G/O Media and Kotaku staff are locked in a battle for the gaming website’s soul and business

Kotaku’s future is hanging in the balance.

It hinges on whether the decades-popular online publication’s owner G/O Media succeeds in transforming it from a gaming news outlet to a hub for game guides — tips and walkthroughs to help gamers overcome tricky challenges.

This strategic shift is a gamble for G/O Media, spurred by the industry’s most significant slowdown in three decades and the need to adapt. But the plan, shared internally with employees last month, has been met with resistance from staff and fans alike. 

To Kotaku staff, the proposed switch demonstrates G/O’s lack of understanding as to why readers come to Kotaku, according to three current staffers, as well as both readers and observers of gaming media. To G/O management, the move is a necessary change spurred by dropping traffic and changing audience preferences.

“G/O Media’s priority across all of our sites, from both an editorial and business perspective, is to deliver content that informs, interests, entertains and delights our sites’ visitors,” said a G/O Media spokesman. “After extensive research involving our competitive set, internal data and search traffic analysis, we determined that increasing our tips and guides content could increase our overall reader engagement at Kotaku. Based on early traffic returns, we do see those efforts bearing fruit in just a week after implementation.”

The tale of Kotaku is a classic example of corporate focus on growth vs. journalistic idealism. This time, though, the battleground is one of the most storied publications in gaming media. Both sides claim the other doesn’t truly understand Kotaku — G/O Media is focused on the numbers, while its staff are concerned about Kotaku’s culture and soul.

So far it’s the journalists themselves who have borne the brunt of this conflict.

Growing tensions

On March 21, Kotaku editor-in-chief Jen Glennon resigned from her role at the company, reportedly writing a letter to G/O Media executives over their choice to prioritize guides over Kotaku’s news and other editorial content. 

Apart from a departure tweet, Glennon has remained publicly silent, including to Digiday. Nonetheless, passionate Kotaku readers have voiced their discontent. Following the announcement, they flooded articles with comments complaining about the reported shift to guides. Despite this, G/O Media management chose to silence feedback by disabling comments shortly after Glennon’s resignation. They remained inactive at the time of this article’s publication.

“The comments were turned off due to user policy violations,” said a G/O Media spokesman.

Glennon’s departure, though sudden, was foreshadowed by a year of tension over the direction of the site.

It started on March 2 of the previous year, with the introduction of a prominently featured “Tips & Guides” section on Kotaku’s front page. Since then, management has increasingly pressured Kotaku staff to produce more guides content.

The push was inspired by Kotaku’s competitors in the gaming news space, such as IGN and Polygon, both of which draw much of their traffic from guides content. Instead of focusing on the traffic spikes created by time-sensitive news stories, G/O management, per a company spokesman, wanted Kotaku writers to produce guides content that could generate a “long tail” of SEO-optimized traffic and thus lift Kotaku’s overall numbers, which have declined over the past year. 

In February 2023, the site brought in over 4.5 million total unique visitors, according to data shared with Digiday by Comscore. A year later, the last full month of data readily available, Kotaku’s total unique visitor number was just above 2 million. While there has been a general drop in traffic across digital media publications due to policy changes on social media platforms such as X and Facebook, the internal upheaval at Kotaku likely exacerbated this decline.

But pivoting to guides is not necessarily as easy as simply asking writers to change what they cover. Kotaku’s staff writers were largely hired to write news, an entirely different type of editorial content with vastly divergent best practices. Furthermore, Kotaku staff told Digiday that management had suggested that writers create guides for decades-old games, some of which they had never played before.

And in spite of G/O Media’s guides push Kotaku’s website lacks much of the functionality of other guide sites, such as the ability to include maps, indexes or tables of contents in its guides content. And, unlike other websites that publish guides, like Polygon or IGN, all of Kotaku’s guides are pushed onto the main site for all readers, instead of living in a dedicated and walled-off section of the site. 

Pressure building

In an internal meeting with Glennon last month, G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller told the editor-in-chief that staff writers would be expected to contribute 50 guides per week to the site, according to three current Kotaku staffers familiar with the meeting, who spoke to Digiday for this article. 

“Roughly half of Kotaku’s weekly content is breaking news, while about 15 percent is tips and guides. We discussed a 2-week test in which we’d move to 40 percent news and 25 percent tips and guides,” said a G/O Media management source. “Glennon assured us it was both realistic and reasonable, and that her staff would have no problem delivering.”

Glennon’s exit momentarily eased those pressures, Kotaku employees told Digiday. Following her announcement, G/O Media managers convened an emergency meeting to assure staff that they would not be given a specific weekly guides quota. However, this assurance didn’t fully dispel the sense among staff that the company was intensifying its emphasis on guides at Kotaku’s expense.

“We’re making sure that this is something that we are clearly also working on, while trying not to sacrifice the things that we really care about doing,” said one Kotaku staffer who requested anonymity.

Currently, Kotaku’s seven staff writers and two editors are striving to significantly increase the site’s weekly output of guides, despite the substantial workload involved in both playing and drafting them. Presently, Kotaku publishes about 15 guides per week, with many authored by Claire Jackson, the website’s dedicated guides writer.

Games of telephone

The fallout from Glennon’s resignation demonstrates how internal communication at G/O Media has faltered, giving rise to confusion and inconsistency among staff. 

In the internal meeting following Glennon’s exit on March 21, G/O Media deputy editorial director Lea Goldman explained the reasoning behind the guides push to Kotaku staff, citing the plan to bolster traffic using a long tail of guides content. But while G/O management felt this explanation was satisfactory — and walked away from the meeting believing Kotaku staff felt similarly — Kotaku staff left the meeting feeling their concerns over the site’s trajectory had been mostly ignored.

