I don’t know how much time I have left here so I’m getting straight to the point.
2017 saw a stunning number of magazines close, sold or get reformatted into paid mouthpieces for advertisers. Traditional news media disappearing is old news, but as more and more of the public prefer to get their news and reviews from amateurs, bloggers, and the social media echo chamber, the specialty press is feeling the pain too.
The big international titles have traded hands a couple of times in less than ten years and remain fairly stable, if anodyne. However smaller, quality outlets that I regularly wrote for, including CanadaMotoGuide, Hell For Leather Magazine, MotoFire and Car Design News have all gone through the automotive media meat grinder. The manufacturers struggle to see the value proposition so screw down what they are willing to pay for advertising, so media companies offer them customized content or “native advertising”. It is nothing more than press releases masquerading as original features.
The bulk of what passes for motorcycle journalism today is at best described as ‘entertainment’ in this post-Jeremy Clarkson world, and at face value nothing more than advertorial copy. Regardless of the title it comes printed (or posted) on, most motorcycle road tests are uneducated, editorialized short-form blurbs that say little, and stray even less from well worn clichés. From the amusing personal anecdote or author’s preconception in the introduction, to the three hundred jargon-laden words about the bike to the closing statement meant to invoke discovery of some unexpected delight, these features offer virtually no substance from which a reader may base an opinion upon.
It sounds harsh, perhaps even bitter. But it is true.
The formula is strictly followed because it is easy to write, offends no one, and because cash-strapped editors can farm them out to inexperienced amateurs at a very low cost. Manufacturers like it because they get free advertising that purports to be third party reporting. They do not want serious critique, and they are not afraid of motorcycle press that denounce a product because in this era of zero media advertising revenue outside of Facebook and Instagram, manufacturers can name their own price when it comes to magazine ads. It sounds harsh, perhaps even bitter. But it is true.
I know three major magazines where global manufacturers withheld payment for big advertising purchases (think inside cover, back cover, multiple full page ads…) for months after printing and even had the audacity to demand lower rates after the fact. Most editors are working alone and most contributors work for free or nearly so. Listicles, reposts and press releases are copy-pasted with little original input.
I don’t have any skin in this game so its very easy for me to comment on motorcycle media with the same neutrality that I comment on other aspects of our industry. I write as a freelancer for symbolic fees because it helps give voice to behind the scenes issues that never get reported otherwise. Of course it also boosts my credibility and personal brand to manufacturers who after all are my client base.
If one wishes to succeed one must listen to serious, dissenting voices.
But here is the irony: the harsher and more reality-based my reporting, the more business I get. In the past 18 months my biggest clients came to me after reading some of my less-than-rosy reflections on facets of their business or sectors in which they operated. This comes as no surprise to me, nor should it to any rational business leader. If one wishes to succeed one must listen to serious, dissenting voices. When all the consultants and advisers whisper nothing but sweet flattery you are likely to get clobbered in the pitiless marketplace. The motorcycle graveyard is full of brands that went up in flames believing their own legends.
Motorcycle magazines are in a tough spot and the old advertising revenue model is clearly obsolete. But if the public wants something worthy of the term journalism than it is going to cost money and/or take effort. The only English language motorcycle magazine that made any impact in the last twenty years was the short-lived and contentious Hell For Leather. Started by two friends out of a Brooklyn apartment, it quickly became the most relevant outlet for daily news and commentary. There were no new bike tests because the old media mafia rejected them and manufacturers didn’t know they existed. But after a few ground-breaking exposés and a couple of years of honest editorial that could not be bought, the magazine’s readership swelled to a degree that astonished the incumbent media companies.
What will happen to Cycle Canada and other legacy magazines in the next five years? We shall see, but I do know that there is a large public hungry for articulate, well crafted stories and context about motorcycling that does not lamely follow the formula. Hell For Leather proved just that, but devolved into another also-ran full of low-resonance content after it changed hands because the new owners completely misunderstood what they had and why it worked.
The first entrepreneur with the courage and discipline to break from the old formula will come out on the other side with a business model for motorcycle journalism that works for readers and makes manufacturers work for it, instead of the other way around, because the real gold is in the people surrounding bikes and the stories they share, through the words of talented writers. Everything else is just filler.