Poker Media Tipping Point: Old School vs New School

Poker Media

Poker media is at a tipping point.

Instability in the industry after The Events of 4/15TM have altered all aspects of our poker universe. Fortunately, the bottom hasn’t necessarily fallen out for people in the poker media yet–but it very well may. And if it does, who provides our poker news–and how we get it–may dramatically change.

The times they are a changing. The dynamics (and economics) are shifting. For poker media, it’s new school vs old school. Where do we go from here?

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It’s All Just A Little Bit of History Repeating…

In poker media since Black Friday, it has become evident: The Old Guard is barely hanging on as the New Guard out-hustles, out-works, and out-scoops them.

We’ve seen it happen before. We’re watching it happen again.

Flashback six years.

It was the 2005 World Series of Poker. We had launched Wicked Chops Poker just a few months earlier. We applied for WSOP media credentials and were shocked at how easy it was to get them. Putting some affiliate money aside from Noble Poker (yep, Noble Poker) to pay for the trip, all of the Entities Who Comprise Wicked Chops Poker took time off from our regular day jobs and showed up at the Rio right before the Main Event.

Dr. Pauly was one of the first people we met. He was kind enough to show us the ropes although he was probably wondering who the fuck these Johnny Come-Latelys (“hipsters” was the term he used) were arriving just before the ME began after he’d been slogging through five grueling WSOP weeks before us.

All of the new media showing up was a dramatic change from the old guard reporting on the WSOP (particularly Card Player and Poker Pages). We watched as guys like Mike Paulle with Poker Pages labored through 12-to-14 hour days. Mike Paulle was one of the original poker “bloggers” and had been covering the game longer than everyone else in the room times 10 and squared. He was a very big man, was salty like Salty Joe Hachem, but despite pissing many people off, he was a respected guy.

Anyway, we watched as he watched all the young bloggers run circles around him, and about halfway through the Main Event, you could just tell he wanted to throw his arms up in the air and yell, “Fuck it, I’m too old for this shit now.”

By 2006 Paulle was out, Card Player, who was the industry heavyweight at the time making a rumored $250,000 per month just off of PartyPoker affiliate revenue, was getting bashed by everyone (including us) for shoddy journalism and bullying the other media around.

We were part of the new school. BLUFF Magazine was part of the new school. Dr. Pauly was part of the new school. And John Caldwell’s Poker News was part of it, too.

You could see the writing on the wall. We were firing bullets at Card Player daily. Under Caldwell’s management, Poker News was mercilessly out-reporting Card Player, who was the official media provider of the WSOP in 2006. And BLUFF, well, they were just cooler than Card Player and Poker Pages. It was a tipping point, times were a changing, we saw it and felt it.

By 2007, after the UIGEA hit, the media had a totally different look at the WSOP and in the poker world in general. Card Player was out. BLUFF was in. And sites like ours, Pokerati, and Tao of Poker were getting the dirt and scoops over everyone else. Other new players were emerging. Joe Sebok and Barry Greenstein launched Poker Road. Poker News had emerged as a force, crushing everyone in traffic, and overcoming the U.S. affiliate revenue shortfall by translating their site in multiple languages.

And that was status quo for a couple of years. No one new really emerged. Everyone settled into their niches and ruts.

And suddenly, there was new blood.

Caldwell left Poker News and Matthew Parvis took over. As their post-UIGEA affiliate revenue model boxed out a lot of the competition, Poker News became the go-to source for all tournament reporting. Sites like QuadJacks popped up, eventually swiping the “poker radio” conch from Poker Road. Change was percolating by the 2010 WSOP through the near passage of the Reid Bill, but the shift was still in its gestation phase.

Then Black Friday hit. And everything changed.

Just like that–new sites such as QuadJacks and Subject:Poker became the “oh shit another dramabomb I need to go there to get the latest” sources of info. And for industry news and speculation, the 2+2 Forum and Twitter took a more prominent role.

And here we are, November 2011: The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point

From Black Friday through the 2011 WSOP, the poker media world noticeably changed. We call this the tipping point, when an “out with the old and in with the new” shift seemed to be taking place.

It was a frequent topic of discussion during the 2011 WSOP. Dave “F-Train” Behr, a lawyer-turned-poker-blogger who headlined Poker News’ tournament coverage for years, noticed the transition. Says F-Train:

“I’m not sure ‘pushed out’ is the right way to describe it, but a transition almost had to occur. The old guard were heavily reliant on affiliate revenue, which created a ‘race to the bottom’ in which eyeballs and page views were all that mattered. As it turns out, hard-hitting news pieces don’t always generate the most traffic — or the type of traffic that leads to conversions.

It left a void to be filled, and as the poker community and industry matures, it makes sense that someone would try to fill that void.”

