They’ve sold up almost every site at this point. They just have Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Kotaku, Quartz, [The Inventory,] and The Root. They sold everything else.

That was always their endgame plan, they are a private equity, and that’s what private equity firms do. But, in the meantime, they took the sites, made them markedly worse, forced them to run in a way that was quote unquote, lean, meaning they got rid of as many people as possible, and they overloaded the sites with ads, even though advertisements are just not a reliable business to be in anymore in the social media era if you are a website. So now, it’s this hugely degraded user experience.

Kotaku, especially, has lost tons of readership. I mean, back in the day, I think our monthly figures were between 15 and 20 million readers per month. Now it’s down to a tiny fraction of that. I don’t know, don’t quote me on this number, because I might be wrong. But I think I heard that they’re down to like, maybe a couple million per month now. So, [they] lost a majority of their readership and that’s not the fault of the writers at Kotaku. They’re doing the best they can. That is squarely on management’s shoulders.

(Pingal’s remarks: According to SimilarWeb, an online tool that tracks websites, their visits, and rankings, Kotaku had 11.14 million views in October 2020, with its global ranking being #6,912. In April 2024, they garnered 10.2 million views, with a global ranking of #6,914. These numbers are far from accurate but surely help in drawing comparisons. Back in October 2020, the average visit duration was 02:10. In April 2024, it was 08:01. But at what cost?)

Pingal Pratyush: When the management started interfering with the content, did they go back and forth with you guys or did it come forcibly?

Nathan Grayson: I would say, them forcing writers to do things sort of began after my time. There was definitely more of an editorial firewall when I was there because most of my time was under Stephen Totilo when he was Editor-in-Chief. He left towards the end of my tenure and then Riley MacLeod, who now also works for Aftermath was sort of the interim EIC and both Stephen and Riley tried very hard to be like, “Okay, well, no, we’re going to run our own newsroom. We will do what we feel is best for editorial, we’re not going to make considerations based on what would be good for advertisers or their ability to sell ads or whatever. We’re just going to do what we feel is right, and what is good for the readership.”

So then, they brought in Patricia Hernandez to be the new permanent EiC after Stephen left, as they rejected Riley. I think that they brought her in, in part because she seemed a little bit more willing to play ball with what they wanted. But even then, she was still doing things the way she believed was correct. The only thing that I really experienced before I left, because I left in 2021, so it’s been a minute, was a much greater focus on SEO.

As soon as Patricia stepped in, we had like a workshop based on SEO. She was like, “We’ve got to start using these types of headlines, you’ve got to fill in all of these metadata slots, you’ve got to do all of this and that.” And I understand it. But there was, I think, the time that definitely sort of crystallized a lot of what was going on for me.

I don’t even remember what the piece was anymore but Patricia basically had me write an opinion piece, something related to Xbox. I think it was [related to] Xbox cloud streaming or something and it had an opinionated slant. I was like, but that’s not my opinion. I don’t believe or care about any of this. But she was like, “Well, someone’s got to write it and it’s your news slot right now.” And I was like, okay, but, I don’t want to do this.

That was nothing though because that wasn’t particularly egregious. It wasn’t going to be controversial or anything like that. And again, I think that now, things are significantly worse in terms of people who were actually management because Patricia still worked at Kotaku. Not only that, she was originally from an earlier iteration of Kotaku. She went to Polygon before coming back to become the EIC.

Now, it’s just straight-up people like Jim Spanfeller (CEO of G/O Media), who specifically run Great Hill or G/O Media, not Kotaku itself, coming in and saying in meetings, “You’ve got to do this and this and that you’ve got to pivot to guides. You’ve got to do these things that we believe will make us money,” even though there’s no evidence of that? It’s massively different now than it was when I was there.

Pingal Pratyush: Did any of the writers or the writing room had a sync with the advertising department or were they completely separate?

Nathan Grayson: In my time, totally separate. There was no overlap there. And that was by design. Because, if you do have [an] overlap there, then you start [to] make considerations of what you’re going to write about, the subjects you’re going to tackle and stuff like that, based on what makes advertisers comfortable or what ensures that they’re not like, “I don’t know if I want to sell ads against that because that might make somebody mad, and then that’ll make us look bad and that could be bad for our brand,” or whatever.

Based on what I’ve read, this is a large part of why G/O Media decided to get rid of Jezebel, even though it was a really successful website. They were having trouble selling ads on content around politics, abortion rights, and things like that, which are things that badly need to be written about and are very important. But if your aim is purely to make money, which G/O Media’s is, then that’s going to be a hard sell.

Pingal Pratyush: Was it the same during your experience at PC Gamer, RPS, The Washington Post, and VG247?

Nathan Grayson: Yeah. For PC Gamer, I just freelanced and when you’re a freelancer, you talk to the various editors and stuff like that, but you’re not part of the business, really. Rock Paper Shotgun has always been a very small operation. It’s owned by a bigger company now(IGN recently acquired it). When I was there, it was fully independent. It was not owned by anybody. So yeah, I don’t know how the advertising side of that site worked. I mean, we ran ads, but I have no clue how that all unfolded. I just wrote stuff for the site.

