Monday, February 21, 2011

Whither (or wither?) Cycle World...

Or, if a tree falls in the forest, but no magazines are being printed, do the pulp and paper companies even haul it to the mill?.

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but was prompted to finally post after driving back to KC from the Indy trade show over the weekend. As I trundled along I-70 in my rental car I played back a few tapes in my head. I thought that on balance, the atmosphere at the show had been more positive than it seems to be in the motorcycle media. I thought that the absence of show coverage on the 'usual suspect' motorcycle web sites was conspicuous. (I saw Kevin Duke there, and he posted some insights into Erik Buell's new bike on MO, and I saw Sport Rider magazine's Kent Kunitsugu shooting pics of cool new accessories; it's not as if there were no journalists there, but still. Interesting material abounded; where was the curiosity?) 

I also think that the online world's been downright boring the last couple of weeks.Come on, you guys! I've got a bunch of huge stories I could break, I just don't have the time to write them up. What's my excuse? Posting Backmarker isn't my job.


What is my job, by the way? Seriously. If you know, please shoot me an email.


Half-way between Kansas City and Indianapolis, I passed this interchange. Left, Chicago, Right, Memphis; either way ya' got da' blues. Yet my sense at Indy was that the exhibitors were cautiously optimistic.
Where was I? I guess where this train of thought led me was that I think there's still a chance for Cycle World to snatch relevance from the jaws of obsolescence. Herewith...

The recent fall in motorcycle sales and concomitant (even more dramatic) fall in motorcycle ad spending has hurt all the American motorcycle magazines. Road Racer X just folded; Ultimate Motorcycling has shuffled its production schedule, Motorcyclist survives by the grace of bankruptcy protection. No doubt the tight economy's hurt newsstand sales a bit, and this whole scene's exacerbated by the migration of readers (and advertisers) to the Internet. There's a vicious cycle here, as the magazines get thinner and more cluttered with cheaper and crappier ads, they become less attractive to readers, too.

In spite of this, Cycle World's 300,000+ press run still makes it the world's most widely circulated motorcycle magazine, and it remains the most influential single voice in American motorcycle journalism.

Until last month, Cycle World's parent company was Hachette-Filipacchi - one of the world's largest media companies...

Two years ago, Hachette basically had a fire sale, dumping several niche magazines from within the division that included Cycle World and its brother car magazines, Road & Track, and Car and Driver. At the time, I thought Hachette had held the motorcycle and automotive titles out of the sale just to see if those particular ones would attract a more committed offer.

Last year, Hachette wielded the, uh, hatchet at Cycle World. It ousted the long-tenured Editor-in-Chief Dave Edwards He was replaced by the mag's Features Editor, Mark Hoyer. Then the publisher, Larry Little, got the axe; he was replaced by ex-racer and industry insider Andy Leisner. And most importantly, Cycle World and those car magazines were moved from a Hachette division that managed print magazines into a division called Jumpstart Automotive Group. That division (based in San Francisco) had, until last year, had only web sites in its portfolio.

It looked to me as if, Cycle World Magazine had become a subsidiary of CycleWorld.com.

That could have meant that Hachette was planning on investing in the Cycle World brand while giving it a much stronger online presence. Maybe it did mean that. But last month, Hachette sold over 100 magazine titles, including Cycle World, to Hearst for about $800 million. So another way of looking the last couple of years' changes at Cycle World would be, they were just pruning it for sale.

If so, I'd love to see the valuation put on Cycle World.

On the face of it, you might guess that Hachette's bearish on the whole magazine sector, and that Hearst feels there's still a case to be made for it. (We'll only know Hearst is still bullish overall if it keeps most of the titles it just bought. Hearst may keep a few of the strongest mainstream brands, like Elle magazine, and spin off the rest. In that case – sorry, Cycle World – all bets are off.)

