How to Read Articles, Part I

On the 'I've Just Gotta Write Something' theory of content

Some illustrated elements and text courtesy of Sonny Ross

Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may recognize me from my past video game coverage at The Washington Post (e.g., my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM, or this profile of the studio building a successor to StarCraft and Warcraft). In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I’ve covered the Sweet Baby Inc. controversy and the Xbox exclusivity freakout.

Last week on Patreon, I wrote a short and chatty subscriber-exclusive follow-up to my Sweet Baby Inc. essay. Next, I’ll be sharing a sportswashing reading list. Please consider subscribing!

Hello and welcome to “How to Read Articles,” an informal new series of indeterminate length I’ll be publishing in this newsletter. It’s about, well, reading articles: What they mean, the conditions under which they’re written, and the amount you should be upset by them (the answer will usually be “Not very much”).

I want to start by outlining some principles I stick to when reading articles. In one of my very first editions of ReaderGrev, I wrote that “my general opinion on stuff is that people should be more chill.” This is the uniform I wear to my shift at the Scrolling The Internet Factory. I almost never hate-read; if I see an article that I assume will make me mad, I just don’t click on it. Time is a precious thing. Why waste it on bad ideas? I own so many books! In practice, this means that most of the time I’ll be writing about articles that I think are good (or at least don’t merit a negative reaction).1

Second: I know I’ve got some towering intellects subscribed to this newsletter. Critics, philosopher kings, academics, even unassuming Average Joes with a keen eye for the truth of the matter. I understand that some of you might chafe at labored explanations of media, articles, etc. Still, a lengthy, overelaborate explanation can be a good thing on God’s green Internet, where people are sometimes (!!!) prone to rushed judgements and bad faith readings of otherwise straightforward concepts.

With that preamble out of the way, I’d like to talk about dick and balls. Sorry, I mean I’d like to talk about “I Demand To See Oro's Dick And Balls In Street Fighter V, a Kotaku article from 2021, written by Ian Walker.

Let’s take a closer look at “Oro's Dick And Balls.” The piece is 378 words long. (If you aren’t well-versed in article lengths, this is a very short piece). It is about Oro, a Street Fighter character who has visible genitalia in one frame of Street Fighter III but wears undies in Street Fighter V. It is, in some ways, a news story (the news being: “This character’s design changed in a funny way”) written in response to a Street Fighter V update video from that same day. I imagine it was one of a dozen (probably more?) articles published by Kotaku that day.

It was also almost certainly written primarily as a vehicle for the funny headline.

Over the past decade — for reasons both fair and unfair — Kotaku has become an easy punching bag for gamers with low trust in media and a lower tolerance for emphatic, voice-y writing. And recently, “Oro's Dick And Balls” became a particularly popular speed bag for for Kotaku-bashers.

Earlier this month, Kotaku’s Alyssa Mercante published an article debunking some of the misinformation circulating around Sweet Baby Inc., a video game consultancy that anti-woke conspiracists believe is ruining video games. The story resulted in a barrage of harassment directed at Mercante and other Kotaku writers. (You can read my essay about that controversy here.) A few weeks later, Kotaku editor in chief Jen Glennon resigned after Kotaku’s owners mandated that the staff pivot to publishing guides, according to a report in Aftermath. The harassment campaign gleefully seized upon the bad news: Kotaku, it seemed, was teetering on the verge of collapse. Strangely, some of that glee centered on the article demanding to see Oro’s dick and balls.2 Would it really be so great a loss, some social media users asked, if the outlet responsible for an article like that went under?

If you work in media (and I know some of my readers do) the reason that story was published will seem pretty obvious. But I think some people might earnestly be confused as to why a website would run a ~400 word shitpost. The answer is that sometimes, you just need to put something on the page. And sometimes, that means stretching a tweet-worthy observation out for several hundred words.3

One thing that I think gets lost in most discussions of games media is that writing is a job, and a not particularly glamorous one. (This has been a recurring theme in my writing). As with all work, some days are good, others less so. Some are busy, others are quiet. On social media, people will frequently — exasperatedly — ask: “Someone really sat down and wrote this?” And that’s actually a great question, because it gestures, however subtly, at the material conditions of working a 9-5 job. In the most banal way, when writers at sites like Kotaku start their shift, they just need to produce words. I wouldn’t say writing is hard work relative to every other job, but it’s also not fun, creative work for the vast majority of writers (i.e. the professional underclass that doesn’t work at the small handful of stable outlets, and which thereby bears the brunt of the vast majority of the industry’s grunt work and churn). It is basically white collar production labor.