For the most part, a good publication tries to keep those things separated. Just because, if you don’t, then things get muddy very quickly. It becomes really hard to do actual, good journalism that serves the people. You will ultimately be serving companies, and that should never be the goal of journalism.

Aftermath and Ads

Pingal Pratyush: When starting Aftermath, did you guys think of advertisements, even for once?

Nathan Grayson: Our plan in the long term is to include advertising, albeit in a way that is much more like… because, you know, most websites run programmatic ads. So they have ads that are coming through a larger provider. They use something like Google AdSense and Amazon Ads, you have a number of different options. We never want to do that, because then you could end up with an ad for something on your site that you fundamentally disapprove of and think is terrible but it’s appearing right alongside your content. So how would anybody know that you disapprove of that thing? So we never want to have that happen.

Our plan is basically… and also, we’re limited by what our website can even do. Right now, the backend that we have, just has like, one little slot that you can put on the site for an ad. Defector uses these sometimes to advertise their own merchandise, or to advertise a product that they think is cool. That’s kind of our broader plan.

We’re working right now with our podcast production company to start doing a little bit of outreach to companies that we specifically know of, to do little, very bespoke ads, say, “Here’s the thing that we have used and think is cool.” That’s pretty much as far as we’re ever gonna go with ads. Because it’s just really hard to make ads off of website-based content these days.

We did a little, I don’t know what calculator they used, but I think it was Luke or Riley, [who] tried to calculate how much money we could have made off of programmatic ads by now. And it was around $1,000, which is nothing.

The amount of annoyance that it would cause readers versus the amount of money we would make, that’s a horrible proposition. So we have no plans to do anything beyond [something] like, here’s an advertisement for something cool that we like. Even that will probably not make very much money. I think the idea there is just that it will more or less fund the production side of the podcast, which costs us a couple $1,000 every month. So if we [can] make that free, we can free up some money for more freelance [submissions] or whatever else.

Pingal Pratyush: Aftermath is still based on WordPress, right?

(Pingal’s remarks: Spiel Times is based on WordPress, but with programmatic ads. We hate serving unrelated ads to our readers too. Hopefully soon, we could shift to a reader-supported format. Maybe Patreon? I don’t know. Google’s September Helpful Content Update hit us hard and we dropped from having 2 million monthly readers to just 100,000 now. The revenue’s bad, we’re operating from our savings, and just running from our fate. Feed us a cookie, thank you! Donate here: buymeacoffee.com/spieltimes)

Nathan Grayson: Yeah. The backend is a custom version of WordPress made by Lede, which is the company that also powers [sites] like Defector, Hellgate, and some other sites.

Pingal Pratyush: Do they charge you a subscription fee? How does that work?

Nathan Grayson: The way that it works is, if you’re going to make a site with Lede, it’s all very bespoke. You meet with them upfront, and they will design the site for you based on your specifications, what you want, how you want it to look, and things like that. All of that is free. They only start taking money once you start making money. They basically take 10% of [your] revenue. That’s it. On one hand, 10% of revenue, that’s not nothing. That’s a fair amount of money. But Lede also offers all sorts of backend stuff.

For example, if the website were to be DDoSed, Lede would bring it back up. Lede is basically our tech person, in addition to being the people who made our website. Just hiring a tech person alone would have cost [us] more than giving Lede 10% of our revenue every month. So I think it’s a pretty good deal.

Pingal Pratyush: Good experience with them so far?

Nathan Grayson: Yeah. Also, because we know the Defector folks, and the Hellgate folks, and some other people at various Lede-based websites, when we want a new feature for all sites collectively, we can kind of band together and be like, “Hey, this is the thing that we want most right now. When can you make this for us? When can you make that for us?” And they’ve been really good so far.

For example, we have the ability to gift articles now. So somebody who has a subscription can gift an article to somebody who doesn’t, so they can read it, even though there’s a paywall on the website. That’s a new addition. We asked for it, and they delivered it in a couple of months.

The Dire State of Journalism

Pingal Pratyush: Sounds great. Let’s talk about proper journalism now. I also did a Bachelor’s in Journalism and I’m from India. If you know what’s going on in India, you basically cannot practice journalism in India anymore(Pingal’s remarks: I’m exaggerating, or am I?). If you’re going to spit facts, if you’re going to cover, let’s say, the ruling government and all, you’re going to be thrown into jail. That’s what’s been going on here. Just after graduation, our professors told us that you can get into PR, you can get into the media industry, [but] don’t do journalism, because then you will be risking your lives.

Regardless, you said that you don’t recommend young minds, willing to take on the challenges of reporting, investigating, or spending weeks doing actual journalism, to go into journalism school. Where does that come from? Not just in games journalism, but in general.

Nathan Grayson: In the United States right now, it’s really hard to make money off of traditional journalism. The industry is shrinking at an alarming rate. If your goal is to survive, which I think all of ours is, then putting years of study and money into getting a job in an industry that may not be there in a few years, is just not a good bet. You’re better off trying to find someplace else to work. I say that with the caveat that, in the United States, and even in a place where it’s dangerous to do journalism, like India, as you’re saying, it still is very much needed. People need to do journalism. That’s how you hold truth, or that’s how you hold powerful people to account. That’s how you ensure that the power bearers are not abusing that power.