A survival strategy for print media in an online world

When I was a kid growing up in Calgary, I knew that the Daytona 200 was happening in March. But the results weren't reported on TV or in the papers. Sometimes I overheard gossip, reported fourth-hand in a bike shop by some guy whose cousin had gone down to help a local racer in one of the support classes. If so, I might have known who won. But basically, I got my Daytona news in about June, when magazines like Cycle (long dead) and Cycle World finally reached the newsstands. It would be safe to say that every hard-core motorcyclist read – or at least looked at – several such titles a month. I went down to Harry's News almost every day looking for new titles, often buying two, in order to fully conceal that copy of Hustler.

The rise of cable TV took some of that urgency away. (In Canada, TSN offered pretty good motorcycle coverage. So did Speedvision in the U.S., until it became enamored with NASCAR.) But it was the Internet that chopped the magazines off at the knees. The big commercial moto sites, like MotorcycleUSA and Motorcycle.com, basically look like – and are – online motorcycle magazines; many of their editors came up through the print ranks.

Those sites were bad news for the magazines, though they're now threatened themselves by hipper, Web 2.0 sites like Hell for Leather and Asphalt & Rubber. (Are we up to Web 2.1 or 2.2 now? Whatever,..) The newer sites are run by guys who came up in the online world, and they place more emphasis on community. MotorcycleUSA's attitude is, “We're way faster than you and get to do stuff you can only dream of; like, here's a story about us riding in AMA Superbike,” while Hell for Leather's attitude is, “Check out this bitchin' street tracker our friend built for $2 grand. Here's a video of us riding it in a gravel pit in Brooklyn. It ends with us getting kicked out by security, but the video's pretty good because another of our friends is an indy filmmaker and the soundtrack's cool because my neighbor's in a great band you've never heard of.”  

There's a place for both stories, though right now the cultural momentum's shifting towards those smaller sites even if the money hasn't. Yet.

About the time we were all falling into this recession, I spent an evening at a private event at Jay Leno's garage. He'd gathered three heavyweight print journalists and one lightweight – me. The other guys were from Playboy, Popular Mechanics, and, if memory serves, Road & Track (it may have been Car and Driver.)

These guys had all been in the business through economic ups and downs. But they were in shock. Readers and advertisers were leaving their publications in droves. All of them wondered how long their magazines could possibly keep going at that rate. They took it as an article of faith that while recessions come and go, the web was here to stay. How on earth could their magazines compete?...
  • The web sites are so fast. Stories are posted within days (sometimes minutes) of breaking. “All they have to do is write some HTML. We have to cut down trees, grind them up, turn them into paper, run the paper through printing presses, bind the magazines, then truck them to newsstands thousands of miles across the country,” complained the print guys.
  • They're cheap to produce. “All they have to do is write some HTML. We have to cut down trees, grind them up, turn them into paper, run the paper through printing presses, blah, blah, blah,” complained the print guys.
  • Online ads aren't just cheaper and more targeted. They are also far easier to track and measure. “And the worst thing,” moaned the print guys, “is that some of these web sites aren't even trying to make money, they're just going for traffic at any cost.”

Pity the poor print journalist (or publisher) with support payments due two ex-wives and a southern Californian mortgage payment. Now he's stuck competing with some Gen Z hipster working out of his mother's basement (albeit one with a T1 line.) So, what does a magazine have to do to remain attractive in this certain age? I'll get to that, but first...

A web site that attracts primarily existing readers isn't useless. It provides a quicker means of communicating with them, and a vastly better communication backchannel. (It's no accident that 'community' and 'communication' sound so alike.) But this website can't attract a younger and more diverse audience, nor will it present a compelling case to advertisers.
Pretty much every magazine has relegated itself to building at least a defensive online presence. Cycle World has long had a web site, but as recently as a couple of years ago, it was basically a place readers went to order a subscription. (This is still what most UK motorcycle magazines are doing online. Their magazines are stronger, thanks to the facts that the motorcycle industry hasn't cratered nearly as badly in the UK as it has here, Internet uptake is a year or two behind the U.S., and their magazines have not forsaken the younger rider.)

