The Poker Media Ecosystem Explained

My first-ever article for PartTimePoker – indeed, my first serious piece as a professional poker writer – was an examination of the ecosystem of players in the online poker environment. There’s another, broader ecosystem at work in the poker world, one which incorporates the industry itself, players and fans of various types, and those of us in the poker media.

There’s a crucial difference between these two ecosystems, however, in that the former is inherently predatory, whereas the latter allows the various entities involved to operate symbiotically. Doing so requires that everyone understands both their own role in the system and that of the others; otherwise, potentially beneficial relationships can become parasitic for one side or the other, or even mutually destructive.

Although it’s the relationship crisis between professional players and the industry which has been getting the most attention recently, the relationship between pros and the media has also been troubled of late. Whether it’s Daniel Colman refusing interviews after winning the Big One for One Drop, complaints about errors in the World Series of Poker’s (WSOP) in-house live coverage last summer, or the Amaya protest movement feeling the media in general has been insufficiently critical of the company, there has been a palpable tension in the air which extends back to long before I started writing here.

Jason Mo vs. Remko Rinkema

One of the most outspoken critics of the poker media has been Jason Mo. His complaints have been directed mostly at PokerNews, probably because his knowledge of other outlets is limited; he has admitted to me in one of our Twitter interactions that he doesn’t actually read very much of what’s written. That said, his latest complaint is, in my eyes, a valid one. Mo feels that a recent PokerNews piece, penned by Phil Galfond and accusing fellow player Samuel Touil of being a scammer, should never have been published.

I think it’s debatable whether the accusations should have been published at all, but at the very least, I agree that it was a lazy and irresponsible decision by PokerNews to allow Galfond to write the story in his own words and call it an “op-ed.” Assuming the editorial opinion at PokerNews is that the accusations themselves were newsworthy, then for what it’s worth, I believe it should have been covered as such by one of their writers rather than told from Galfond’s perspective.

All of that notwithstanding, prolific poker journalist and frequent PokerNews contributor Remko Rinkema took exception to Mo’s broad characterization of PokerNews employees as stupid and lazy, and eventually the two of them agreed to debate the issue on Joey Ingram’s podcast last Friday. Unfortunately, although Mo did have a few good points to make, his debating skills are not as strong as his poker game, and even among the Mo supporters watching live on YouTube, the consensus seemed to be that Rinkema made the far better impression; if you care to form your own impression, you can watch the replay here.

From my perspective, however, all parties involved managed to miss the real point, which is that Mo’s opinions stem mostly from some fundamental, though extremely common misunderstandings about the nature of journalism, particularly modern internet journalism. To try to remedy the situation, I’d like to share with Mo and anyone else in the professional community who is dissatisfied with poker coverage how things look from where I sit, and what they can do if they would like to see other stories and other points of view represented in news coverage, whether here at PartTimePoker or elsewhere.

Understanding is key

Whether you are yourself a pro player or just a member of our regular readership, it’s important to understand the underlying economics of the media, because it will make you both a smarter consumer of the news and, if you’re so inclined, allow you to become an active party in its creation.

News is a business, and businesses operate on an economic basis. Meanwhile, economics isn’t just about money: It’s the study of how human beings evaluate exchanges and respond to incentives. Those of us sitting behind our keyboards, writing the news you read, are humans like anyone else, and there are many kinds of incentives we respond to. By understanding what our jobs consist of and what our incentives are, you will come to see why the current media climate is what it is – in poker and elsewhere – and what you can do to encourage the sort of content you’d like to see.

“Suffering is arguing with reality”

Before I lay into the straight talk, let me say that I know many readers will object that some of these things are not as they “should” be. I couldn’t agree more. However, there are a great many things in the world that are less than ideal, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that it is otherwise. Completely objective, unbiased journalism has always been a fiction, and the paradigm shift precipitated by widespread adoption of the internet has only made things worse. At the same time, it seems to me that media literacy among the general public is at an all-time low.

I’m not big on self-help writing as a genre, but I do occasionally come across a pretty good one-liner from that field. The author Byron Katie made a solid point in an article for Huffington Post a few years back, in which she wrote, “the only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with reality.” Others have since distilled that sentiment to the more quotable phrasing: “Suffering is arguing with reality.”

In other words, if you want to change a situation, you first have to accept the realities of that situation. So, I ask you to set down, for the moment, your feelings about how you wish the media operated, and bear with me as I explain how it actually works.

Free content is still a transaction

A lot of things about the internet can be understood better if you accept the following principle: “If you’re getting something for free, you are not a customer; you are the product.” It’s a pithy simplification of a complicated reality, but should at least serve as a good reminder that your value to most internet-based companies is behavioral and not directly monetary. This is true of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, for instance, and it’s equally true of nearly every source of information you use online.

The modern internet economy has accustomed people to receiving content and services for free, but few ever really stop to think about where the money actually comes from to keep all these sites running. In a nutshell, pretty much whenever you use the internet, you are being paid for your time and your eyeballs: not usually in money, but in content and services. That time and those eyeballs are then sold to others for profit, sometimes directly, sometimes more circuitously. It’s not really as exploitative as it sounds, but it’s important to understand that the nature of the transaction is not at all the same as when you walk into a store to buy a book.

