Sunday, August 30, 2015

On “Motorcycle Journalism Not Suck[ing] Anymore”

I saw a FB post from Sean MacDonald the other day, and followed it to a Jalopnik/Lanesplitter story announcing the relaunch of Lanesplitter, with Sean at the helm. This all goes back a few months, to a provocative post by ex-Hell For Leather editor Wes Siler. He’d written “There’s no good motorcycle content anymore.” I responded in four parts; if you’re a real sucker for punishment, there are links to those posts at the bottom of this one.

Anyway, in a sort of response to the fuss kicked up by Siler, Lanesplitter has apparently hired his ex-partner(¿do I have that right?) to, well, as MacDonald wrote...

I once took the trouble to actually write H4L, so say how much I enjoyed a story Sean MacDonald wrote about riding through the Sierras. I hardly ever do that. And he helped to turn Revzilla into a pretty cool site. Now he's got a new gig.
He meant it, of course, as not sucking for readers of motorcycle journalism. But since I am a motorcycle journalist I first read it as a plan to make it not suck to be a motorcycle journalist.

For a moment I thought, About fucking time. Just for a moment. But when I read the Lanesplitter launch announcement I realized that it was not about improving the ‘career’ (sneer quotes sadly needed) of motorcycle journalism.

I started writing about motorcycles, and for motorcycle magazines, in the mid-‘90s. I was old then and I was really old when I briefly worked full-time and on staff at Motorcyclist. So although I’m the age of senior motorcycle journalists who made a good living and have now retired to wine country, I only just caught the end of the profitable (¿profligate?) period before the double whammy of the Internet and ’08 eviscerated print media. I’m in a weird place where I know what it was like in the heyday, but I didn’t really benefit from it. And though I’ve been a staffer, the vast majority of my motorcycle journalism has been as a freelancer. In the time that I’ve been writing for magazines, rates have dropped 70%.

Going forward, I imagine that virtually all future motorcycle journalism opportunities will be freelance, and in the age of the Internet, that sucks. I mean, if Huffington Post, with its millions of readers, won’t pay for content, how much will motorcycle sites pay? We live in the age of “You’ll get exposure” but as a full-time writer, exposure is precisely the thing I have to sell in order to eat.

Back when I still attended launches, there was at least one well-known web site (I’m looking at you, Dean Adams) that was happy to send a journalist to a press launch for nothing but the privilege of the free trip and track day. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Superbike Planet didn’t send a genuine expert in Danny Coe. He wrote exhaustive, great assessments. So why would Adams pay for something he could get for free? I don’t blame him, but that attitude’s obviously a career killer.

Let me quickly point out, then, three things that would have to change for motorcycle journalism not to suck—for motorcycle journalists
  • Pay rates have to reach a level such that writing about motorcycles is a viable job. I don’t expect to see a return to the days when I was paid as much as $2,500 for a feature story, but if you’re going to work for a few days on a feature, it’s gotta’ pay over $1,000. The baseline for pay should be, say, what you could make driving an Uber.
  • We need to get paid faster. American magazines, especially, take laughably, ridiculously long to pay for material. I once wrote a feature for Cycle World; I was not paid in the year that the story ran, I was not paid in the following year, either. I was paid the year after that. And, back then, I was carrying expenses on a credit card. I probably lost money on the story.
  • Magazines and web sites need to take responsibility for the risks motorcycle journalists take. There are plenty of Jackass/Nitro Tour wannabes who take unnecessary risks. I’m not talking about those guys; they deserve what they get. But this shit’s inherently dangerous. When I crashed and broke my wrist on a GSX-R1000 launch at Philip Island, I was out of pocket for an amount of money roughly equal to all the money I made writing about motorcycles that year. I’ve had friends who were good, sensible riders injured, crippled, and killed on the job. We need to be insured, or magazines and web sites need to just step up and pay those bills.

Does anyone need professional motorcycle journalists anymore? Looking back on it, when I started writing for magazines, I had a full-time job in the ad industry; I paid all my own riding and racing bills with those glorious ad agency pay checks. I wrote about motorcycles as a hobby. Actually, as a sideline to my hobby, which was motorcycle racing. I was as good a writer then as I am now; looking back on some of those early stories I realize there was nothing about making a living at it that was essential to doing good work.