Someone stepping in to fill that void–and prove that hard-hitting news stories can drive eyeballs, was Noah Davidson-Stephens. Along with friends, Noah helped launch Subject:Poker right around Black Friday in 2011. Since then, the site has blown up, digging up stories no one else is touching on Full Tilt Poker and other post-4/15 news. Like most in the poker media, Noah doesn’t have a journalism background (he has a Bachelor of Science from Brown University), but that hasn’t stopped him from bringing more traditional journalistic sensibilities to poker reporting. Says Noah:

“I think that most of the poker media other than Subject:Poker are completely inadequate when it comes to covering the more serious things in the poker world. Some of this is probably because the media are affiliates of poker sites, so covering some of the negative aspects of online poker. But, I think for the most part they just aren’t set up to cover more serious issues and don’t really care that much.

The unfortunate fact that we’ve been perpetually learning about the poker world is that there’s lots of very serious things to cover, so I think that this was a pretty big problem.”

To a degree, Noah is right. Underreporting of serious stories has been an underlying issue. Many have felt that the “old guard” outlets like Card Player, BLUFF, and Poker News didn’t adequately cover or investigate the harder hitting news stories.

As a reporter for the Canadian version of the Associated Press (as we like to call it, the EhhhhP), Lance Bradley is one of the few poker media members with a bonafide background in journalism. His business-to-business focused blog, The Poker Biz, eventually led him to the position of Editor-in-Chief at BLUFF Magazine. Lance takes a more measured view of old guard poker journalism:

“BLUFF’s number one priority is to the readers – without them, the magazine and website cease to exist as advertisers fail to see a decent ROI and go elsewhere. In that respect we’re no different than any other media outlet.

BLUFF Magazine is a poker lifestyle magazine and we approach each issue with that in mind. For the most part, the established poker media all come at coverage with journalistic standards in mind. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to be the 60 Minutes or Frontline of poker, it means we have an expectation to be honest with our readers in what we write about.”

Another “new school” site that saw its profile raised after Black Friday–and taken a lot of heat from the old guard for not being very 60 Minutes-esque in its journalistic integrity– is QuadJacks. The site, conceived by Zac “ZekdaArt” and popularized by “Agent Marco” Valerio, permanently embedded themselves in the poker media with their marathon live streamed radio broadcasts for the first few weeks after Black Friday.

While their coverage filled a major journalistic void common with news, politics, or sports (i.e. 24/7 coverage), the QuadJacks guys don’t consider themselves traditional journalists. But like Subject:Poker, they don’t think anyone else in the poker media are traditional journalists either. Says QuadJacks:

“…We are not ‘journalists,’ and do not pretend to be. Everyone in poker media seems to have their own self-stylized definition of what journalism is supposed to be, and we choose not to limit ourselves to any arbitrary standard set by anyone else.

Poker media has mostly been tied to the online sites who paid for their existence. All the companies had to sit on stories for fear of losing ad dollars. With some of that pressure removed, will we see more independent style journalism?”

QuadJacks’ style of journalism has come under more fire than any other new school site. They’ve been accused of everything from shoddy journalism, to not properly sourcing tips, or to giving too much of an outlet for guys who simply don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about (see Matusow, Scott, or GotaPlan, Pete).

The tensions rising among the poker media recently have been palpable. Dave Behr notes:

“There’s definitely been more strife. If you’re a paid contributor to the poker media in 2011, your income is by definition on shaky ground — at least in the U.S. Online sites were the keystone of all of that money. People tend to get very aggressive when they feel insecure (in this case, about their continued employment) and threatened (in some cases, by upstart sites that don’t seem to rely on the traditional revenue models, or any revenue model at all.

So it stands to reason that the level of “snippiness”, for lack of a better word, would increase. But you’re also dealing with many people who don’t have much in the way of journalistic bona fides. It used to be all you needed was a blog and a love of poker to call yourself poker media.

When the chips are down, people revert to more basic versions of themselves. In this industry, that’s often something immature and unpleasant.”

As noted, the QuadJacks guys took their share of arrows since Black Friday. They hear the criticism, but don’t mind:

“…We find a high number of poker media folk to be a remarkably unfriendly and snobbish group of people, who take what they do much too seriously. To them, we were always the unwelcome guests, the uninitiated new kids at school, who never asked for permission, but above all, who never demonstrated enough awe that you’re so and so and work for this magazine.

It was probably because of this that we were initially resented in a condescending and dismissive manner. In their minds, an undisciplined and irreverent bunch like ourselves was destined for failure, and it comforted them to think this. Imagine how thrilled they must have been when the very same punks, with a Mac and Skype, practically embarrassed them for a week straight, to the acclaim of the international poker community.”

