Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cycle Guide (1967-1987): The Best Damn Job I Ever Had

Thirty years ago I lost the best job I ever had, before or since. On June 12, 1987, Cycle Guide magazine closed its doors for good. That morning I rode to the seedy industrial park on Higgins Court in Torrance, parked my last-ever test bike in the garage, and took one last lap of the office. I paused at my cubicle, now empty of the helmets, jackets, press kits, and assorted debris that had washed up there in the last two-and-a-half years, and sat one last time in the chair in which I had often stared a hole in the wall willing an idea to come to me.

The guys who worked on the bicycle magazine in the other half of the building were as quiet as mourners at a funeral, knowing they’d still have jobs tomorrow while those of us on the motorcycle side wouldn’t. Later that day the Cycle Guide staff gathered at a restaurant in Long Beach where stories were told, grievances aired, future plans laid out, and an immoderate amount of alcohol was consumed for that early in the afternoon.

I got my first full-time professional writing gig in 1984, with Rider. I managed to get fired from that job seven months later (on my birthday, too) and landed shortly thereafter at Cycle Guide, where I worked under people with degrees in journalism and English. They told me on my first day that if I worked my ass off and mastered what they taught me, when I left CG I’d take with me the necessary skills to make a living writing for anybody about anything. They were right, too.

I could use up half of the available space on the internet telling stories about how great it was to work at CG during the heyday of the print era––the new bikes I got paid to ride, my trip to France to try out the new Yamahas on Circuit Paul Ricard, interviewing Kenny Roberts on the dusty floor of the timing tower at Willow Springs and later that day riding a TZ750 around the track, and just generally––in the words of the late Charlie Everitt, who hired me for the job–– “being treated as if I were a better person than I actually am.”

All of that was great, but if I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget the high of working with a staff of dedicated, quirky, funny, and freakishly talented enthusiasts to put out the best magazine we knew how. I’ve never had a job before or since where I worked as hard or laughed as much. Every month, when the new issue hit the stands, I felt like the proud parent of a precocious baby.

I was on vacation––in Oregon, where I eventually moved––when I got word CG was closing down. I rushed back to the office in SoCal and faced the depressing task of putting out what we all knew was our last issue. We knew it, but for some reason we weren’t allowed to say it in the magazine. Which really sucked, given what we’d all put into the title––I almost died for it, for fuck’s sake, on one extremely bad afternoon in 1986 at Willow Springs Raceway. So we buried clues of our demise all through the issue because who cared if we got caught? What were they gonna do, fire us?

OK, Grandpa, we get it, you miss writing stories on a manual typewriter and mailing the magazine to readers via Pony Express. Everything was wonderful and magic in the past, and the present sucks. But it’s actually better now, or haven’t you heard of this new-fangled thing called the internet? Instead of four or five monthly magazines there are dozens of websites spewing out hundreds of stories a day. We get race results from the other side of the world before the checkered flag stops waving, and riding impressions of new models written and submitted so quickly that the bikes are still ticking as they cool down while we’re reading about them.

What exactly was so great about dead-tree motojournalism––with content already three months out of date as soon as it arrived in the mailbox––that we should be sorry if it dies out?

Well, gather ‘round, young ‘uns, and I’ll tell you a tale of a time when motojournos actually had time to think about what they were writing, to put it in some kind of big-picture context, fact check it, run it by the other staffers who’d point out errors, typos, and help polish a piece until it shined like the chrome on a new Harley, a process we called gang editing. A monthly magazine might not have flooded your brain with so much news your head swelled up like a balloon, but––with CG at least––what you got in return for less copy was better copy.

That’s not always possible on the interwebs, where if your story pops up 10 minutes later than some other site’s, you lose. It began with cable TV’s 24-hour news cycle, where breathless, content-free BREAKING NEWS updates kept your eyeballs glued to the screen despite nothing newsworthy happening, which didn’t matter as long as you hung in there for the commercials.

The internet is the small-screen version of that, and its insatiable appetite for content––any content, no matter how well-written or relevant––increasingly sacrifices quality for quantity. When you’re really hungry, you don’t care too much how good the food is as long as it’s filling. Chicken nuggets will do just as well as chicken cordon bleu.

Most of the motorcycle magazines that survive today are barely hanging on as readers––and more important, advertising dollars––migrate in droves to the web. Some have scaled back their page count, or their frequency, or changed up the content mix in an attempt to attract a new audience. I’ve worked for three titles that tried one or more of those things, and every one of them disappeared after a year or so.

All motorcycle magazines have websites that consume big chunks of staff time that would otherwise go into the print side, to the detriment of both. The two days you spend shooting a 10-minute video for the website are two days you can’t spend polishing the magazine’s feature road test, or editing a touring story, or riding a new bike. The internet is the biggest, loudest, most insistent chick in the nest, working its parents to death fetching it more and more worms.

A former motojournalist who knows the downside of the digital revolution all too well told me that it’s not just the website, but the entire digital footprint––web, social media, video––that makes it harder to put out a quality print product. Time spent on these projects forced him to “pre-write” some articles based on what was known prior to the event from marketing info or technical material, and then modify the article on the fly to suit what he learned later.

The need to make the print and online versions of the same story different meant twice as much work, he said, a situation made even worse by pressure to produce more and more click-baity content for the website without regard to its quality. The magazine underwent staff cuts and other money-saving measures (“Copyeditors? Proofreaders? Too expensive, cut ‘em loose. Fact checkers? Ha!”) while more and more energy was funneled to the website––which didn’t, and probably still doesn’t, turn a profit.

If you’ve ever bitched about motorcycle road tests reading like manufacturers’ brochures, or all the magazines running essentially the same stories at the same time, with hardly any difference between the print and online versions, this is why. It’s also why I’m still rambling on about the CG days 30 years later: I went freelance in 1988, when the World Wide Web was still just a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, and never had to deal with this bullshit. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

RIP Cycle Guide, 1967-1987. Here’s looking at you, you magnificent paper-and-ink bastard. We’ll always have Torrance.

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