Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I picked up my first motorcycle magazine sometime in the 1960s, when I was still in high school. It was probably a Cycle World, but it could have been a Cycle, too. It doesn’t matter. I was hooked. From that moment on I bought, read, and saved almost every bike mag I got my hands on.
Eventually the accumulation of magazines got out of hand. Last year, when I moved from a house I’d lived in for 15 years to this one, I went down to the basement where they were piled with the intent of boxing all of them to take with me.
It took about 10 minutes to realize that the sheer effort of lugging all those magazines up the stairs would take years off my life if it didn’t kill me outright. So I started two piles, the keepers and the recyclers. I still had to haul all of them upstairs, but only a fraction of them had to be carried to the new house.
These days I’m wondering if I did the right thing by tossing so many of them. That's because motorcycle magazines, along with the rest of the print media, are on the ropes, thanks mostly to what you’re doing right now—reading this on the internet.
The internet has a number of built-in advantages over print. The internet is not a physical product. It’s not printed on paper, and it doesn’t have to be mailed to the reader, or delivered by truck to a newsstand. So it’s cheaper to produce and distribute right from the start.
In addition, the internet is immediate. Most motorcycle magazines come out six, nine, or 12 times a year. Some websites are updated that many times each day, making the idea of “news” in the context of a monthly magazine laughable.
The inevitable result of this is that magazines have had to become more like websites, with more flashy graphics to grab your attention and fewer words to make you stop and think.
Cook Neilson, the former editor of Cycle, said it best in an interview on motohistory.net, when asked for his thoughts on motorcycle journalism today, and whether he’d be comfortable getting back into it full-time:
Everything's different not just in the publishing world; it's different in the WHOLE world. The competition out there for eyeballs is ferocious: TV, video games, the Internet, all different kinds of other magazines. So at the same time the motorcycle magazine press is becoming more and more stratified and "niche-ified,” it is being forced to move faster and faster. It strikes me that it's not as contemplative as it used to be, and I feel the decibel level has gone up. There are pluses, though. The quality of the graphics is much stronger than it used to be. Cycle World and Roadracer X both look terrific, and they both seem to have unlimited color budgets, which we never had. My sense is that circumstances are forcing the publishers and editors to go for maximum impact, all the time. I read a while ago that Roadracer X didn't feature the Suzuki race bikes on their covers as much as they otherwise would have because the Suzukis are blue and therefore don't have the kind of eye-catching instant newsstand appeal that red or yellow bikes produce. I understand that speed, immediacy, loudness, urgency, and impact are seen as essential. I'm not sure I like it. Phil [Schilling, who succeeded Neilson as Cycle’s editor] and I have talked about this quite a bit; I'm not sure he likes it either. But it is what it is.
What Neilson didn’t say is what many magazine publishers are finding out every day, which is that in addition to print magazines taking on more and more of the characteristics of the internet—“speed, immediacy, loudness, urgency, and impact”—at the same time the internet is taking advertising revenue away from the print media in buckets.
For example, newspapers make a lot of money from classified ads—or they did, until Craigslist came along and offered to post those same ads on the internet, where they're accessible to far more readers in many more places than any newspaper can hope to reach, for free.
Advertising pays a magazine’s bills, and advertising space in a magazine is sold based on the number of people who read the magazine. The more readers the magazine has, the more it can charge for ads. Since the point of advertising is to reach as many people as possible, as readers migrate to the web so will advertisers, leaving behind them a huge hole in the print magazines’ ad revenues.
I’m not suggesting motorcycle magazines are breathing their last, although several that I’m familiar with are looking a bit pale and listless lately. As someone who makes his living writing for them, I certainly wish them a long and happy life.
Even so, I also wish I had back all those magazines I threw out.