I don’t recommend that people go to school for traditional journalism generally, because the things that you’re studying may not exist in the form that they currently do in a handful of years. But people definitely need to learn these skills and continue applying them. So it’s kind of hard. I don’t know how to put this, but if you have the necessary means to throw away money for a lot of years, which is effectively what I’ve done, (laughs) then by all means, go for it. (Pingal’s remarks: I laughed in pain too.) But if you don’t, then you shouldn’t throw your life away. But yeah, it’s hard.

I think there will always be journalism, even if the institutions that currently uphold it disappear. You look at something like The Washington Post, which a handful of years ago seemed to be unassailable. It’s a household name, so how can it go away? But it seems to be disintegrating now, in part because of poor management, in part, because Jeff Bezos just doesn’t seem to really care about it anymore. And I think [he] probably wants to divest from it entirely. So those things might go away.

But people are still going to keep doing journalism in various capacities. They already do it on YouTube, TikTok, and whatnot. This is not to throw shade at them. I think a lot of people who tried to do journalism on YouTube and TikTok are quite bad at it. But that’s also because the problem with institutions disappearing is that you lose institutional knowledge. The people who could have taught these younger people who are interested in doing things that are akin to journalism, how to do it right, and how to do it such that you know, you are responsible, and you make sure to verify all the information that you’re receiving and things of that nature, those people don’t have jobs anymore and have had to move into other industries. And that’s a massive brain drain. On top of that, because all of this is shifting onto other platforms, there’s also a disconnect.

Even if something like The Washington Post continued to be well funded, and people didn’t lose their jobs, a lot of the people who have decided to try to do something akin to journalism on YouTube or TikTok would never really be in communication with people at some place like The Post. They wouldn’t be learning those skills. It’s hard because I think that there’s always going to be a hunger for the kind of knowledge that journalism unearths. That is just a human impulse, right? We want to know about the people who are running our lives. We want to know what they’re doing. We want to know why they’re making the decisions they’re making. We especially want to know if they are corrupt, or if they’re doing anything that is otherwise improprietous. We have a right to know. But it’s really hard to obtain that information. It’s hard to do it well. It’s hard to do it in a way where you don’t accidentally harm other people if you’re not careful.

And the big problem in all of this is that these more traditional institutions where you could learn how to do things, and that would also fund people’s ability to do those things, are going away. And we’re not really replacing them with anything that could more effectively help modern people learn how to do journalism or make money doing it. So instead, what we’ve got is this patchwork quilt of people trying to find their own solutions. And like, that’s never going to be as reliable. It’s just like a system designed to facilitate this. I don’t know. It’s rough out there.

Pingal Pratyush: Why do you think journalism will collapse in the future?

Nathan Grayson: I think what’s happening in video game journalism right now is kind of a microcosm of what it will look like everywhere, which is like, the biggest one of each of these sites or publications will survive, and all the rest will die. So like, IGN, probably going to be okay. The New York Times, probably going to be okay. But everything below that level of the biggest publication in covering a specific field or covering a specific interest, will not make it.

Game Journalists Changing Jobs

Pingal Pratyush: Have you ever thought of joining a gaming company? Let’s say, fuck games journalism, I’m just gonna do PR, or I’m just gonna go do storytelling, or I’m gonna be a creative director at some game studio. Have you ever thought about these things?

Nathan Grayson: Sometimes, because, obviously those jobs tend to be more stable, although not right now in the video games industry. But generally, they tend to be more stable. They pay way better and in a lot of cases, especially if it’s PR, it’s not as hard. I have friends who’ve gone from games journalism into PR and they’re like, “Yeah, I just wake up at a normal time. I work from 9 to 5. Some days they ask me to write like one sentence and they’re like, ‘Okay, we don’t have anything else for you to do.’” I’m like, hold that. That sounds kind of incredible, albeit, pretty boring, but I think that as people leave journalism, you lose all this institutional knowledge.

And then the people coming up don’t know how to really tell stories or really dig or really investigate. Then industries are poorer for that. The video game industry needs to be held to account. Companies have done a lot of pretty terrible things over the years in terms of the ways they’ve treated their workers or the ways they’ve tried to exploit audiences or whatever else, and people need to be shining a light on that.

I think that those who can stay in journalism should do it because that helps everybody else. At the same time, everyone has a point where they eventually burn out and journalism is definitely a field in which that’s common because it’s a lot of work and it never stops being a lot of work and only a very small group gets to make the amount of money that you would need to live comfortably off of it. Most people don’t.

Most people make at best an okay wage, often a pretty bad one and the stress of that plus the stress of the job itself takes a toll over time. I don’t blame people for being like, “I’m going to get out and go work at a game company or work in PR,” because after a while, one day you wake up, you’re not as young as you were anymore, you’re very tired, you’re very stressed out, and you’re like, “I just want to go have a life outside of doing this thing.” And that’s totally fine. So yeah, I think about that sometimes. My goal right now is for Aftermath to become sustainable, to become something that can pay us all a decent wage. And then if that happens, I’m going to do this forever, or at least until the wheels fall off.

