Interview: Axios Gaming's Stephen Totilo

Stephen Totilo is the co-author of the recently launched Axios Gaming newsletter. Prior to that, he was Editor-in-Chief at Kotaku and a reporter at MTV News. In my interview with Stephen, he discusses how reporting on games has changed, Axios’ approach to news coverage, and why it’s ok to pick up that phone.

You've been covering games for a while now. How has your job changed since you started your career?

“A while” is a nice way of putting it! I started dabbling with reporting about games in 1999 and I got my first full-time job on the beat in 2005 when I became MTV News’ first-ever games reporter.

For starters, the tech has changed a lot. I remember covering E3 using a microcassette recorder and making an emergency run to Kinko’s to transfer an article from my malfunctioning laptop to a 3.5-inch disc. My desk used to get smothered with review copies of games; now it’s all codes. And, a couple of generations ago, to play anything on console prior to release required getting Sony or Microsoft to send a special version of the PS3 or Xbox 360 (then there was Nintendo, which would not do this--they would rather fly an employee to New York City with a special DS outfitted with a metal shell around its cartridge slot, then send the guy back to NYC a week or so later to get the thing back; or, years later, they’d propose giving you a special Wii U but would require that you agree to let them physically bolt it to your desk, which, to their poor employee’s dismay, I refused.). 

The biggest meaningful change these past 22 years has been the sharpening of what it means to do reporting on games. I always considered myself a reporter, though I’ve also worked as an editor and editor-in-chief. I was proud to be doing journalism and fully aware of the independent mindset it required. Thankfully, that’s become more common on this beat. Gone are the days when I’d be one of the only members of the media at a publisher showcase event who wasn’t wearing a swag t-shirt. It’s no longer as easy to gain a competitive advantage in my field simply by bothering to pick up the phone or by sending an email with a question not already answered in a press release. And gone are so many of the forced niceties from members of the promotional wing of the industry, as they’re now directed at influencers. 

More simply, reporting about games is now far less frequently practiced as an extension of marketing and far more frequently operates as journalism.

Axios has an interesting approach, focusing on short news pieces with a digestible bullet-point format. Can you tell us more about Axios and what excites you about Axios Gaming?

Axios was founded four years ago with a focus on informing readers without wasting their time. The team’s initial focus was on coverage of politics, business, and tech, but we’ve branched out to sports, space, and so much more. Our most recent expansions have included Axios coverage of gaming, as you know, as well as local markets (Denver, Des Moines, Northwest Arkansas, and more) and the launch of Axios Latino.

Consistent across all of that is the use of Smart Brevity, a style of writing that presents information in a format designed to be read quickly. 

  • The assumption is that people are busy.

  • And that you’re more likely to consume information this way.

  • If we’re right, it means a lot of people probably zoned out while reading my first answer and didn’t get to the part about Nintendo wanting to bolt a Wii U to my desk.

Why I was excited about Axios: Largely because they care about news and are the rare mainstream outlet that is serious about committing to gaming coverage.

  • It’s also cool that they have an HBO show, and, yes, the plan is to get some gaming stories on it.

Another interesting thing about Axios is its newsletter. What do you think about that format, and has it required a shift in mindset on your part?

I like it, but it has taken some adjusting. For those who don’t know, I co-write the Axios Gaming newsletter, Monday through Friday, with the excellent Megan Farokhmanesh (sign up for our newsletter here!). It isn’t our only work. We write stories for, too. 

It’s best to think of the newsletter as the second novelty we’re offering readers of games coverage. Basically, there are two gambits here: 1) that people will find games coverage written in Smart Brevity to be satisfying and useful, and 2) that people will also find it edifying to receive about 1,000 words of Axios gaming coverage in their email inbox five days a week.

The main thing it’s forced us to do is figure out how to write even more economically than we would on the site. 

