Friday, April 17, 2015

"There's no good motorcycle content anymore": Conclusion

A couple of weeks ago, ex-Hell for Leather motorcycle blogger Wes Siler wrote, "there's no good motorcycle content anymore", before laying out a fairly detailed set of instructions to hack a motorcycle blog that would pull in half a million 'uniques' a month and, he said, earn the blogger a low six-figure income in Amazon Affiliate commissions.

I called bullshit. 

Ironically, the first three posts in this series drew a lot of traffic, by the standards of this blog. Nowhere remotely close to half a million, but enough that April 2015 will probably end up one of the top five months ever, for

That, and a coupl'a bucks'll buy me a coffee.

If the comments under the Facebook updates I made, announcing each new blog post, are any indication, it was a topic that my FB friends (at least) have strong opinions on. I was not shying away from controversy myself, either. When I wrote "If you want half a million uniques, put up a ton of crap" it was bound to piss off the few people operating motorcycle blogs or web sites that really do pull in that many visitors. "[A] ton of crap" isn't a flattering way to describe anyone’s site.

The operators of sites like BikeEXIF slammed me on FB, and then people siding with me leapt to my defense. The Gawker media guys jumped on me, accusing me of first saying that you couldn't easily get half a million views, and then "moving the goal posts" when they showed me web sites that easily did just that.

“By the way,” one Gawker blogger wrote, “me and a partner started on Jalopnik's car buying sub blog almost a year ago, and we have 1.2 million unique visitors per month, from nothing, doing exactly what I mentioned above. It can be done, especially with something as ubiquitous as motorcycles.”

I was, like, Motorcycles are ubiquitous? Compared to cars? And is anyone spending an hour doing a deep dive into your web site, for their literary gratification? Me and a friend.

But I didn't move the goal posts. Way back in the post that started it all, Wes described opening a beer and his computer and spending an hour reading serious, quality motorcycle journalism; he wanted unique stories that he couldn't find elsewhere. And the truth is that none of the sites people presented as counterexamples were sites you'd spend an hour on.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mind BikeEXIF. I drop by there every now and then, usually after someone's posted a link somewhere. And sometimes I see bikes I think are cool. Usually I see bikes that look good but don't look like they work good. Still, I certainly don't begrudge BikeEXIF its business success. 

People reminded me of sites like ADVrider and RevZilla that link to, or put up, good content. Those two (each in different ways) come close to filling the bill that Wes said couldn't be filled on the Web, these days.

I'll add, for those of you who might go back into FB and review all the comments, that quite a few people contacted me privately with long, well thought-out comments. They were writers who maybe didn't want their editors to read those comments in a public forum, or editors who didn't want their publishers to read them. There are people in the motorcycle industry who read my blog but don't want their employers to know they follow and even occasionally agree with a bomb-throwing Canadian (read: socialist).

Many of those people bemoaned exactly what I said, that there's simply not a half million strong audience for serious, in-depth, long-form journalism. They shared stories of carefully crafted and insightful stories that drew a few thousand views, while shitty listicles drew a hundred times as many. 

Jim McDermott, who commented publicly, said a mouthful when he said, "What do you mean there's no good motorcycle content? There's no good content, period!"

As an example of how little I know, Wes sent a link to Lanesplitter's Quantcast ratings, which actually support my argument. Most of their half-million uniques per month visit once, and look at one page. How long do they spend on that page? Quantcast doesn't say, but you know it's less than a couple of minutes. That's not to belittle Lanesplitter. I guess if I owned it, I'd be a lot richer than I am now. But the vast majority of content on it—with some exceptions, granted—is simply not shit I'm interested in either writing or reading.
Much of the equivocation revolved around fine points of page views vs. unique visitors, and their implications for ad revenues vs. affiliate commissions. But the truth is, as a writer, neither of those metrics mean shit to me. What I want to know is, how sticky is my story? How many people read it to the end? Or forward it? And most of the high-traffic sites don't make those numbers public, if they even track them. What matters to me is changing people's minds or better yet, influencing their lives. And the only metric I have for that is the emails I get from people who've taken the trouble to track me down after reading one of my stories.

Wes was bitching about blogs. But I don't think it's fair to look at them in isolation. Blogs, online magazines, YouTube channels, podcasts; who cares what the exact format is? Shit, some of the most interesting efforts are going into print magazines again. Iron and Air here in the U.S., Esses and Sideburn in the U.K.; they're at least trying (though not in a position to meaningfully pay writers, sadly.)

He slammed the old guard print mags. Cycle World and Motorcyclist are easy targets, especially now that Bonnier owns them both. I confess that I hardly look at them any more. But he was lazy when he painted them as the manufacturers' lap dogs.

The truth, as usual, is more nuanced. For years, manufacturers supplied magazines with test bikes and (when it suited them) access; OEMs flew journalists to launches. The result was not so different than branded content in the sense that, while the OEMs didn't actually write checks for the stories, they dramatically reduced the costs of getting those stories. They influenced editorial mixes, for sure.

I won't lie; there were times that editors killed content that would've embarrassed manufacturers (who, of course, were also advertisers.) I attended a launch for Triumph's middleweight sport bike, at Barber a decade ago. The little fleet of bikes lunched two or three motors in a day. Now, they were admittedly "early production" bikes and I'm sure Triumph sent a WTF email to some bearing supplier and halted production until they could sort the problem. 

As a journalist, my attitude was that Motorcyclist readers were reading that 'First Ride' report for an impression of the bike, but also to learn what the whole experience was like. Bikes suddenly losing power, and coming into the pits making terrible noises from the bottom end were part of the story, no?

"No." That’s what Boehm said, too. By way of explanation, he ventured, "We're 'enthusiast publications' and it's our job to be enthusiastic." (Which was actually pretty funny in the context of my experience at the magazine.)