But if that still hasn’t materialized in a year or two, then I would maybe entertain the option of going and just working an easier job than this because it’s definitely really, really stressful in ways that you don’t always see on the page or on our Twitch streams or podcasts or whatever. But yeah, there are definitely days where I’m like, “Man! I am so stressed out all the time!” I kind of just want to be able to exhale and relax sometimes and I think that everybody at the site probably feels that way.

I think everyone in journalism feels that way, but then there are other days where you publish a piece that you’ve been working on for months, or you get a really good lead on an interesting story, or you just interview someone who’s really cool and really fascinating and you’re like, “Man, this is why I do it.”

The high of this makes up for the lows of all of the stress and the lack of money. I think to a degree as with any other job, there are ups and downs and you learn how to live with both.

(Pingal’s remarks: This interview was my high to keep writing about games, the industry, and the beautiful people in and around it. Help us survive the cold media weather where Google’s killing smaller websites. Donate here: buymeacoffee.com/spieltimes)

Pingal Pratyush: I brought this up because in July you’ll complete 10 years of this beautiful goodbye note [at Rock Paper Shotgun]. It has a lot of comments you can go through as well. You said that maybe in the future you’re hoping you’re still writing about games and yes, you are!

Nathan Grayson: (laughs)

Pingal Pratyush: A lot of my gaming friends were writing blogs, and doing videos, but as soon as they hit the age range of 26-30, everyone left. Everyone went to companies like EA or Rockstar, now doing community management, sitting on Discord and chatting with people and they seem to have fun with it. So, let’s see. We all might go there sometime.

Nathan Grayson: I think it’s interesting because again, like I don’t blame people for taking those jobs, but I think that companies obviously benefit a lot from that pipeline. Journalists already have a lot of contacts in the industry and they know how to string a sentence together. They’re good at everything that you would need to be in PR or a community manager or whatever. But they also benefit if more people move to the company side of things from journalism. Then there are fewer and fewer people to be critical of those companies or to hold them to account. I think the companies would honestly prefer a world in which there aren’t any journalists anymore, and they are only on the company’s side as PR and community managers, and then on the fan side, [they have] influencers, content creators, [and] people who are by design more willing to play ball with companies directly and essentially just do advertising for them.

Pingal Pratyush: Yeah, that’s what corporations want.

Nathan Grayson: Yeah, exactly. In the past week, we even saw an example of how this can go wrong. Because these companies, some of them have their own, like, internal editorial newsrooms. But their newsrooms [function] with the goal of advertising, not with the goal of saying anything profoundly critical.

So, Sony‘s internal blog ended up publishing this interview with Neil Druckmann, where they just kind of horribly misquoted him. They took out a lot of the context of what he said in response to their question, but they published the interview as though it was a Q&A. The assumption when you see that format is that they’re printing everything that somebody said. They’re printing both the entirety of the question asked and the entirety of the response. In this case, that was not true. And the only reason we found out that wasn’t true is because Neil Druckmann himself was like, “Hey, I was misquoted. Here’s what I said.” That’s not great.

Ideally, you want somebody whose, if they’re going to be interviewing someone and putting that information out there, number one goal is to convey the truth of what was said. Whereas if you’re somebody working for a company like Sony, your number one goal is to advertise a product, and you will probably take whatever steps you need to to make that happen, even if it involves being dishonest by omission, as it did in this case. That’s not good. I don’t want to live in a world where that’s all we get.

Pingal Pratyush: Stephen even commented on this by saying that’s why you need to talk to journalists.

Nathan Grayson: (nods in agreement) Yeah.

Google AI Overview

Pingal Pratyush: What do you think about the new Google AI Overview? Has it affected you in any sense?

Nathan Grayson: We’re not very reliant on Google, fortunately. Uh, I think that was one of the goals of starting something like Aftermath, is to get away from, you know, the over-reliance on both things like Google and also social media. Although I would argue that we’re still kind of, we’re pretty reliant on Twitter, unfortunately. But the AI Overview is terrible.

It’s the kind of product that, it’s mind-boggling that Google launched, especially in this state. If you go on Twitter or anywhere, really, [you can find] tons of people sharing instances of Google‘s AI Overview making horrible mistakes, often taking what’s clearly like meme content from Reddit and using it to answer real questions.

There [was a] question about “How do I get pizza to stick or cheese to stick to the pizza I’m making?” And they’re like, “Well, you can add 0. 5 liters of glue.” No, that would probably kill someone. But Google‘s telling you to do it. And I saw, I think it was a Google engineer or it was somebody who used to work for Google or something saying, like, “I don’t know that it’s possible to reverse course on this. We cannot uncontaminate this dataset. This just is what it is.”

I saw another piece where somebody was talking about, and this was, you know, a reported piece, so I think they talked to sources. They didn’t name them, so I’m not sure exactly who said this, but the basic framing of it was that the reason Google did this is because Google looks at AI as a concept and at companies like OpenAI and they’re like, “Well, we’ve got to beat them to the punch. If we’re not first, then we’re going to lose this entire thing. And then we’re fucked. It’s over. It’s the worst-case scenario.”