So no, motorcycle journalism—even good motorcycle journalism—doesn’t actually presuppose a need for motorcycle journalists. MacDonald and Lanesplitter won’t necessarily fail if they don’t do the things they need to do to ensure the survival of motorcycle journalism as a job

It’s not up to Sean MacDonald and Jalopnik to do those things, but if they want to set a new standard for readers, it’s reasonable to point out that this is what goes along with setting a new standard for writers.

The original discussion:
Is there really no more good motorcycle content?


  1. The biggest obstacle in the way of real paychecks? Nobody wants to pay now for entertainment. In a YouTube world, people want their entertainment for free. There are discerning readers who will pay, but many more who can't or won't pay.

    Some people have still mastered the art of making it work; I assume the fellows at Roadkill are doing OK. At least their YouTube episodes are great, so there's some money floating through there somewhere. And I don't know all the numbers behind Hell For Leather's subscriber phase, but if the numbers I've heard were correct, they should have been able to make that work (it's possible the numbers I heard were wrong, and it was completely unsustainable.

    We're seeing the motorcycle industry increasingly turn to Facebook, YouTube, etc., for advertisement, so in the future, unless publications get creative about bringing money in, the pie is going to be smaller and smaller.

  2. This article perfectly sums up why i left the magazine side of this business. Pay was okay, but the financial and physical risks are huge and there's little support behind you, even as a full-time salaried editor.

    I'll admit that i miss the "rock star" life and perks from time to time, but i don't have trouble sleeping at night because of it.

  3. Attention spans deficits do not help either.... the audience has changed in the many years you have been doing this Mark. If they have to read this far into a story, they want the info they came for and maybe a laugh, or they leave. Only then will you get your cookie, or double tap, or "like..." the check will come 6-18 months later.

    The double edged sword doesn't help keep the readers either. As content moves online, for faster delivery and greater global reach, it still needs advertising to pay the bills. I don't know about the youth today, but web ads get more and more annoying each day, making it less and less enjoyable to read a long story online. In recent years I've happily found the compromise in e-pubs... the focus and column inch space of a printed story, with the portability of the web. I know that won't last forever though either... :/

    Regarding making a living doing this... I thought everyone was a private dancer between trackdays... Am I wrong?!

  4. It will get tougher before it gets easier.... if it ever does. Too many poorly thought out agendas and short term focus that adds to increasing downward pressure on what publishers can afford to pay.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to write this Mark. There is a book by Jaron Lanier called Who Owns the Future that seems to get at the big issue: namely that the internet business structure as a whole does not pay for content. The question becomes how do you delete that model and put a new model in place that allows content providers to actually get paid and have the structure function to allow content providers to live?
    Your guess is as good as mine....

  6. Could not agree more. The inter-webs provide the foundation for anybody and everybody to self-publish and the most popular sites and most profitable content providers are video streamers not writers. Sincerity may be the reason, it’s harder to hide your motives on live video. Today those writing for fame/sponsors/free stuff seem to spend most of their time regurgitating what they find on the internet and taking selfies (please can we dispense with the constant list of things you have to buy to do x articles with the oh so tired picture of what’s in your backpack/man purse).

    How many more reviews must we read written by people telling us how great the FREE thing some sponsor gave them is? True professionals can’t cut through all the noise because the pretenders are everywhere. Makes you wonder if those complaining about lack of quality content pay well for content or if they are actually part of the problem.

    Publishers at least don't appear to have interest in paying for quality content, instead they seem pretty happy with bad grammar, misspellings, fake reviews, basic plagiarism, bad prose, logic errors and really dumb content. As long as there are a few cool non-copyrighted pictures that go with the free content publishers seem fine to throw it up and just see where it goes. Lifestyle blog/e-magazine "articles" are the worst, almost always unedited and almost always written in a snotty tragically hip tone. How many more “HOW TO some random mundane thing” articles written by some wanna-be Hemingway can the internet support.

  7. You there, this is really good post here. Thanks for taking the time to post such valuable information. Quality content is what always gets the visitors coming.

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