Mo and others seem to think they’re revealing some sort of scandalous secret when they assert that PokerNews is “not a news site,” but rather a promotional, industry-affiliated site which uses journalistic content to attract traffic and convert its readers into paying users of various poker and online gambling sites. But this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise anyone; they even have an explicit “Promotions” category for their directly paid-for pieces. Meanwhile, I’m not writing tens of thousands of words per month for the fun of it either, nor are my bosses at PartTimePoker the lucky owners of a money orchard from which to pay me. Given that you’re not paying anything to read this article, it should be obvious, at least in general terms, where the money for my paychecks ultimately comes from.

That said, the specifics of the business model vary from site to site, so individual outlets and writers may be more or less free to be openly critical of the poker industry. I’m fortunate in that the model we use here is such that my only mandate is to write things that people want to read; I wouldn’t be able to write this piece otherwise. At the same time, it’s simply the nature of business that other sites have relationships which limit their willingness to bite the hand which feeds them.

Where does that leave pro players?

If modern internet news sites are essentially traffic-manufacturers, and corporate advertisers, sponsors, affiliates and so forth are the buyers, then what role, if any, do professional poker players fill in our business? Well, some pro players are part of our readership, but the number of recreational amateurs, weekend warriors and casual poker fans in the world far exceeds the number of full-time pros, so demographically speaking, professional players are of minimal importance to us as readers.

That doesn’t mean that professional players are without value to the media, however, at least not all of them. There are two basic ways in which pros are important to us.

Firstly, they can be seen as suppliers of raw materials. It’s hard to write if one doesn’t have anything to write about, and probably half the content on any given poker news site involves one or more high-profile pros in some way. In part, this value is incidental, as even the most uncooperative pro can become the focus of a story against his or her will, as in the case of Daniel Colman; ironically, his refusal to do interviews following his One Drop win gave the media far more fodder for think pieces than if he’d just done a boring interview. However, the highest-value pros in this regard are those who show willingness to be sources of information even when they are not themselves the focus of the story.

Secondly, pros can be hugely valuable as distributors, in that they have their own fan bases which, for bigger pros and smaller sites, are often much larger than our own. Getting retweeted or linked to in a blog can be huge for us, both in terms of the immediate traffic spike and in recruiting new followers for the long term.

If you want your voice heard, use it

What irritated me more than anything about the debate on Ingram’s podcast was Mo’s response when implored by Rinkema to simply talk to the media if he would like to see other sorts of stories covered. Mo admitted that he didn’t really feel so inclined, unless he could see an immediate personal advantage in it. Unfortunately, if someone is not reading our articles, not sharing our content, and not helping to provide us with material, then the truth is that they’re not any more important to us than we are to them.

Long before I was a journalist, I studied advertising and promotional copywriting, and one of my teachers gave us a very useful piece of advice for writing press releases: “If you want coverage, make journalists’ jobs easy.” In the case of press releases, that means providing verbatim quotes and easily-paraphrased blocks of text, as well as resources for fact-checking and additional information. However, it’s advice that applies much more generally than just for those producing press releases professionally.

Different sites pay their writers different ways, but these days it’s usually either by the word or by the article, so on an individual level we have a strong incentive to produce content quickly. That means that we’re limited in how much digging we can do in order to find material. We are not investigative journalists; unless it’s a slow news day, it’s usually the low-hanging fruit that gets the most coverage. At the same time, there’s nothing we like more than the juicy story which comes to us. Thus, if there’s a topic you’d like to see addressed, pick a writer or a site you like and reach out. You don’t need to write a press release, either: If you simply provide a journalist with a good lead, there’s a high chance you’ll see an article on your chosen subject appear within a few days. We’ve all got bylines, public email addresses and Twitter accounts, so it’s not hard to reach us.

Secondly, sharing or not sharing our work is the form of feedback most likely to influence our subsequent decisions. When you retweet us or, better yet, blog a response, I promise that we will notice. Remember, our goal is to reach as wide a readership as possible, so if we see that certain topics consistently get wider reach than others, those are the ones we’re more likely to come back to. Berating us for content you disapprove of is futile, as it still means you read it, and – sad but true – controversy can actually be a pretty good way to get traffic.

Communication is a two-way street

Ultimately, journalism is about communication, and good communication is reciprocal. It sounds so obvious as to be silly to say, but if you want to shape a conversation, you have to participate in it. Again, there are two ways you can do that: By telling us what you think we should write tomorrow rather than what we should have written yesterday, and by giving us a signal boost when we do post something that you like.

Believe it or not, the overall pro-industry slant of the poker media doesn’t come entirely (or even largely) from the fact that corporate money pays the bills. Rather, it stems in large part from the fact that corporate PR and marketing teams understand how to have a reciprocal relationship with the media. We get a steady flow of press releases from companies arriving in our inboxes. When we have questions or need to fact-check, they respond promptly. And when we write something positive or even neutral about them, it’s fairly guaranteed that they’ll help bring it to a wider audience. There’s a lot of back-scratching that goes on between companies and the media, it’s true, but it’s rarely an exclusive relationship and has less directly to do with money than you probably think.

So, then, your takeaway from all this should be that the media is not and has never been unbiased, but again, this is true of all fields and not just poker. The media is, however, democratic, probably more so than any country’s electoral system. Whether you’re a professional, a recreational player, or just a railbird, you do have a voice… but it’s up to you whether you use it, and how.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


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