If you’re enjoying this piece, consider subscribing to receive future editions of ReaderGrev via email!

Since college, I have frequently returned to James Carey’s 1986 essay, “The Dark Continent of American Journalism.” He was writing about newspapers — and about political reporting more specifically — but some of what he wrote then feels pertinent to today’s media ecosystem.

“News is not,” Carey wrote, “some transparent glimpse at the world. News registers, on the one hand, the organizational constraints under which journalists labor: the processes by which beats are defined, stories are selected and edited, the random eruption of events are reduced to routine procedure, the editorial resources of a publisher are allocated, and ‘authorities’ are defined and consulted. The news registers, on the other hand, the literary forms and narrative devices journalists regularly use to manage the overwhelming flow of events. These devices are partly economic and bureaucratic. They guarantee the production of a certain number of words and stories every day. They guarantee that the journalist, under the most outrageous circumstances of time and situation, can instantly turn an event into a story.” (The essay, which is actually a book chapter, covers much more ground than this snippet could even suggest. If you’d like a .pdf, shoot me an email or join the newsletter’s Discord server.)

The implicit bargain of online media — that a vast majority of writers will publish Content so that websites can afford to employ people who do Journalism — is a raw deal. It is also The “organizational constraint” under which most contemporary journalists labor. If you believe that the media gives meaning to things by writing about them, the impulse to publish just about anything for the sake of filling the page can scan as abdication. But in a field like video game journalism, where there’s — let’s face it — a shortage of need to make sense of “an overwhelming flow of events,” words and stories are produced in service of the KPIs that are, in theory, guarantors of employment. When I worked at Launcher, we had a monthly traffic goal. It was not a terribly high bar to clear, but it was the underlying logic (an “organizational constraint,” in Carey’s words) that defined our publishing cadence. We published a low enough volume of pieces that every story had some measurable impact when it came to hitting the traffic goal (and if it didn’t, that was a problem). Did we publish “I’ve Just Gotta Write Something” type stories now and again? I certainly did. 

That’s not a black mark on Launcher’s record. It is a fact of the business of publishing online.

It would be a mistake to pretend that every stupid article’s faults can be traced back to or excused by the pressures of publishing. But at any job where output is quantifiable, sometimes it’s ok to just produce. (Reserve your harsh judgement for the 10,000 word stories that were lavished with attention but still turned out like shit.) Journalists who buy into the “mission” of the profession are particularly hard on themselves about this, but if you believe (or even just understand) that self-worth and performance at work are discrete quantities, this is not really a radical idea.

So if you see a video game outlet publishing maybe somewhat superficial work, the generous read is that writing — even about something as fun (!) as video games — is just a job. And sometimes, work sucks! Rather than wishing that an outlet go under over a dull day’s work, in a sane world, that would be a point of solidarity.

Thanks for reading ReaderGrev! Consider sharing it with a friend, on Discord, Twitter, LinkedIn, or even a subreddit where folks might appreciate it. Word of mouth helps this newsletter grow!

If you have a tip, I can be reached on Twitter at @LeaderGrev, or via email at mikhail (at) readergrev (dot) com.

If you’d like to become a paid subscriber and receive exclusive access to more content like this, subscribe on Patreon.

  1. I will also just not be critiquing certain stories/outlets for professional reasons 🤐 (!)

  2. This was, at least, my observation. It’s always hard to base an argument around “people were saying [thing] online” because it’s hard to prove scale. If you’re reading this footnote I know you f w me so it’s no big deal, but I promise that I saw a bunch of copy/pasted screenshots of this article in tweets from guys complaining about Kotaku.

  3. The funny thing about the virtue signaling around the dick and balls story specifically is that beyond the garish headline, the article is really the kind of story that people who hate Kotaku should like. It highlights a tiny funny detail from a game that demonstrates the writer’s familiarity with the series. It’s also not very long, which makes it easier to read if you’re bad at reading. People have all sorts of beef with this writer but this story seems pretty unimpeachable!