In the last year or so, CycleWorld.com's quietly grown into a website that basically looks like its two obvious online-only rivals, MotorcycleUSA and Motorcycle.com. There's a lot of essentially identical content across all three sites. The web-only properties might be getting material up a little faster. As of this writing, for example, I can't find anything on CycleWorld.com that explains they've been sold. I would have thought that was 'Industry News.' But quality beats speed, even on the web and a few days don't usually matter in the larger scheme of things.

Privately again, pretty much all the magazines-with-subsidiary-web-sites bemoan the fact that keeping the web end up is extra work and, it's nigh impossible to monetize. MotorcycleUSA obviously spends more than Motorcycle.com generating content, but they've got a good-sized e-commerce business too, so they're effectively their own best advertiser. Motorcycle.com is ad-supported, and trying to stay profitable in the recession by controlling expenses.

I am sure that the boffins at Jumpstart Automotive Group will prove capable of moving the site up search rankings, and coach Cycle World in the techniques of social-network marketing. But right now, CycleWorld.com's audience is – I'm willing to bet – largely comprised of people who also read the magazine. Why is this a problem? Partly because the magazine's readers on average are almost 50 years old.

Social scientists may tell us that 50 is the new 30. They say 60's the new 40, and 70's the new 50. But I've got news for you: 80 is still 80. Cycle World in particular, and the whole motorcycle industry in general, has to get away from a situation in which its consumers age a year for each calendar year that passes. Eventually, they'll stop buying bikes, and long before that, advertisers will give up on them. (This isn't just Cycle World's problem by any means. In about 2004, when I worked at Motorcyclist, our average reader was well into his forties. Ironically, I was almost the oldest staffer but was often criticized for writing 'too young'. “Our average reader is 44,” the editor-in-chief once complained. “Yes, I replied, but do you think they read motorcycle magazines to feel their age?” A word of advice to noob staffers: Never talk back to the E-i-C.)

There are a few knock-on problems with that aging demographic. One is that its very hard to skew a magazine's readership younger. Unlike web sites, which know in real time (almost to a fault) which stories are catching readers' imaginations, magazines are limited to watching newsstand sales. That means that their main measure of reader appeal is really just a measure of the attractiveness of the cover.

A magazine's web site needs to function as a wide funnel, attracting new readers. This is an imperfect analogy, but think of television attracting a huge group of casual football fans who buy their own beer at Costco, and gradually funneling the hard-core ones into the stands at a game, where they pay $9 for a flat Bud in plastic cup, and line up for the privilege, because it's an intense experience that they treasure and relive every time they mow the lawn in that $69 jersey...
When magazines experiment with a different content mix and their existing newsstand buyers reject it – which usually happens instantly – they are loathe to wait long enough for a new group of readers to find the updated magazine – that would take several months. So the feedback loop strongly favors the status quo.

You've read a long way to get to the small idea here, which is that the web site must act as a wide funnel, attracting a more diverse (and almost by definition younger) audience to your magazine. IE, the content on your web site can't be the same, and shouldn't even be that similar to, the content in your magazine. It's not the magazine online. It's not a bigger version of the magazine online. It's not (only) a 'live' version of the magazine. If you're going to use the web for things it's good for, it will be heavy on news and gossip – stuff where timeliness is of the essence; it will provide a forum in which users can express their opinions and post their own content; it will help to link the editors with their readers – ensuring information flows in both directions, because the world's full of amazing stories journalists are too often blind to. The web is also a place for that narrow, deep content that only a small percentage of readers like, but that those who do like it like it a lot.

The strategy is to build a web site and magazine that complement each other. The job of the web site is to attract new readers who'll come to the magazine thinking, “I know these guys. They get me. I wonder what their print edition's like...” When they come to the magazine they had better not think, “I can get stuff like this online for free.”

