This week, I took a gamble (sorry, I couldn’t resist a pun) and chatted with Alex Weldon, the casino news editor for Bonus. While many journalists brag about A-list internships, Alex is a former semiprofessional poker player who has been writing about online gambling professionally since 2014.
His team’s work, which includes everything from elections coverage to casino reviews, can be viewed at bonus.com/news. Weldon also handles the state-level sites MichiganSharp and NJGamblingSites.
In his work, Weldon offers insightful content on the regulated online casino and poker industries with an emphasis on legislation, regulation, responsible gambling and business strategy. He has received multiple nominations for the American Poker Awards, showcasing just how serious the topic is taken.
His resume also includes work in color correction at a photo lab shortly after doing graphic design studies and having several board games published — a fun combo we may never see again in this column. When he’s not writing or creating, he’s a cook, hiker and wrangler of an “extremely energetic and charismatic 9-year-old boy named Oliver.”
I talked to Alex about his career, what he considers news and what the mainstream media gets wrong about gambling.
Dawn: Tell me about the journey you took to your job. I love the niche focus.
Alex: My whole life, I’ve been a bit of a renaissance man, jack-of-all-trades, or however you’d like to put it. I completed a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, but decided I wasn’t comfortable with the level of specialization that field requires. So I went to South Korea and taught English for a couple of years. I studied a bit of graphic design and copywriting when I got back. From there I did all sorts of freelancing, a lot of it for the games industry — both physical and digital. I created some games of my own during that time, and also ended up playing poker semiprofessionally to supplement my income.
All along, the theory was that if I collected enough “puzzle pieces,” eventually they’d fit together into something resembling a career. In the end, that turned out to be analysis and news writing for the gambling industry. It combines writing, numbers, games, my talent for simplifying complex topics, and a number of other bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the years. I have to credit my old poker buddy and fellow gambling journalist Steve Ruddock for convincing me to take the first steps, submitting some articles for publication instead of just posting my thoughts on poker forums.
Dawn: What makes news in the gambling space? A new game? Or is it deeper than that?
Alex: Almost anything can be news for us if it has a gambling angle to it. Legislation for gambling expansion is a high priority. Mergers, acquisitions and other big business deals in the industry. Lawsuits and other scandals. We try to do a lot of responsible gambling content as well. We see regulated markets as being at least a partial solution to the harms gambling causes, but figuring out the right approach to regulation is critical and we have an opportunity to be thought leaders on that front.
It’s fairly rare that we cover the release of individual casino games. Maybe if it’s a highly original new table game, or a celebrity-branded slot or something. But these days, new online slots titles come out on a daily basis, so it’s usually not newsworthy.
Dawn: Who are your readers?
Alex: We’re a search-driven business, so really it depends on what topic we’re covering. We have a handful of fans who read most of what we put out. However, the majority of traffic comes from specific searches. So that could be players looking for a site to play on, investors researching a company whose stock they’re thinking about buying, lawmakers trying to wrap their heads around the industry, responsible gambling advocates, mainstream journalists hunting for a story, or anyone, really.
Dawn: What makes a great reporter in your industry?
Alex: Everyone brings their own strengths to the table, whether that’s writing from a player’s perspective, doing interviews, analyzing revenue numbers, getting into the nuts and bolts of legislation, or something else. However, I think the one key ingredient in any such recipe is curiosity. A lot of the news that comes across our desks can seem a bit dry at first glance, but ultimately it’s as interesting or as boring as you make it.
If someone’s just rehashing press releases and previous coverage, they’re going to be bored and the readers are going to be bored. But if they start asking questions, reading between the lines, and building narratives out of what started as disconnected data points, then you’ll end up with compelling content.
Dawn: How is online gaming changing the space? How does this alter your coverage?
Alex: On a personal level, my job wouldn’t exist without online gambling. I’m focused on the news side of things, but at the end of the day, we’re an affiliate marketing company connecting players with online gambling sites. I want to stress, though, that we keep these two sides of things very separate. That revenue is what allows Bonus to provide news content for free to readers, but those relationships don’t factor into how we present our news coverage. In fact, the news team doesn’t have access to the details of those deals.
At the industry level, online gambling has been what you might call a “disruptive event,” though I’m not big on buzzwords. Total revenue for the industry is going way up, but who is getting that revenue is changing. Relatively young, online-focused companies are doing well, while the giants of the brick-and-mortar casino industry are either keeping up or falling behind depending on how adaptable they are and how much foresight their leadership had in the early days.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s too much to get into here. Anyone who wants to know more should just read what we’re publishing at Bonus, since that’s what we do all day. We cover all aspects of the gambling industry but generally with a focus on how it relates to the online space.
Dawn: What does the mainstream media get wrong about your industry?
Alex: There are a lot of technical things they tend to get confused about. One huge, recurring one is the difference between wagers (or “handle” in sports betting) and revenue. Depending on what product you’re talking about, typically the operator is only going to hold a few percent of whatever money the players bet. The rest goes back to the players as winnings.
So you’ll see hyperbolic claims about how much the industry is worth, or how much people are losing, and it turns out that the reporter is looking at the figure for betting volume. That might be something like 15, 20, or 25 times the net amount of money that actually changed hands.
Another one that’s particularly frustrating for us is to see mainstream outlets that either don’t know or don’t care about the difference between a US-regulated site and a black market offshore site. You’ll see columnists just casually quote betting lines from a black market offshore sportsbook, which drives us nuts because we’re extremely strict about not giving any coverage to illegal operators.
Relatedly, when it comes to the question of legalization, you’ll often see it framed as though it’s a choice between having online casinos and not having them. The reality is that these illegal sites already exist and you can’t stop people from playing on them. So it’s really a question of whether you’d prefer to turn a blind eye to it or have a legal, regulated and arguably safer option. I understand giving prohibitionist voices a platform in the name of balance, but “do we want online gambling or not?” is a really naive and misleading way of presenting those stories.
Dawn: If you had unlimited time and budget, what story or stories would you tell?
Alex: As I said, I’m a generalist by nature, so if money was really no object, I wouldn’t stick to writing about gambling exclusively. But assuming you mean within the context of this job, I wish I had the time and money and staff to do more data-driven stories.
This is an industry full of numbers, but they don’t get the scrutiny they deserve. Operators have all the data, but they don’t share it unless they have to. Some of it, they have to give to government regulators, but the funding is rarely there to study it properly. Studies on gambler behavior are really inconsistent in their methodology, so it’s often apples and oranges when you’re trying to compare them. And so on.
Bad and sparse as the publicly available data is, there’s a lot you could do with it if you had the time and the right team of people. But usually, we’re so busy trying to keep up with the flow of time-sensitive news that if some interesting numbers land in front of me, all I have time to do with them is a few hundred words and a graph.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who, quite simply, loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user (@PeloDawnW). To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.