Count us–Wicked Chops–among the group that at first didn’t get the appeal of QuadJacks or other “new” sites. But after awhile, we realized something. We got a lot of the same heat when we first launched. Eventually, through a combination of breaking stories, shoring up our contacts/sources, and general longevity, we became a go-to source for “independent” news. We see a similar evolution with sites like QuadJacks and Subject:Poker. So long as the new media sites keep improving the quality of their content and stories, they’ll survive and thrive, possibly more so than their old school competitors.

Something else is working in favor of the new guard sites: they’re more likely to survive poker’s current economic system.

No Money In the U.S., Nobody’s Solid

Even if online poker legislation is passed through Congress in 2011, it’ll be at least another year or two before U.S. Americans are actually playing for real money again. That’s a long, cold nuclear winter for larger outlets, like BLUFF Magazine, Card Player, and even to some degree, Poker News.

Smaller, nimbler sites like Subject:Poker, QuadJacks, Poker Fuse, PkrGssp are more built to survive lean times–because, well–they’re leaner.

As we witnessed during the dot-com boom and bust, sometimes all that matters is simply surviving. If you’re among the last standing, you’re among the only to realize the benefits when the money comes back around.

On top of that, new school sites don’t have the overhead of the old guard. Paying a couple of people–especially when those individuals can earn income doing other things–is a lot easier than generating revenue to employe full-timers with benefits, office space, and travel.

Before the UIGEA, PartyPoker, Paradise, and other propped up the media economically. By 2007, it was PokerStars, Full Tilt, and UB. 2011? It’s slim pickings.

Compounding the issue, poker is very niche. Mainstream advertisers have never openly embraced the game. The few advertisers that have stick with brands garnering decent TV exposure (specifically, the WSOP on ESPN and the now defunct NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship). There’s very little money to go around in the U.S., and everyone is scrambling like a rat trying to get the last piece of cheese.

The Future of Poker Media 

Ultimately, who survives and “wins” in the long-run may just come down to timing of legislation in the U.S. If poker is legalized in the short-term, the old guard can probably hang-on. If not, things could look very different.

With a flood of new money likely entering the market, and the perception of poker being an “illegal” activity removed in the U.S., will new players–traditional mainstream media outlets like Yahoo!, MSN, and ESPN– get involved?

Lance Bradley seems to think so:

“Which outlets are covering poker in the future will be contingent on what happens in the online legislative space and who’s spending money on advertising. The busiest sports news site in the U.S. is Yahoo Sports – if MGM, Caesars and the like are running online poker rooms and spending money to build a player base, you can bet that Yahoo Sports, ESPN and other major media outlets will jump at the opportunity to cover poker and build a business around it. Having the leverage of mainstream advertisers already on board will make it an extremely viable business.

A second poker boom, backed by legal online poker, creates an opportunity for the major media outlets to get on board. From there you’re probably looking at the poker media that exist today becoming even more marginalized or acquired and redeveloped.”

Noah Davidson-Stephens takes a slightly different view:

“If online poker gets licensed and regulated, I think the poker media landscape will probably look pretty similar to the way it looked a year ago. Poker is a niche interest, and even if it gets licensed and regulated in the U.S., I doubt that it would become mainstream enough for larger news organizations to pay much attention. One would hope that licensed and regulated poker wouldn’t have many scandals to cover, but if there were scandals, I don’t think they’d be covered well five years from now just like they weren’t covered well a year ago.”

In the meantime, all poker media are aggressively pursuing new ways to monetize during these likely lean years. Sites like Wicked Chops, QuadJacks, and eGaming Review have launched paid content/membership services. Subject:Poker takes Paypal donations. And Poker News now acts as a “service provider” for things like tournament reporting to companies like PokerStars.

As for our take on what the future holds, we see things shaking out this way:

  1. New school sites will continue to thrive. A few will build large audiences. When legislation passes, they’ll be swallowed up by larger outlets (either entities currently within poker, or more mainstream media companies looking for a foothold).
  2. Timing timing timing. Old guard companies with larger overhead will hang-on if regulation is passed within the next few months. If not, they’ll either significantly slim down or go away altogether.
  3. At least a few mainstream outlets will realize the tremendous monetization opportunity presented through affiliate deals and get in the game. Remember, affiliates KILLED it during the first poker boom, oftentimes making up to 35% of the money off new account sign-ups. Also, possibly watch for a few of the smarter brick & mortars to form content partnerships with those larger outlets.
  4. Having said that, we expect poker to remain very niche (i.e. never break back into the mainstream). The larger media forces that do cover the game will treat it like Yahoo! does with MMA (team of bloggers and content partnership with a major player, in this case, Iggy‘s MMA Junkie). Whoever figures out the best way to reach an audience online– and fully harness the reach of social media, especially Twitter, which nobody has effectively reigned in yet but is a primary communication tool for the industry–will be the big winner.
Those are our best educated guesses. We’re already seeing major jockeying for position in anticipation of the U.S. opening up. That will eventually trickle down to poker media. And when it does, expect us to be at a tipping point again.

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