So what they launched was basically a busted product to be first, which is a horrible set of motivations. That’s not the way to make something good but because they’re Google, they’re like, “Well, if we put it out there, then at least like there’s something out there and, you know, Google is ubiquitous. So our thing will be everywhere and then through being everywhere, we win.” That’s not really winning. That’s just ruining your own product because you’re scared.

Pingal Pratyush: The AI Overview says that eating ass can boost your immune system, which is great, but not really helpful I believe.

Nathan Grayson: (laughs) Yeah, not particularly. That is very funny though.

SEO Content

Pingal Pratyush: Do you guys optimize for SEO or you don’t entertain that at all?

Nathan Grayson: A little bit. Our backend lets us customize our URL and so we put keywords into that. We can enter, like a little metadata thing. So it will show what the Google description of our article will be. We can tweak a headline there if we need to, and also change what the description is. Otherwise, it’ll just by default, pull the first paragraph of the article. Even then, it’s really hard to improve your SEO when you’re a small site or to really appear near the top of search results for a lot of things.

There will be times when I search [for] an article [on Google] that I remember having written for Aftermath with roughly its headline and also Aftermath in the search term, and it still won’t give us our article. There’s only so much you can do in the face of that. Most of it is just, you have to be operating for a while.

We’re still a pretty new site. We are not even a year old, hopefully, that’ll improve. But at the same time, that’s not really the main way people discover us right now, so we’re not that worried about it. People mostly discover us through our articles being shared around on Twitter or big-name journalists and people in the field talking about us, or pretty grimly, anytime something bad happens to another video game website, for example, the Gamer Network layoffs, which we covered, that also led to an influx of new subscribers at Aftermath. Same when Kotaku was forced to pivot to guides or when they received that mandate, things were still happening on that front at the site. But when they received that mandate and the news went out and people were talking about it, suddenly, [we got] tons of new subscribers to our site.

Because what happens is people say, ”Damn! This really bad thing is happening to this website. What do I do? How can I support the content that I like, or how can I find a replacement?” And then other people say, “Well, there’s Aftermath. You should check that out.”

Unfortunately, bad things happening to other sites serve as an advertisement for us, which is weird, because it’s always fun to get new subscribers, but you also feel really bad for everyone else.

Pingal Pratyush: That’s a bold statement.

Nathan Grayson: It’s more of just how it works. It happens almost without fail. Every time that a video game website has layoffs or goes under, people say, “Oh, you should subscribe to Aftermath.” And that serves as an advertisement for us. Not the kind that we enjoy, because again, it comes at somebody else’s expense, and that’s never the goal.

[In an] ideal world, everyone would just still be employed. All we can really say in the face of that is that hopefully one day, we will be making enough money to be able to hire people. For example, Rock Paper Shotgun laid off Alice Bell last week. Uh, she was my favorite writer on that site.

I would love it if we could employ somebody like her. If we could just be like, if a site laid somebody like her off and we could just turn around and be like, “You want a job? Just come work for us.” That’s the dream. That’s the dream future. But we’re still a very long way off from being able to do something like that.

Advice For Young Writers

Pingal Pratyush: I think you said that if you are a known personality in the space, then you should be okay starting a website or any kind of podcast or doing anything independent because you have a certain following, you have a certain audience base. Obviously, you guys are not in a position to hire full-time writers at the moment.

But let’s say, someone who is not really popular, not really on Twitter or anything, but does really great journalism. How do you think they should proceed with their interests? What should their journey look like in today’s world?

Nathan Grayson: It’s a really hard question. To clarify a couple of things; One, we are taking freelance submissions now. If people want to try to freelance for us, go for it. Just send a pitch to [email protected]. Two, even if you’re an established name, you’re not necessarily set, or you’re not for sure okay if you start your own thing, but at least you have a chance. You have more solid footing than most people would if they’re starting their own independent venture. But if you’re not really a name or you’re just starting out, you’re fresh out of college or something, it’s really hard. I think that is something that even this current kind of patchwork quilt of independent sites doesn’t have a great answer for. I think we’re all trying in various capacities.

Defector, I know, has like an intern or a fellowship program now. That’s awesome! Defector is also significantly bigger than any of the other independent sites. Aftermath, we’re five people. Defector has like over 30 and they’re all very well paid and they have benefits and all that stuff.

It’s a different echelon of existence, basically. Then I know that Rascal, which is the tabletop role-playing news site that recently launched, that’s also some former G/O Media people, they have this really interesting idea that actually, I’d love to imitate, where one of their ideas for advertising is they basically say, “Okay, if you’re a company, you could sponsor somebody being an intern for us. The way that you advertise is [that] we find someone who we think is good. Obviously, your company wouldn’t pick that person, but they come and work for us for a little bit and you’re essentially funding them with a salary.”

I think that’s a win-win for everybody because somebody who’s young and up-and-coming gets a job for a little bit and also a company gets to be like, “Look, we’re being a patron of the arts. We are doing a very good deed here and helping journalism continue to exist.”

