Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trials and tribulations of motorcycle journalism

I noticed a little surge in the traffic to my 'Searching for Spadino' post over the last couple of days, and it hit me a few days late that the fourteenth anniversary of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire had passed without my noticing it. (I have an excuse; Saturday was a big day in my little household, but that's another story.)

I feel that my search for an understanding of what motivated Pier Lucio Tinazzi's courage on that fateful day was one of the stories of my career as a motorcycle journalist, but I'll always be a bit resentful that it took me about five years to pick up his trail. By the time I got to Val d'Aosta, there was an official conspiracy between the governments of both France and Italy to prevent the true story of the tunnel fire from seeing the light of day.
Pier Lucio Tinazzi was the bravest motorcycle rider in the history of our sport. Cycle World's editor David Edwards didn't think his life was worth a story in Cycle World. I guess it would have displaced one of CW's indistinguishable features on custom street trackers.
I did manage to piece the story together, but I'd have known a lot more if I'd arrived in Italy within a few days of the fire, before the various authorities involved realized that no one would have to shoulder the blame if no one talked. And I could have arrived there within a few days, because I was aware of the fire while it was still burning, and stories of "that guy on the motorcycle" were coming out within hours.

At the time, I was working full-time in an ad agency in the Canadian Maritimes. I'd written a couple of magazine stories that had been well-recieved, and I'd written a book, 'Classic Motorcycles' that was selling like hotcakes. So while I was not famous amongst motorcycle journalists, I was no neophyte.

I realized the magnitude of the story right away, and something told me that if I didn't cover it quickly, it would get buried. So I pitched Dave Edwards - then the editor of Cycle World - on the idea of me getting to Italy ASAP. I sent clips of writing samples and a bio; I explained that I'd grown up within sight of Mont Blanc; I spoke fluent French, the language spoken at one end of the tunnel, and had decent comprehension of Italian.

In order to ensure that the pitch actually reached him, I did something that I've never done before or since. I spent $40 to overnight the query via FedEx. I enclosed a cover letter making it clear that I was sending it this way to ensure that he actually got it and opened it. I made the case that it was worth spending $40 on the query letter because this was the most important story, maybe ever, in motorcycling.

I was right about the significance of the story. The FIM posthumously awarded Tinazzi its Gold Medal, and the Italian government also awarded it's highest civilian honor. I never even got the courtesy of a response from Edwards.

That wasn't the only time I was fucked over by him, either. I pitched the story of the 1939 British Army motorcycle racing team's escape from the Nazis to to Cycle World's then-Features Editor Mark Hoyer. Hoyer agreed that story would make a great feature, and we agreed it was worth a couple of grand. (An incomprehensibly large writing fee by today's standards; there's been catastrophic deflation in this business.)

I was so desperate to write it that I spent the entire fee on travel and research, gambling that I could turn a profit on subsequent sales. I spent a week in England at the British Library, the National War Museum, and the official Army archives, gathering a ton of great raw material. Although at the time I had only a handful of photos from the 1939 ISDT, I got lots of other great supporting graphics, including photos of the bikes, photos of other military trials competitions, and photos of several key players in the story.

I returned from England, wrote it up and sent it in to Hoyer. And, in grandiose and typical Cycle World fashion, I heard... nothing. After several months, I wrote to Hoyer and asked him what the plans were for my feature and he told me that Edwards had basically killed the story. "Dave says there aren't enough photos. He wants more action pics from the event," and this really took the cake, "preferably in color."

Color photos. From 1939.

What a fucking ridiculous thing to say. In 1939, the ratio of B&W to color photography was probably 1000:1. The only color films on the market had ASA ratings of less than 25, and were entirely unsuitable for action photography. It's doubtful that there was a single publishable image shot in color at the entire 1939 ISDT, and the odds of finding any now are asshole-tronomical.

As for the trail of emails in which I pitched the story, and we agreed on a price for it; as for the fact that based on that agreement I spent close to $2000 researching it; as for the fact that I then delivered the story that I'd promised to deliver... None of that entered into Dave Edwards' calculus.

I eventually recouped some of the expenses when Classic Bike ran the story, and the research trip provided the basis for a screenplay that I wrote about it - and that is, maybe, finally, getting some traction now. So I don't regret writing the original feature, I guess.

Still, if you're wondering why Cycle World issues were completely indistinguishable one from the other for years, you can probably blame the difficulty that the lower-ranking editors and staffers had pushing stories through what they called 'the Dave filter.'

As for the Spadino story... I finally got around to writing it five years later, while I was living in Paris. I sent it to Mitch Boehm who was then the editor of Motorcyclist and never heard back from him about it. But a year or so later I moved to Southern California and got a job Motorcyclist's staff. One day, I asked him why he'd never published that story, and he told me, "Well, it was about searching for that guy, and you never really found him."

Uh, Mitch... he was dead. I wasn't literally looking for him. In the end, the story ran in magazines all over the world, including Bike in the UK which, at the time, was the foremost English-language motorcycle magazine. They've never stopped getting reader mail about it.

Every now and then, riders ask me why I no longer write feature stories for motorcycle magazines. The main reason is that writing's my job, not a hobby; I can't make enough money from it any more. But another factor is that (while neither Edwards nor Boehm are currently heading an editorial staff) I'm sick of dealing with editors who just don't get it.

1 comment:

  1. There are massive bonuses to becoming your own editor. Unfortunately, few of them are financial but the rewards are in some ways deeper. You should come on MotoPod sometime. I refuse to edit anything, and people love it. :)