Last week, more than 60 employees at IGN, one of the biggest gaming websites on the Internet, signed an open letter to their corporate overlords demanding answers and accountability for the still-unexplained removal of an article trying to raise money for Palestinian-related charities.
The 81 employees, including 15 who signed after the letter's original publication, recognized management's problems with the article, but demanded respect for editorial's "authority and autonomy," argued against "corporate overreach," and asked the piece to be online again.
"By highlighting only one population, the post mistakenly left the impression that we were politically aligned with one side," said IGN's public response to a growing outcry over the article's removal on Twitter. "This was not our intention and we sincerely regret the error."
That statement came in the middle of the night, and IGN editorial employees told Waypoint they were not consulted in writing the tweet. It was shared privately with staff as it went on Twitter.
"The fact that corporate won’t acknowledge who wrote that initial public statement that was tweeted out is especially galling," one IGN employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid putting their job in jeopardy.
IGN did not issue a similar public response to the open letter, but a response did eventually come privately two days later in a memo. That memo, shared with Waypoint, came from IGN chief content officer Peer Schneider, who's been with IGN for decades and perhaps best known to the wider Internet as one of the famous "reaction guys" from the old online meme (he's the guy on the far right).
One of the key questions the editorial staff has been wrestling with is "who" and "why." Who made the decision to remove the post? Why was that decision made without consulting the rest of the staff? Both questions cut to the heart of IGN's editorial integrity.
IGN and J2 Global did not respond to a request for comment.
In the memo, Schneider took ownership for the decision to remove the charity post but ultimately blamed "an editorial team process failure for the post to go live in the first place."
"While our post impacts everyone at our company," said Schneider, "this is a clear editorial process and department issue and to imply otherwise is incorrect and distracts from our goal. We own the power and ability to resolve this."
Schneider called the situation a "challenging scenario" and admitted to conferring with IGN publisher John Davison, who's been in games editorial for decades, and "my boss," who went unnamed in the memo. (Disclosure: I have worked with Davison at previous jobs.)
“Most staff are struggling right now to even enjoy their jobs.”
The memo did not explain why it was a "challenging scenario" to point IGN's large audience towards supporting Palestinian charities. Instead, Schneider thanked the employees who signed the open letter for "sharing your concerns and suggestions" but pointed to an unspecified number of employees who were upset about the post.
"There are likewise many other people among our 238 global employees who have and continue to privately raise concerns about why IGN is straying so far from our stated focus on games and entertainment," wrote Schneider, "and how and why the original post was even published with certain language and imagery in it. There are IGN employees very hurt by the original position posted, as well as intimidated to the point where they will not speak up other than in a confidential setting. This truly upsets me on countless levels. That’s not us."
That sounds an awful lot like "stick to sports," a moment when the popular website Deadspin, which frequently intertwined its reporting on sports with culture and politics, was told to "stick to sports." The entire staff eventually quit.
The "imagery" he mentioned included IGN changing its banner to include the Palestinian flag. It's unclear what "certain language" Schneider was referring to. Schneider didn't mention who was upset, but IGN Israel, a regional spin-off, had previously condemned the post and said it would "work in every way possible to remove this misleading and offensive content from the American edition which does not represent our views."
Schneider contrasted IGN's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "not consistent" with how it approached "prior humanitarian efforts," such as Black Lives Matter.
Another IGN employee disputed this characterization, calling the processes very similar. A different employee said "there was definitely approval from editorial to run the article to begin with," pushing back on a management narrative that suggested this was a process run afoul.
The memo concluded with Schneider calling for an "unbiased, third-party Editorial Ombudsman" to mediate between management and staff and come up with a new process that ensures "continued editorial independence." Schneider wanted this to be "collaborative."
Internally, the general response to the memo, according to five IGN employees that Waypoint spoke to, was negative. It seemed like Schneider was deliberately pointing people away from credible insinuations that corporate powers above IGN intervened, and nothing in the memo satisfactorily answered the "who" and "why" questions that'd been bothering them.
And yet, in an attempt to let temperatures cool, the staff waited to see the next move. The article remained offline—by all accounts, it seems it will stay that way—but perhaps there would be an opportunity for some form of answers and accountability in the near future.
But the situation worsened yesterday during a regularly scheduled all-hands meeting with Ziff Davis president Steve Horowitz. A recording of the meeting was shared with Waypoint.
IGN staff did not expect Horowitz to address them. Horowitz started by commenting on a separate editorial unionization effort happening that does not involve IGN. That union, which includes the editorial staff of Mashable and PC Mag, has spent two years trying to finalize a contract, culminating in a recent vote to potentially strike.
"We continue to negotiate in good faith and keep our positions and communications out of the public," said Horowitz. "And we're looking forward to a resolution to this. It's been a long process for everyone involved."
Two years without a contract might suggest otherwise, but nonetheless, Horowitz quickly and unexpectedly pivoted to discussing recent events at IGN. Horowitz echoed Schneider's characterization that this was, in fact, an "editorial matter" and dismissed those theories outright.
"I've seen ideas or insinuations that there's other people getting involved outside of it," said Horowitz. "It's just not true. It's not accurate. It's not how it works. I've been working with and overseeing editorial organizations in varying companies in varying degrees for the better part of 20 years. It's just not how it should work or not how it works here."
“The stuff that transpired over the last week or so was just—to be honest, it just was disappointing because I firmly believe that there's positive intent all over the place. The outcome, I don't think, matched that intent.”
Specifically, Horowitz said neither he nor "nobody else at J2 or Ziff Davis ordered the post to go down," instead trying to cast the decision as a broader realization of an editorial mistake.
Horowitz praised Schneider's oversight over IGN and the group's "unbelievable set of talent."
"The stuff that transpired over the last week or so was just—to be honest, it just was disappointing because I firmly believe that there's positive intent all over the place," said Horowitz. "The outcome, I don't think, matched that intent. But ultimately, you have to be responsible for your outcomes."
Similar to Schneider, Horowitz pointed to unnamed employees upset by "the post and by the imagery" that "didn't feel comfortable speaking up." There was, once again, discussion of people pressured by the open letter. Neither executive offered any specifics on what imagery was upsetting in the post, or why supporting Palestinian charities was a problem. If it was merely a question of IGN deciding to not involve itself in charities related to ongoing military conflicts, one IGN employee told me, at least that would be some form of an explanation.
"The most hurtful part about it is what about the rest of us?" said another IGN employee, who asked to remain anonymous. "So it’s okay for those who signed the letter and others who support [the charity post] to have their feelings diminished because they wanted to help others in need with simple intent to do just that? It just doesn’t make sense."
Horowitz concluded by praising the path forward, including hiring an ombudsman.
"I'm looking forward to learning from all these scenarios and making sure that we're a better place to work," said Horowitz. "I'll leave it at that. But felt the need to talk about [it]."
A later memo reviewed by Waypoint suggested a "cross-section of IGN employees, including those who signed and those who didn't sign the open letter" would be part of an eventual group who would collectively decide on the hiring of an ombudsman.
IGN owner J2 Global is clearly proud of some of its charity work, going so far as to publish a press release about its recent efforts during India's ongoing COVID-19 catastrophe. There has been no such press release about money that might've been raised during the brief period where IGN was pointing its large audience towards several Palestinian charities.
"Most staff are struggling right now to even enjoy their jobs," said one IGN employee. "And during our busiest time of year with E3 coming up, people are beyond stressed and feel they have no one to speak with about it above, due to the lack of trust now with leadership. I wouldn’t be surprised if people quit over this, due to the lack of trust and clear disrespect."