The thing is, those experiences were rare. And in the magazines' defense, they do often field very skilled riders, even if they're crap as writers. It was far more common for journos to gather at a launch and bemoan the way bikes had all gotten so good that we felt guilty for coming across as cheerleaders; there was just nothing to criticize. 

Cycle World and Motorcyclist have been on a bad trend for while, and it's simplistic to blame Bonnier. CW has lately made some interesting moves online(!) with the deal to essentially house the MotoAmerica website. And by bringing in Paul “The Vintagent” d’Orleans they may tap into his large online following. They've put an enormous archive up, too. Who knows, before this has all shaken out, Cycle World may be the place Wes can spend that hour.

As a motojournalist, I fantasize about the motorcycle equivalent of The Surfer's Journal. It's uncompromising and yet profitable, not because of the size of its audience but rather because a handful of advertisers feel they have to be in there, and enough readers are willing to pay a premium for meaningful content. Ironically, I heard that just before the wheels fell off the moto-biz in 2008, Surfer's Journal was considering a moto mag. Sigh.
But the larger point we've been debating comes back to that unique, in-depth, expert, well-written, long-form content we're missing. One FB commenter cited an old Cycle story by Phil Schilling (ironically, found on the CW web site!) called “Satisfied Mind”. I followed that link, and cut-and-pasted all the copy from that story into a Word file to do a quick word count. It ran over 5,000 words. There isn’t 5,000 words of body copy in the entire feature well of a Cycle World issue today. If a journalist delivered a 5,000 word story, it would be tossed back with instructions to bring it in at 1,500.

And, if you wanted to make a living as a writer, you couldn’t write “Satisfied Mind” today anyway, because even if they would publish it, you couldn’t earn even minimum wage for the hours spent crafting it. In the time I’ve been writing for motorcycle magazines, I’ve seen my top pay for a feature story cut by about 60%.

Another irony is that the one place you could run a 5,000 word story is online. But if you built a blog with that content, would you draw enough traffic to make it profitable?

Jeff Buchanan, one of the rare writers in the field of motorcycle journalism, so despaired of making a living as as a motojourno that he invented a whole new medium. (I guess the message here is that ex-motorcycle journos are not very employable. Which I knew.)
I still say no. I believe you could (and some publishers are doing this) build a site that generated enough traffic to occasionally pay something for good content, and put it up as a public service for the far smaller audience that wants that stuff. 

But that strategy relies on editors who feel that larger responsibility and publishers who'll tolerate it. So, thanks MO, for paying for John Burns. And thanks Motorcycle-USA for paying me; every time I send in a column, the thought crosses my mind that they'll call and tell me, "It's been great, but we've just realized that stories from Sturgis generate 15 times the 'likes' per dollar."

Some corollary of Gresham's Law seems to apply even in my own book sales, which sell in perfectly inverse order to quality. Which is frustrating, but I'm philosophical about it; the financial value of anything (including writing) is simply what people agree to pay for it. There's no connection (unless it's inverse) between that and literary value.

At the end of the day, I'm still convinced that what Wes originally complained about was the lack of literary-quality motorcycle journalism online. By stating that problem and laying out his profitable motorcycle blog hack as a solution, he was implying that a blog of that material would be viable as a self-sustaining professional writing venture.

Nope. Not true. And although I doubt this acrimonious debate will just fade away now, I'm moving on. There's nothing more to see here.


  1. I'm still of the opinion that there's a lack of understanding around publishing, writing and what works for both in 2015 here Mark. I look forward to getting a beer sometime and arguing about it in person.

    The exciting thing is that a group has taken my original op-ed to heart and is going to be doing exactly what I suggested was needed. That should be exciting for everyone. And I'd expect to see more on it in a week or two.

    1. As a writer, I suppose I have to have hope. Although despair's good for creativity. Funny true story: I'm actually writing a play right now. So I've gone from under-appreciated to unappreciated, financially. But we did our first table reading the other day; the first time I've ever had a cast of actors available to read a draft out loud. Can't put a price on that.

  2. If you ever meet Frank Melling over at Motorcycle USA, tell him that his column is such a breath of fresh air for me. I read entire archive and I am eagerly awaiting new ones.

  3. thanks for the prop there Mark. Is this mic on? (I wrote a reply to your first installment that disappeared as soon as I hit publish. It's true, I don't understand the modern world...)

  4. I'm way fortunate to be here at MO these days. I do get to do the occasional heartwarming feature that makes me happy, but the harsh reality is that the Sport-Touring Tire Buyers Guide will generate about 1000x more hits, which makes zero sense to me since who needs any kind of buyers guide now that google is here?

    I'm starting to think Video is a big part of the downfall of writing. The best stuff I remember reading as a kid was profiles of racers and events that made them seem larger than life--Kevin Cameron's longform pieces about Mike Baldwin, Freddie Spencer made those guys out to be gods somewhere up on Olympus; you never actually saw them except maybe on the Wide World of Sports once a year in action. Now any schlub walks up to them with an iPhone. You can follow them on Twitter, and the things they have to say turn out to be not so godlike at all.

    A long piece about everything Josh Hayes has been through over the last two decades would be a great piece; I wonder if anybody would read it? Maybe if there was great video on him sliding around on his YZ also?

    Anyway, I don't have time to do it this week: I have to finish up a 3-bike compare to post today and knock out a column for Wednesday and a Top Ten for Friday. (Open to ideas!!)

    When I started out, I'd have a week to do each of those things. The pace, as they say, has hotted up. The beast needs to be fed daily instead of monthly, but it's a much better beast than it used to be in my opinion when the knobs at the big magazines had a lock on everything.

    Anybody watch that GP yesterday? Rossi really is a god.


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