What we’ve heard from readers is that, for some, our newsletter fits more easily into their lives than checking in on gaming sites or trawling Twitter and Reddit. For others, it’s a nice complement, one they know will give them a mix of aggregated news and original reporting. Plus a joke at the end, usually from Megan.  

Have there been any stories you've written lately that you're especially proud of or consider to be emblematic of what Axios is trying to accomplish?

The newsletter as a whole is what I’m most proud of. We’re still refining our approach and probably will continue for some time, but we’re now about 70 installments in and I’m really pleased with how distinct it is. 

I’ve found the Axios article format sufficiently flexible. I’ve used it for an interview with the head of PlayStation and for a mini-feature about a game about power washing. We’ve used it for quickly-conveyed scoops, and Megan just used it for a harrowing investigative report. When necessary, we’ve bent the format. And we’ve just begun to see what we can do with Axios’ terrific data-visualization team.  

The one thing we don’t write are reviews. Axios is more news-focused. But give us time, and maybe we’ll figure out how to do that in Smart Brevity, too.

There's always news in the gaming industry, and sorting through what's important is no easy task. What advice would you offer PR professionals who want to make sure their pitches are seen? What should they know about pitching Axios Gaming?

A pitch email with a good subject line is helpful, as is a pitch that conveys some sense of story. I don’t want to just know about a thing. I’d like to know about a narrative. Did something happen? Are you telling me about a thing that exists (okay) or an event that occurred (great!)? It helps when people can convey more of the latter, because most people—including reporters and our readers—are most interested in a story, a narrative, something with a verb.

Follow-up emails are great, too. I’m trying to get to zero inbox, but it’s hard and sometimes I may miss a note. Follow up a week later. Hell, follow up a month later. You never know. You can call, too.

Top three PR “Don’t’s” — Go:

  • Don’t pitch something you don’t care about or don’t believe in -- I know, I know, caring about what you pitch isn’t a luxury all PR people have. But you’re trying to transcend a fundamental divide between my profession and yours: in mine, my audience, the readers, are looking for truth that is presented transparently; in yours, you’re putting the best face on whatever your client needs you to promote. We meet most successfully when we’re able to be talking about the same thing in largely the same way. Perhaps this is my suggestion that a pitch that acknowledges imperfection in what you’re promoting will be more successful than one that pretends perfection. 

  • Don’t omit your contact info, which should include a phone number. I may have a question for you. I may be on deadline. If I’m just staring at an email address, it’s deflating. I need to be able to reach you quickly. Please? I’ve spent too much time searching my inbox for phone numbers that should be part of email signatures.

  • Don’t make it hard to find visuals. I just filed my story and forgot to ask for a screenshot or photo in advance. I really hope you sent some or included a link to an asset-filled Dropbox or something.

On the flip side, what are some positive experiences you've had or general practices you wish more PR practitioners would employ?

  • Dear gaming PR people, did you know that PR people in many other fields actually get in touch with reporters or take their calls even when they can’t talk on the record? They will speak on background or off the record, because it can lead to a better-informed story? Other fields have the problem that too many PR people will only speak to reporters this way, but gaming PR seems to rarely even try. Trust me: it helps. And don’t sweat it if you don’t know what background vs. off the record means. Everyone has a different definition, and the pros talk out the ground rules of the conversation.

  • It’s great when PR folks are transparent about where else a story is going to appear. You are offering an interview, but you gave IGN a 24-hour exclusive? That’s helpful to know. I’ll adjust my questions knowing my readers will have heard about this thing already. You’re speaking to several other reporters about the same topic? That’s useful. Whatever helps me prep better and understand the media context my article will exist in. Thank you!

  • One more: please offer off-cycle interviews. Readers and reporters really enjoy when access isn’t always tied to a new release. Dare I suggest that even the interviewees enjoy chatting when they don’t need to be in full marketing launch mode? You might like it, too. Everyone wins. 

Follow Stephen on Twitter and sign up for the Axios Gaming newsletter here.