Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dear readers: Cycle World just got sold. Why should we care?

A few days ago, Cycle World was sold by Hachette-Filipacchi to Hearst. It was part of a 100+ portfolio of magazine titles, and there's no real reason to think that Hearst has any particular interest in its new motorcycle magazine. The sale is the next (hopefully last, for now) step in a series of changes at CW over the last couple of years. I wrote a long essay about it, and then didn't post it this morning when a fresh Backmarker was due.

I guess the thing that held me back was that I worried it would read like a motorcycle journalist gazing at his own navel. Why should motorcyclists care about the corporate structure, and media environment, in which the moto mags operate?..

But it's relevant, and here's why...

For decades the so-called 'enthusiast press' has played an important role in marketing motorcycles, and selling motorcycling in general. 

I'm not talking about magazine staffers being the running dogs of manufacturers' marketing departments, although they're often accused of being just that. That might've happened a lot in the past, but it's less obvious now. (Even without threatening phone calls to publishers late at night - who would in turn place a late-night call to an editor - advertisers have lots of opportunities to spin content. At bike launches, editors are treated like rock stars. Manufacturers bring a fleet of bikes and technicians to the track and every time an editor pulls into pit lane there's a tech ready to make an adjustment, or spoon on fresh tires. And there's a nervous media relations flack ready to promise that any niggles will be ironed out before the bikes reach dealers.It's not really anything like the experience a real buyer has riding a new bike away from a dealership. But this post isn't about journalists working directly to promote any specific model or OEM.)


In the old world of big, expensive, glossy print mags, the high cost of production ensured concomitantly high ad rates. Those high ad rates established a perspective on costs, and no one really questioned it when magazines paid people like me to write stories. Not long ago, Honda spent $5,000,000 a year on print ads; now they spend about a million. Writers can't operate on 1/5th the freelance budget, so content suddenly looms as a major cost center, vulnerable to cuts.

This is topical now because because advertisers (and readers) are shifting from print to the web, where costs (and freelancer's pay) are dramatically lower. It's not a temporary state. (Craigslist has cut billions and billions of dollars off the value of newspapers, but CL itself is only worth a tiny fraction of the value it's dissolved. This isn't a case of "stop selling buggy whips and start selling driving gloves," this is a quasi-permanent change in the nature of the information marketplace.) Remember the hilarious days of the AOL/Time-Warner merger when we were told, "Content is king"? Well in the Web 2.0 world, content's not only not king, it basically ain't $#!+.

But without content - or without entertaining, expert (and, I suppose, inherently "expensive") content, the entire system slows down. Of the hundreds of stories I've published and posted in the last decade, a minority have served to promote specific brands or bikes - but all have served to promote our sport and passion. I'll never be able to point to a specific bike languishing on a specific dealer floor and say, "If you guys had spent an extra $500k in Cycle World, they'd've had an extra $5,000 in the freelance budget and I could've written an extra two or three great stories that would have whipped up the specific enthusiast who would've come in and bought that bike." And we'll never know what new model won't get released, what R&D won't get done, because that bike and thousands like it don't sell.

I don't really have an answer for this. I don't love the idea of OEMs kicking money straight to journalists. There wouldn't have to be a quid pro quo, but it would have that taint.

In my own specific case, I've really enjoyed focusing on flat track the last year or two. I think I had a small but positive impact on the sport in 2010, providing exposure for sponsors and showing it off to new potential fans by putting up stories in Road Racer X (folded) Ultimate Motorcycling (recently cut my word rate by a third) and Motorcycle News in the UK (thankfully, still paying me.) I'd love to cover several AMA Pro Racing FT events in 2011, but it costs me hundreds of dollars to attend an event, what with travel, motels, restaurant meals, hookers, blow, bribes... OK, maybe it's not quite that glamorous, but you get the idea. 

I barely broke even last year, and now I'm down one key market and wondering about another. So what if I don't write those stories? By saving all that money that might've gone into a freelance budget, what was really saved?

In the final analysis, the motorcycle media is relevant because our sport isn't just dangerous, it's precarious. Although there will be motorcycles and motorcycle racing 'forever,' a diverse and vibrant motorcycle culture isn't just something for people like me to make a living writing about; it continues to exist in part because we describe it. 

Stay tuned for a deeper assessment of the implications of Cycle World's sale, and the state of motorcycle journalism.


  1. Some insightful stuff here, Mark. Are you going to start charging a subscription for this? :D

  2. Yeah, it'll be a penny for enthusiasts, ten bucks a year for other journalists, and $10,000 for the CEOs of motorcycle companies...

  3. Brilliant! Tiered pricing. I'm an enthusiast, of course.

  4. Hi Mark. I understand just a bit of this situation. But I don't read any of the magazines that feature new bikes. Somehow the mags for fans of classic bikes can get by without any money from OEMs. But it is a much smaller audience... I hope that they can continue. And of course I hope that you can prosper yourself.

    also and enthusiast ;)

  5. Mark, you'll know better than most how editors chase advertisers, but it wasn't always so. Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling were famously dismissive of many Japanese bikes, and most of us bought Cycle for Racer Road (despite Cycle costing a fortune here in the UK): Cook and Phil built such a huge and loyal readership that advertisers had to follow. Magazines also spend (I think) too much on predictable photography and even devalue that by printing on rubbish paper. For more read David Renard's brilliant "The Last Magazine" - and try some of the new breed of magazines like Sideburn (and maybe my own Benzina) that can make money without ads and with just 1500 sales an issue



  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Well, maybe. And while I try to support creative 'zines like Benzina and Sideburn, both have asked me if they can run my stuff without paying me, which is sort of my point...