Monday, February 29, 2016

Backmarker loses its foster home. Good-bye MotorcycleUSA.

Last Tuesday, this rather alarming tweet showed up in my feed. For a few minutes, I instinctively hoped I was misinterpreting it. I shot a message back seeking confirmation, and quickly learned that Motorcycle USA―which has been the home of my "Backmarker" column ever since went dark―had itself been given just a few days to live.

As of last Friday, all the web site's staff have been laid off.

Was it the oldest online motorcycle "magazine" site? I think that might be, but it was certainly one of the oldest. And for quite a while it was one of the very biggest.

I always thought that Don Becklin's brainchild had a relatively strong and easily understood business plan. Once he'd built up Motorcycle Superstore, he had one of the few vertically integrated moto sites; ad space that he couldn't sell was used by his retail operation. Although I've been writing for MCUSA for years now, I was never privy to the site's financials. All I knew was they were willing to pay quite a bit more than Road Racer X paid, and they never came back to me later and asked me to lower that rate. In the world of journalism―print disrupted by web―that constituted a win, for me.

I saw it coming. Maybe. A few of my friends complained that the last redesign of the site left it harder to navigate; I thought my own problems with it could be ascribed to the fact I hadn't updated my browser, or something. But the new site's Facebook comment system seemed to be an engagement killer. I sent in Backmarker columns that failed to generate a single comment, making me wonder how many people were reading me at all. (I did, quite often, get comments directly. So I knew there were some readers.)

What does the end of MotorcycleUSA mean?

It can't mean that Becklin's basic business plan is outmoded, because just a month or so back, Cycle Gear merged with Revzilla―an online retailer with a great blog; conceptually similar to Motorcycle Superstore/MCUSA―in a deal that suggested Revzilla was worth hundreds of millions of bucks.

I don't think it bodes ill for―which has historically been MCUSA's most direct competitor. MO's not tied to a retail/online partner; it's a subsidiary of Verticalscope, which runs a number of sites unrelated to motorcycles (including!) It seems to be going from strength to strength lately, and probably has been poaching eyeballs and independent advertisers from MCUSA.

That leaves three other kinds of "commercial" motorcycle blogs, as I see them: There's sites like Asphalt & Rubber, or Motomatters; they focus on niches within the moto niche (meta-analysis from A&R, top tier road racing insights from David Emmett.) There's the sites attached to print magazines like Cycle World. And there are sites like Lanesplitter that generate some content, aggregate a little more, and generate revenue with sponsored posts and affiliate marketing.

I presume that most of that group are turning enough profit to maintain their small (mostly sole proprietor?) staffs. So far, I think the sites still associated with print mags are plaintive efforts to convince advertisers that those magazines have entered the 21st century. I'm still waiting for a great print mag to emerge, with a companion web site that uses both mediums optimally and builds a great social community around the two. Because print's not going away―in fact, when I compare my own print sales to downloads, I see it making a bit of a comeback.

The world of motorcycling is diverse. We'll always support small-scale projects that provide deep, expert content. But the motorcycle industry in North America needs a true media outlet of record; a place that covers every major event and product, and does it authoritatively. Ideally, I'd like to see two such players compete to keep each other sharp, but Germany's been well served by a single such publication, das Motorrad, for a century.

Selfishly, I'm sad to see MCUSA go. For me, as a freelance journalist, they were great to deal with. They paid well (by modern standards; let's face it you can write for millions of people in Huffington Post and make fuck all.) My contact there, Bart Madson, was a total pro. But maybe there's a message in this: I should ride more, and gather some new stories.

Over the next few months, I think my own path will become quite a lot clearer. There's stuff going on in my life that will be motorcycle news, but I can't quite talk about it yet.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sad to see MCUSA go because it had some good writers. I personally am a fan of Bryan Harley and Adam Waheed, the latter of which offers a really fresh perspective if allowed to do so.

    One thing I always noticed about his video reviews was that if he had other test riders, for shootouts and the like, they were often women and minorities. That's probably not by design, those folks just happen to be his friends I'd guess. But groups other than white guys are woefully under-represented in moto-journalism. He did great work and he's needed.