Back in 2011, while driving from Kansas City to the Indy show I ruminated on the state of motorcycle publishing, and proposed a strategy for Cycle World’s survival. (Remember the Indy show? When the motorcycle industry was actually healthy?)
That essay was brought to mind again as Bonnier recently announced that Motorcyclist Magazine was about to print its last issue. Bonnier timed the announcement at the beginning of a holiday weekend, presumably in hopes it would go unnoticed, but the eagle-eyed Lance Oliver posted it to Common Tread.
So Bonnier’s vaunted experiment with making the magazine a keepsake failed.
If you want to read the entire strategy I laid out in my 2011 Bikewriter post, it’s here. It pretty much is the strategy Bonnier attempted to follow, although they never committed to it, by devoting resources and raising the publication’s IQ.
I concluded that long essay by writing...
The sheer physicality of the magazine is why it's expensive and time consuming to produce, and why ad page rates have to be set so high. That's the one problem the 'net will never have; that's where they've got you beat.
You have to make that your advantage.
You have to turn the magazine into something so thick, so glossy, so beautiful that when a reader picks it up, she thinks, “Wow, no web site can do this for me.” The magazine – the physical object of it – has to be so beautiful that no one would ever throw it out. Those rolls of web press paper, the size of Sprinter vans, that were a warehousing problem last month need to be turned into objects of pride and joy for readers. You need to deliver something to their door every month that they will never, ever throw out. This is the key to extracting far more subscription revenue, and commanding premium ad dollars for placements brand managers know set their message in a flattering context, and one where the message will be seen over and over, indefinitely.
I think of this as the 'Surfers Journal' model. As a motorcyclist and a surfer, I was always irritated that surfers have a far better magazine than anything available to (North American) motorcyclists. Having spent plenty of time sitting on my board in the lineup, I know that the average surfer is no more literate than the average rider. And there are certainly not any more surfers than there are riders. And yet year in and year out, Surfers Journal produces a beautiful, well-written and erudite magazine supported by a handful of devoted premium advertisers who've been in it for years. It's primarily funded by subscribers – who pay a large multiple of the average motorcycle magazine subscription. (You can renew a motorcycle sub for about the mailing cost these days.
I can't overstress the importance of the magazine as a physical object, if it's to complement the web site as part of a coherent strategy. Having been in the business a while, I can flip through a magazine and gauge its health in 15 seconds. I look at the number of photos supplied by manufacturers instead of shot on assignment. I look at the ratio of staff-written stuff to stuff supplied by expensive freelancers. And at the quality of the ads themselves. Ordinary readers do it too, albeit subconsciously.
Back when I worked at Motorcyclist, the magazine contributed nicely to the owners' bottom line, but newsstand sales and subscriptions were already stagnating. The owners wanted more ad revenue. One day, I flipped through a 'first bound' copy and was aghast to find a full page ad for penis enlargement. “What the hell is this?” I demanded, showing it to Mitch Boehm.
“It's a paid ad,” he responded.
We argued back and forth until I got him to agree that, a.) it didn't improve the magazine; and b.) that if we had more readers, more sales, and more subscribers we'd be able to attract a better class of advertiser.
What I couldn't get him to see was that the implied message, “This is a magazine for guys with small dicks,” isn't one that makes most guys think, “I should subscribe.”
As of this writing, Bonnier’s blended family of motorcycle magazines, that once produced scores of issues per year, produces... four. Soon the number of actual magazines will certainly to fall to zero, at which point we will see whether CycleWorld.com has what it takes to continue as a web presence alone.
Meta leaps to mind as a magazine that is trying to do, for motorcycles, what Surfer’s Journal did for surfing. I’ve tried to reach those guys a few times and they’ve never written me back, so I don’t know anything more about them than I can glean from flipping through the mag at a local motorcycle café. Iron & Air has also proven more resilient than I expected it to be.
But in the long run, those magazines will have to be more than physically attractive. They have to create an ecosystem that will actually support a handful of professional writers. Professional writers are the apex predators of niche journalism.
There aren’t many of us; there aren’t many wolves in Yellowstone, either. A casual visitor (or even an ecologist trained in the 1970s) might conclude that the important species are plants, birds, mice, and deer that outnumber wolves anywhere from 100:1 to a million to one. But in recent decades we’ve learned that in fact, the handful of apex predators in the environment actually influence the health of the environment all the way down.
Since the Great Recession – and especially in the last five years or so – a bunch of the journalists I worked with at magazines like Motorcyclist and Road Racer X (which was shut down while profitable!) have moved to the client side, to create ‘content’ for OEMs. That’s like being a wolf in a zoo; alive, comfortable, and probably destined to live longer than they would in the wild – but not contributing to the overall health of the motorcycle media ecosystem. In addition to that content that’s professional but can’t even pretend towards editorial integrity, there’s a deluge of quasi-independent stuff from bloggers, ‘influencers’, and enthusiastic amateurs happy to work for exposure.
I get that there’s a shitload of ‘free’ content out there, for magazines and especially web sites, but I have to believe that without some professional writing, the whole ecosystem will collapse. The death of Motorcyclist may actually free up a little ad revenue for Meta or Iron & Air. But if the ecosystem can’t support at least a few professional writers, even they won’t last.
In the meantime, if you want to keep a writer alive, buy a book.