I think that’s a cool and interesting idea. I would love to steal it, but I need to, you know, talk it over first with everybody else. But getting back to your question, opportunities like that are still few and far between for most people who are just getting started.

It’s really hard. I mean, you can still do a little bit of, what you would traditionally have done back in the day, which is go freelance for more established sites, send pitches, hopefully get them accepted, write some articles, get your name out there, build all of that silly, but surely, and then in this day and age, use social media, especially more modern platforms. Use things like Instagram and TikTok. A lot of people get news from TikTok now. It’s not often reliable news, which is bad. So again, going back to that whole issue I was talking about earlier, a lot of people on these platforms don’t learn how to do journalism the right way.

They will, for example, hear something from one source and be like, “Yeah, I heard this from this person who says that they are so and so, so it’s definitely true and you should believe it.” And it turns out, they were lying or they’re not actually who they say they are. And you failed to make them prove that they were who they said they were, you know, things like that.

Still, things like TikTok can be a useful tool. You can reach large audiences that way. You can build a name that way. But you’ve gotta put in a lot of work for not very much money for a really long time, and hope that it pays off. Again, I think for Aftermath definitely, and I think also for all the other independent sites, our goal is to eventually grow to a point where we can at least support some sort of infrastructure for young, up-and-coming writers and creators. Because if not, then that means that all of this, like traditional journalism, is a dead end. We want this to be the beginning of something new. If in the end, all that happens is that we make a few sites for people who already had names, then what have we really done?

Pingal Pratyush: Now that you’re running your own website, you’re doing a lot of stuff, other than just writing, so you are writing, you are editing, you are doing thumbnails, captions, meta descriptions, you’re doing everything, right?

Nathan Grayson: Yep, that’s all us.

Pingal Pratyush: What’s the experience like from being a writer to doing everything together, all at once?

Nathan Grayson: The upside is, I’ve come from quite a few sites where I had to wear a bunch of hats anyway. Compared to like IGN, Kotaku is a place where you also ended up having to do a lot of that. So, I’m pretty used to most of that workflow. Like at Kotaku, I also had to do all of my own sharing on social media, even do some light video editing and stuff at various points, so it’s not very different from what I used to do. The parts that are more different are having at least an awareness of the internal operations of the business and making decisions around, “How do we promote this? How do we ensure that our subscriber base keeps growing? How do we incentivize people to subscribe?”

For example, we’re getting really close to hitting our goal for merch and who do we partner with to make merch? How do we ensure that we are making money on that or at least breaking even and not just throwing money down the hole so that people can wear our logo?

That’s the same with the podcast and everything else. It’s like the new parts are the small business owner parts and that’s weird and hard to get used to and frankly is something that I’m not overly enamored with. Left to my own devices, I prefer to just report out stories and write them and have that be pretty much the entirety of my job. But in this day and age, it’s not how things work, unfortunately.

Some of it can still be fun. It’s definitely cool to partially own something and then to make a decision on how to operate it, to see that work, and to see it succeed. [As] you mentioned earlier, ‘Inside Baseball Week’ is a good example of this. That was like a big swing on our part.

We didn’t know if it was going to work, but we had a cool idea and we decided to put together a bunch of stories for it, and it worked incredibly well and was basically our biggest week ever outside of launch. That felt incredibly gratifying. I was just like, “Hell yeah! We had a cool idea. We executed it. It worked!” There have been other little things I’ve gotten into the flow of when I wake up in the morning and also, just at various points in the evening. I’ll switch over to our main social media account and retweet a bunch of stuff that people have been saying about our articles.

Effectively, [I am] doing the social media manager job. It feels good to do so because you can watch the social media audience grow in real-time. And you’re like, yeah, I’m doing something right. There are upsides and downsides. I think the downside is if you want anything to happen, you’ve got to kind of be willing to do it yourself.

So there’ll be days where you get done doing the main portion of your work, which is writing and reporting and stuff like that. And you’re like, ah, okay, work day’s over, time to go chill out. Then you remember, wait, I’ve got to do all this other stuff. I’ve got to reach out to people that we’re working with on various things. I’ve got to do a bunch of stuff on social media.

We had an Instagram account and I was trying to grow that, but it was taking too long. It wasn’t doing very well as we needed video content for it. So now we’re trying to relaunch that and that unto itself is like this big venture. You’ll reach the end of the day and already be pretty tired. And I’ll be like, I need to do this other task, but also I’m exhausted, maybe I’ll just do it tomorrow. And then, it just sort of never gets done because there’s no one else to do it. So yeah, it’s stuff like that. That’s kind of the small business ownership side of it. You just have to do more things. Because there’s no one. There’s not like a department around to handle it for you.

Pingal Pratyush: Because I’m a lot younger than you, I consume a lot of short-form content. I see a lot of these people saying, “Hey, I’m 21 and I’m a multimillionaire doing this and that or whatever. I have a Porsche, a Lamborghini, blah, blah, blah.” Do you ever think, “Man, I wish I could do some other job.” Doing journalism, can we afford a car [like that]? Does it ever come to your mind?

