Thursday, August 3, 2017

Whither Bonnier? Sport Rider takes its last checkered flag

I suppose it should not have come as a surprise to learn that Bonnier Motorcycle Group has folded Sport Rider, given the times.


Back in my ‘Motorcyclist’ days – which is to say about four owners ago – SR always felt like the sharpest and most-authentic of the Primedia bike mags. It was lean and mean; it was pretty much produced entirely by Kent Kunitsugu and Andrew Trevitt. Considering its low staff count I imagine it was profitable and that ‘Kento’ (something I certainly never called him) could justify its narrow focus. SR didn’t suffer fools as gladly as more catholic titles like Motorcyclist or Cycle World. I think that it came the closest any of those ‘corporate’ magazines to sharing Roadracing World’s credibility.

That was 10 or 15 years ago, at a time when sport bikes ruled the showrooms. All bike sales tanked in the Great Recession, but sport bikes really never rebounded. In effect, the industry’s refocused on entry-level bikes on the one hand, and ADV bikes on the other. Sport Rider was a dinosaur on a cooling planet, and mammals ate its eggs.

And, of course, the Internet’s thrown print into a complete panic. Some of which tinged the obit Bonnier issued for the magazine.

I suppose that Indian LSR bike is worth a post on on a slow news day, although it's been left up longer than is justifiable. But is that Indian Bobber story really 'trending'? In the week it's been up it's earned nine comments. If that's 'trending', this web site's got trouble.

Evidently, Bonnier’s not just closing Sport Rider, it’s changing the entire structure of the ‘motorcycle’ group.
BMG is shifting from a title-specific content and sales structure to one that empowers the editorial as well as the marketing staff to focus on one role across all BMG brands. This is compared to the previous model where many of the 13 motorcycle media brands had their own staff members with like responsibilities.
It’s hard to picture Kevin Cameron as anything but Cycle World’s tech boffin, but I guess that means that his work could appear in Baggers now. Sad! That is, if he’s still got a job; the press release spoke of head count reductions in a way that definitely suggests layoffs from multiple titles, not just SR.

This is, to be clear, all about trying to keep a business rubber-side-down as it shifts from paper to web, and as even old guard web sites struggle with increased fragmentation and erosion from social media. And lest you think anyone at Bonnier has an actual strategy in mind, check out this buzzword salad, attributed to Andy Leisner:
As digital channels become more technologically driven and advertising solutions demand greater optimization, these changes will help BMG deliver more informative and inspiring content to its audiences. The new channel-specific approach, in addition to expanding marketing-solution options for partner brands, will also help decrease the cost-per-acquisition and increase sales for the Group’s clients.”

I don’t know what that means. I’d ask Leisner, but he obviously doesn’t, either. But there was one phrase at the bottom of Bonnier’s statement that caught my eye: “The new model will remove the boundaries between BMG departments”. Not titles, or roles, but departments.

What could that mean but that sales and editorial are now officially, as opposed to merely functionally, blended? To be clear, motorcycle magazine editorial departments have not really been independent for decades. Not since manufacturers started flying journalists business class, and putting us up in luxury hotels, while hosting new model launches at exotic race tracks*. But in the last year or two I’ve had a queasy feeling about Bonnier, in particular, presenting branded content as journalism.

Last year, when Indian revealed its all new race only motor and announced that it would again field a factory flat track team, I contacted Polaris’ press guys to get more information and had an awkward exchange as they told me that, basically, they’d issued a press release and some photos but as for features, they were only cooperating with Cycle World. That seemed odd.

Over the winter, a Canadian motorcycle journalist PM'd me to ask, What did I know about Bonnier offering to manage product launches? Until then, I hadn’t heard anything about it.

The last launch I attended -- there were of course editors from Cycle World, Motorcyclist, and Sport Rider there -- a Bonnier sales guy also happened to sit beside me at the pre-launch dinner. It was a gathering where I'd expect to see sales guys from the manufacturer, but not a publisher.

"Oh hi," I said coyly, following with "Is this a Bonnier launch?” as casually as possible.

“No,” he assured me, it wasn’t.

“But that is a service you guys are now offering, isn’t it?” I asked, again trying to sound as conversational as possible.

He told me that it was, and that they’d coordinated some new product launches but not (yet) the launches of any new motorcycles.

Since then, it could just be me, but it sure seems as if Cycle World’s devoting a lot of ink  and pixels to Indian, and a lot of the coverage feels like branded content.

I really don't think this is the Indian that brought Indian into the 21st C.
Look, I get that this is an exercise in line-drawing on my part. None of the 'big' motorcycle outlets really practice independent journalism. They all accept free trips and press loaners (in sharp contradistinction with, say, Consumer Reports which buys the cars it tests from unsuspecting dealers and operates its own test track.) 

I myself've accepted a bunch of spiffs from manufacturers, and have even (albeit rarely) sold "gifts" given to me at product launches. It's been years since I have worn a helmet that I paid for with my own money.

But somehow, this feels like a sea change. And, not for the better. 

I'm down with branded content. If some manufacturer wants to produce a video and post it on their own site, I'm cool with that; I'll help them do it. That Red Bull space jump -- OK, we all know it's really just an ad. And the hot millennial girls with their open-faced lids, tatts, and selvedge jeans... sure I know that's really all just marketing for someone. I guess I'm just too old to accept that stuff presented as journalism, in magazines or on web sites that readers might feel are dedicated to serving up an expert independent opinion.

I'm not sure that what I'm seeing from Bonnier right now is branded content masquerading as legitimate journalism, but I wish that press release had been worded to give me faith in the old (and yes, often fictitious) separation of 'sales' and 'editorial'. 

*Note to Manufacturers: Please don’t stop doing that. I love those free trips.


  1. Ugh. I've gotten used to detecting the branding that's become so pervasive in films ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" being one of the worst offenders I've seen in recent years, managing to work in plugs for eHarmony, Time-Life, Papa John's, McDonald's, Cinnabon, and probably many others I've blocked out), but now I have to read Cycle World with my radar on? I have great respect for Kevin Cameron and some of the other folks there, but I will cancel my subscription the moment I detect that they're participating as salespeople rather than journalists.

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