Monday, December 1, 2014

Tour de Media: Bike Magazine's still got it, and Dirt Bike Test's new business model

After a few years away from the publication, I wrote a feature for the UK magazine Bike last summer. And as a result, I think they've put me on the comp list, because every now and then I get it in the mail. Besides getting it for free, the other benefit is, I get it long before it appears on U.S. newsstands.

Anyway, the issue that I just got had the final installment in a six-part story in which Bike returned a Suzuki V-Strom to Suzuki's factory in Japan. IE, a 16,000-mile test ride.

It was the sort of audacious story that made me love Bike, years ago, when I was working at Motorcyclist Magazine in L.A. Back then, it was the only magazine that we used to actually bring in to editorial meetings and pass around, to generate ideas. We were openly jealous of it, which was interesting considering that at the time, Motorcyclist had about triple Bike's circ. So it wasn't that they had a budget and we didn't, it was just that their Editor-in-Chief had balls.

Where was I? Oh, right… well anyway, in the intervening decade, I guess that the Internet hit the U.S. magazines a little harder than they British ones. And the UK magazines, like Bike, are doing an even worse job than Motorcyclist and Cycle World are, in terms of fighting a rearguard action against the continued encroachment of sites like Motorcycle-USA and MO. (Suffice to say that Bike's official web site is rudimentary; it exists only to promote newsstand sales of the print edition; the blog's only got two posts, since early 2013!)

But that great six-part feature—which was expensive in terms of travel and manpower—reminded me that Bike's editors are still greenlighting projects that no American web site or magazine would undertake.

Will that be enough to ensure the survival of the still-entirely-print Bike? I'd like to think so. As crocodiles would say, not all dinosaurs are destined for extinction.

Meanwhile, although I'm not really a dirt bike guy, I was interested to spot Jimmy Lewis' new project, Dirt Bike Test.

Lewis is a massively qualified tester, and the web site is interesting. So far, there's not much advertising on it, so it's not obvious how/if/when it might become a viable commercial venture. There's a link on the site called "Advertise with us" that explains that manufacturers can supply bikes or products for testing, for a fee. The amount's not listed. Paying the fee doesn't get them editorial control, in terms of the content, but they can decide whether they want the review to run or be killed.

Lewis says that does not mean people won't read negative reviews in Dirt Bike Test, because they'll also review bikes that the contributors or their friends own and lend them.

That made me wonder what would happen if a manufacturer paid them to test a bike, then didn't like the test and killed it, and then some friend of Jimmy's bought that model and offered to loan it to the site for a second test. Would they then run a negative review? Or would the manufacturer's initial payment give it a permanent veto?

When I was testing street bikes (for Motorcyclist, Road Racer X, and occasionally as a freelance contributor to MO) it was very rare to ride a bike that wasn't excellent. And when people asked—and they often did ask—whether manufacturers who flew me to tests in exotic locations, business class, and wined and dined me en route were essentially buying positive press, I protested that the baseline for all sport bikes was now so high that almost none warranted a truly negative review. The truth was, as testers, we agonized over reviews, searching for any negative points to offset the almost embarrassingly glowing tone.

That said, there were times at Motorcyclist when potentially negative notes were cut from my reports. I remember one Triumph Daytona launch at Barber (about 2004?) when several bikes pulled off the track making really ominous bottom-end noises. Like, main bearing or big end failures, of brand new motors in a few hours. I thought I had to note that in the launch report, but Boehm cut it.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see what happens with Lewis' project. The content's great, so far, though there's not much of it, yet. And I doubt major bike makers will actually pay him to test their bikes, so the business model may need some testing and development, too.

So far, for my money, the only really unbiased vehicle tests are Consumer Reports' car tests. They buy everything, at full retail and anonymously. Then they sell the cars after testing. That means they can't ever be 'first' or even tied for first, compared to car magazines who are being invited to launches long before dealers have stock. A motorcycle magazine—print or online—that used that model would add a few grand to the cost of every test, in the form of the difference between the full-bore retail purchase price, and the price the publication could get for the used bike. And it would dramatically increase the cost of crashes, which are currently absorbed by the manufacturers (when press bikes are crashed.)

Still, they'd be buying unimpeachable credibility.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool piece. It is so hard to get a website up and running, fill it with good content, and then monetize that. So props to Jimmy Lewis and his venture, hope it does well. Bikes has been a good read. It's hard to digitize your magazine when it has little day to day content since the internet is a have it now environment. Considering the amount of content I am required to generate for the money paid it's a difficult thing to maintain quality.