Nathan Grayson: Well yeah, I think that comes to everybody’s mind. There’s always the fantasy of like, “Man, what if I was making a bunch more money and working a lot less?” It’s definitely present some days more than others because again, this job can be really stressful and sometimes you just want to relax. That’s my fantasy more than anything. It’s less like, “Oh, I want to have this nice car,” and more like, “It would be really cool to just not work for like a month or a year even.”

Can you imagine just not working for a year? That would be crazy! What would I even do with that time? I will probably get really stir-crazy and want to work again, but at least for the first little bit of it, I’m sure it would be incredibly relaxing and would probably make me feel less burnt out. It will give me a lot more energy. That would be really nice. But you know I feel like there are a lot of jobs where I’d probably get bored really quickly and start to feel really purposeless and then I would be like, “Man, I miss working in journalism.”

That’s kind of what I always come back to when I fantasize about the idea of taking a higher-paying job at a publisher or something or doing PR. I guarantee that I would be sitting in a regular office or something doing next to nothing and thinking, “Man, I miss the rush of doing something I actually care about.” So that’s where I’m at for now.

Why IGN Will Survive

Pingal Pratyush: You understand the economics of running a website now. Do you understand the economics of a site like IGN and basically how they function? And most importantly, why they work, or as you said, why will they survive in the long term?

Nathan Grayson: IGN is like a big business. They’re not just writing about video games. They’re doing all sorts of content about video games across multiple different platforms. Pretty much everything under the sun. They don’t just cover video games, they also cover entertainment.

They employ, I think well over a hundred people. They are a multimedia entity. They also host events. They’re diversified in all these ways that you have to be, to be a company of that scale. That means they also have the amount of money needed in their bank account and a size of staff that is diversified enough in their roles that they can pivot where they need to. That they can embrace new opportunities and do things differently.

That comes at its own cost. I think that outside of a small handful of people at IGN, they don’t really have the ability to do a ton of really impactful work. They do have a really good newsroom. They have people like Rebekah Valentine who fucking kills it and break all sorts of good stories.

But most of what they do is fluffier content. For example, I’m looking at the site right now: How to Watch Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – Showtimes and Streaming Status. Somebody had to write that. That was their job. That doesn’t seem very interesting. (chuckles) But they are big and well entrenched. And when you are big and well entrenched, you can fail a lot of times before you fail for the last time. (scrolls) Here we go, Porsche X Overwatch 2. Just a giant ad on their site that leads to an article they wrote about this. In my opinion, it’s an incredibly dumb Porsche-Overwatch collaboration. 

But IGN can’t say it’s dumb. They are clearly also working as part of this collaboration. So even if the writer of this piece thought, “Man, this is stupid,” they can’t say that. That’s like the tradeoff. If you want to be IGN, you gotta play ball with everybody. You’ve got to basically be working with all these companies, which IGN is, and they have been for a long time.

That’s why IGN will survive. Because this is a company-dominated landscape, and they’re willing to be part of that.

The New York Times is another good example, because The Times, yes, they do journalism, obviously. They are one of the most well-known journalistic outlets in the world. But a lot of their money these days comes from the fact that they have a Games app that tons of people are subscribed only to. They show up to play games, not for news. And they have recipes and things like that. So the joke about The New York Times is that they are like a video game company and a cooking recipe company with news attached.

Because that’s how their economics work now. So yeah, these companies will survive because they’re really large and they’re really diversified in the ways they make money. They don’t just do one thing. They do a whole bunch of things.

Jason Schreier

Pingal Pratyush: The final long-ended question is about Jason Schreier. His journalism, his way with his sources, like everyone knows that he covers the best scoops in the industry. Which, I would say, is true.

Nathan Grayson: Yep.

Pingal Pratyush: What do you think about Jason? Have you worked with him? And like, uh, why do you think he has succeeded as a games journalist? Because many of us see him as an inspiration in today’s world. What do you think about that?

Nathan Grayson: I used to work with him back at Kotaku, back in the day. Jason is obviously incredibly talented. It’s strange because you don’t expect him to be able to extract information from people so effectively. There are a few reasons he’s good at it. One is that he’s always talking to people. And that was a thing that he instilled in a lot of us back at Kotaku back in the day.

He was like, if a major news event happens and you think it might be of interest to somebody who you consider a source or just somebody in the industry you keep in touch with, just go hit them up. Be like, “Hey, what do you think of this thing that happened?” Not for a story, just to start a conversation, just to keep the lines of communication open, so that when you hit somebody up for a story, it’s not weird. So it doesn’t feel like you’re just knocking on their door to get a quote, and then running off. It’s about maintaining relationships, and Jason is incredibly good at that.

That’s why he breaks so many different stories because even when these things are not happening, he’s still talking to all these people; all the time, every day. Then he’s also really smart about it. He gave me one of the best tips I’ve ever received on how to get people to tell you something that I definitely still employ regularly.

If you want somebody to tell you something more concrete, when you’re messaging them or talking to them on the phone or whatever, say the thing that you know, or a thing that you mostly know, but be a little bit wrong about it. Don’t lie to them but state something confidently that might be a little bit incorrect.