“A day after Jen Glennon resigned, editorial management met with Kotaku staff for over 90 minutes to discuss our editorial strategy,” said a G/O Media management source. “That conversation echoed numerous conversations we had with Kotaku’s leadership for the past several months. Staffers were also shown detailed research and audience data supporting the decision.”

The contradiction highlights the widening gulf in understanding between G/O management and Kotaku staff, which employees described as a frustrating “game of telephone.” Kotaku staff told Digiday that they felt they were never given the full picture. Staff are not allowed to view site metrics on Google Analytics, for example, and must instead use the data analytics platform Chartbeat to track the performance of their articles.

To grasp the full extent of Kotaku’s predicament, it’s crucial to understand its origins.

Going private

Established in 2004, Kotaku swiftly rose to prominence as a leading gaming news site, blending industry wit with inclusive and incisive community coverage. 

Then it was purchased by private equity firm Great Hill Partners along with other former Gawker publications in 2019. All those titles were subsequently brought under digital publisher G/O Media (also owned by Great Hill Partners) and led by former Forbes executive Spanfeller. 

Great Hill is currently investing a $4.65 billion fund, with holdings organized into categories such as software, healthcare and digital commerce on its website. Notably, media is not listed. At the moment, G/O Media is Great Hill’s only holding in the media business.

Kotaku’s editorial employees are represented by GMG Union, which struck in 2022 during negotiations for its current contract, which lasts through March 2025. For now, GMG Union members are stuck with their current contract — and their current management.

Squeezing out

Glennon was the second consecutive Kotaku editor-in-chief to exit the company amid disagreements over G/O executives’ decision-making over the past year. In August 2023, her predecessor Patricia Hernandez was reportedly fired in response to advocating for her staff. (A G/O Media representative has since refuted those claims, saying Hernandez resigned of her own accord, though G/O Media declined to share her resignation letter with Digiday).

And the upheaval didn’t end there. In January, Alexandra Hall, a senior editor, was let go less than a month after higher-ups had given her a directive to write more articles — a responsibility that had never been part of Hall’s editorial purview throughout her nearly four years at Kotaku.

In March 2023, Kotaku’s masthead listed 18 named contributors. At the moment, it lists 10, not including Glennon. That’s a nearly 50 percent reduction in contributing staff over the course of just 12 months.

G/O Media has reportedly been shopping around its brand portfolio since the beginning of the year. Over the past six months, G/O Media has sold off Lifehacker, Deadspin, Jezebel and — just last week — the A.V. Club and the Takeout. As G/O Media continues to relieve itself of its former Gawker properties, Kotaku’s days under the G/O umbrella could be numbered as well.

If that sounds alarmist, consider the fate of Deadspin under G/O Media’s management. 

Stick to games

Deadspin was at one point the most visited sports blog in the world. But in November 2019, the majority of Deadspin’s staff resigned after G/O management directed them to “stick to sports.” 

The parallels between Deadspin and Kotaku are unmistakable, though GMG Union’s contract with G/O Media technically prohibits walk outs. 

“There’s never been serious talk of a walk out; everyone here is committed to making it work,” a GMG Union representative told Digiday.

Still, just as the Deadspin directive was viewed as G/O misunderstanding the website’s essence, G/O’s guides push underscores its failure to grasp what distinguishes Kotaku from other gaming news outlets, according to three current staffers interviewed by Digiday for this article.

“We covered games as a culture, and now they’re saying, ‘stick to games as a product. Games are toys, and that’s all you’re writing about,’” said a second anonymous Kotaku staffer. “That’s the parallel: it’s not ‘stick to guides,’ it’s ‘stick to games.’”

Community vs. clicks

Cutting Kotaku’s masthead is just part of the human cost of G/O Media’s new strategy. But pivoting to guides risks an existential crisis for the site’s readership, known for craving snarky gaming news, not guides.

“Can it lead to more clicks and more content created by fewer people in a shorter amount of time? Yes. Is it mortgaging your brand voice and homogenizing everything that caused your community to give a shit about what you had to say? Yes also,” said Ric “Weird Beard” Hogerheide, a gaming content creator and longtime Kotaku reader, responding to the guides shift. “Giving up your ability to own your voice is the cost for a short-term increase in views and clicks.”

For better or worse, a core aspect of Kotaku’s brand identity is that it puts out content that allows people to find community, both in and out of the comments section. Under G/O Media’s order to pivot to guides, Kotaku risks becoming just another one of the hundreds of websites fighting in the mud for SEO traffic.

“I think guides are amazing and guide writers are generally some of the most underappreciated and hard-working people in media,” said John Warren, a gaming media consultant and the former head of media for the publication Fanbyte, “but widely it is a shitshow right now to get into guides traffic for games.”

https://digiday.com/?p=539409

More in Marketing

With the rise of the chief AI officer, it’s time to examine ‘czar’ culture

Even if it’s a familiar pattern — hot new thing, new C-Suite exec to tackle said thing, a few years go by and that C-Suite position no longer exists as everyone is now doing said thing (or it was a fad that has since faded away) — does it make sense for businesses to continue to appoint new czars with every new trend? 

Why Cava’s bid for brand awareness means prioritizing streaming ads

Fast-casual restaurant chain Cava has been in growth mode over the past year and is leaning into streaming ads in an effort to boost brand awareness.

A history of middle manager stress: The Return podcast, season 3, episode 1

In episode one, McKinsey partner Emily Field tells us more about why middle management is critically important to the workforce.