I wish I didn't have to admit that building that wide funnel – which by definition includes content that isn't in the magazine, and isn't exclusively pitched to the existing readers – means added cost. And at prevailing Internet ad rates, given the limited success of sites that charge for content, there's no obvious way to monetize it. Frankly, you'll be lucky if you break even on it. Right now, if you're in the magazine business, you have to believe Jeff Bezos' success mantra from the old Web 1.2 days, and get (your website) big, fast. If Cycle World had been spun off as a small business with high overhead – without the ability to invest now and make money later – it would be screwed, and I wouldn't bother writing this.

That big circle in the diagram also suggests you can crowd out your rivals, and build a defensive perimeter around your original property. By appealing to an audience who don't buy the magazine (yet) you can present a coherent case for advertisers appearing both in print and online. You'll extract whatever revenue you can from the web site, while denying that revenue to your competitors. You'll be ready for the day when one of two things happens... Either users will realize that it's worth paying for quality content, just as they did in the days when they paid for glossy magazines even though there were free newsprint 'zines sitting on the parts counter at their local dealership. Or, some means of monetizing content that we aren't yet aware of becomes viable.

Until then – you're almost there – you'll maximize revenue from your magazine.

“Holy crap,” you're thinking. “This idiot's made me read 2,000 words about how print is obsolete and now he tells me that's where I'm going to extract value from all this?”

You can do it. Go back to that list of bullet points way up there and look at all the challenges facing print media. They all share the same root problem. 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. At the time 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 the editor.

“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 message, “This is a magazine for guys with small dicks,” isn't one that makes most guys think, “I should subscribe.”


6 comments:

  1. A well thought out article Mark. I agree that photography is a key to selling a mag - and that the writing must be WAY better than what is the norm online. What the magazines seem to not take advantage of is the horsepower they themselves have - to access people. In the past JowBlow.com can't do a solid interview and glean insight from Eric Buell, Terblanche, and people inside the industry. But now I see great interviews from Cyril Huze and HfL on a regular basis. Telling the people story behind riding is access - pasting he specs and re-swizeling the press release is a narrow path to failure for an magazine - print or online.

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  2. My hope is that your fundamental assumption, that the print business has a fighting chance, is absolutely right. My more realistic fear is that it does NOT have a chance. At one point in history, a buggy whip manufacturer, no matter how good the company was, how superior the product was, how much marketing capitol they put into it, or how hard they fought, would be rendered utterly and completely out of business by the relentless advance of the horseless carriage.

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  3. Good Article, I think you got the "head in the sand" that many print uppers have done. With tablets on the way in and smartphones on the up tick, there really are so many opportunities to create a strong presence that can tie both print and digital together and not be redundant. The argument against digital used to be, "well you cant read it in the john". Now you can and everywhere else with real time updates from Indy even to know where things are happening while you are visiting.

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  4. Great stuff Mark. I know that I view things backwards to most readers and publishers (hence my hobby publishing of a free webmagazine with no adverts and no chance of any measurable success). But I do buy print magazines, and really enjoy the good ones. Glossy photos and in-depth writing are exciting and worth spending my dollars and pounds sterling. There is something very tangible about heavy print stock that an ipad will never match. However nearly 100% of print magazines do not have what I'm looking for, with their focus on reiterating press releases from (advertising) manufacturers. Maybe Surfers Journal or Men's File or Playboy (or even gasp, webzines!) will show the way for the bike mags with long form, detailed analytical articles and nice original pics. Or maybe we'll have to be content re-reading old bike mags or new mags from other industries & hobbies.

    Please continue to share your thoughts with us.

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  5. Thanks for sharing and writing this post.I thought it was all very interesting and I don't think I'd heard of *that* variation before.Rent Toronto

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  6. Every single thing that print magazines can do - including long-form stories, big and beautiful photographs, in-depth analysis and what have you - online can do better. And faster and cheaper. By letting you add video and interactive elements, websites simply allow you to do so much more than print magazines ever did. I love reading books and magazines like a lot of other people my age do (I'm about 40 years old...), but I think we have to admit, print is living on borrowed time.

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