Because human beings have a natural impulse to want to correct people. If you’d phrase this thing as a question instead of stating it as a statement, somebody might go like, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that,” or “I don’t know”, “That’s confidential”, or whatever.

If you state it in a way where it’s kind of incorrect, odds are they’ll be like, “Well, that’s not entirely true. Actually, it’s a little bit different than that.” And they’ll give you a little bit more information than they might otherwise. ‘Cause it’s just how people are. It’s the whole thing of like, “Oh no, someone’s wrong on the internet. I’ve got to correct them.” You can use that to your advantage.

Jason is really good at understanding all of that stuff and using it in ways that, to his credit, I think that in the hands of a lesser journalist, stuff like that would read as deceitful or exploitative, or taking advantage of people. And people still like Jason. People talk to Jason. They trust him. His track record is great. People trust him both because he rights by his sources and because he tells stories accurately, even when companies take to dispute them. Who you’re gonna believe? Strauss Zelnick, a CEO who has lied publicly in the past or Jason whose track record of journalism is impeccable.

He’s killing it. He’s doing a great job.

Nathan’s Best & Worst in Gaming

Pingal Pratyush: Perfect! We’re gonna end this with me asking you for your best gaming experience of all time. It could be a game, it could be anything.

Nathan Grayson: All time… (thinking)

Pingal Pratyush: Yeah.

Nathan Grayson: Ah, that’s really, really, really, hard. Let’s see. Best one of all time…

Pingal Pratyush: Or maybe something funny or memorable?

Nathan Grayson: It’s hard to boil these things down to like one experience. I just have like a bunch of different ideas. In terms of childhood, pulling the Master Sword in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and then the time skipped into the future and I was like, “What the fuck just happened? Holy shit! This changes everything!” ‘Cause back then in my mind, games were still… I didn’t know how they worked because I was a child. And so it was like magic! I was like, “Wait, this world is even more boundless than I thought it was. Not just in terms of space, but in terms of time! Maybe this game will go on forever. Maybe this is it, this is the be-all end-all of the medium.” And of course, it wasn’t, but that was still the thing that made me feel like video games were magic.

Pingal Pratyush: Great! Now your worst gaming experience which made you go, “Why the fuck do I play games? Why am I doing this?” Any one.

Nathan Grayson: I have those all the time. There are a lot of elements in games that are very annoying sometimes. A while ago, back in like 2017 or 2018, I played a lot of Overwatch. Overwatch is a game where, when you’re winning, it feels incredible, and when you’re losing, you’re like, this is the worst game ever, and also I’m on the worst team in history.

So there’s a lot of that, where we’d be getting fucking steamrolled and it’d be like, none of my teammates were working together, they’d all be going off in their own directions, failing repeatedly, not accomplishing anything, not trying to be part of a team, and I’d just be like, “Why do I do this? Why do I spend like three hours per evening playing this stupid, horrible game?” Something like that, probably. Even just the other night, I was playing Ghost of Tsushima, which I think I like. (sighs) I don’t know if I like that game yet. I think that because, you know, it’s like a samurai Assassin’s Creed, basically.

And it has a lot of Assassin’s Creed’s flaws too. So it has all the sticky jumping. There was a moment when two NPCs that I was escorting climbed up a wall and hopped over a fence and I was like, “Cool! I’m gonna do that too.” But my character just jumped completely in the wrong direction, climbed the wrong wall, and almost alerted a bunch of guards and I was like, “I didn’t want you to do that at all. This is so bad! How can this be allowed to happen?” Yeah, it’s just like this little thing, it barely mattered, but I was like, “Oh, it’s terrible!” (laughs)

Pingal Pratyush: I can understand that. Well, Nathan, thank you so much for your time. Just a cold DM from an unknown account and yet you agreed to an interview. Great!

Nathan Grayson: No problem.

Pingal Pratyush: I wish you and the entire team at Aftermath all the best and maybe one day you’ll receive, let’s say, a freelance pitch from yours truly. Hope so.

Nathan Grayson: If you want to, feel free. Hit us up.

Pingal Pratyush: Have a great evening. Thank you for talking.

Nathan Grayson: You too. Thank you.


If you read the interview up until here, thank you so much. Do visit Aftermath. It has become one of my top places to visit to read about games. Not news or rumors, but actual takes, opinions, and exclusive interviews.

Also, if you have a spare dollar to keep Spiel Times running, do help us. We’re burning up our savings, mostly because we pay well, treat everyone with respect, try to incorporate ethical and stressless work conditions, and help many college-going students try their luck at digital journalism through our internship programs. Yes, we pay them too. But at this rate, I don’t think we’ll survive 2024. So, even a dollar helps. Donate here: buymeacoffee.com/spieltimes.

For this conversation, I talked to my friends who were previously in video games media but have since shifted to game development companies. I’ll share those conversations soon. Please wait for my discussions with personalities like Sal Romano, the solo agent at the prestigious Gematsu, Ben Hanson, founder of MinnMax, a viewer-supported podcast about games and culture, Patrick Klepek, founder of Remap, another brilliant podcast around video games, and hopefully more in the future.

Thank you for reading.

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