Published on November 10th, 2015 | by Boris
MOTORCYCLE MAGAZINES – DEAD, DYING OR JUST IN NEED OF A GOOD BACKHANDER?
Good question, huh? And one that everyone in the motorcycle magazine business asks of everyone else in the motorcycle magazine business in hushed tones; as if they were whispering state secrets to each other.
Just recently, car-journo luminary, John Cadogan, took Wheels magazine to task in a video on his website, Autoexpert. Com (and you can see that HERE)
He didn’t ask if car mags were dead, he simply declared that they were and then launched into Wheels and its editor like an angry buzzsaw. His points were venomously valid, and leaving aside Cadogan runs a website that competes with car magazines and the axe he’s grinding is obvious, it’s just as obvious that by extension, the whole Motorcycle Internet versus Motorcycle Magazines is worth looking at.
I also run a website. You’re on it. And I too have an axe to grind.
But what I want to take that freshly-ground axe to is mediocrity, banality and boring crap – as if that has ever been a secret.
And the Australian motorcycle media is a target-rich environment.
But is it actually Motorcycle Internet versus Motorcycle Magazines?
Or is it Free Content versus You-Gotta_Pay-For-It Content?
Or is it both and some other stuff as well?
Let’s have a dig, shall we?
I have worked in the magazine industry for nigh on 30 years. And what I’m going to tell you will not win me any extra buddies among the various geniuses, hacks, incompetents, tramps and burned-out journeymen-journos who currently populate the motorcycle magazine landscape.
But it’s not like I give a rat’s fuck. That truth may be unpalatable. And my delivery of it may be direct and without foreplay. And how people feel about that is a matter for them.
I know all the magazine players and they all know me. I am pleased to call a very few of them friends, and am even more pleased to hold the rest of them in utter contempt. Not because they’re dickheads. But because they’re crap at what they do. So it’s not personal. At all.
I have seen much in the last 30 years. Three decades which have seen motorcycle magazine sales rise (though not as high as you may think, given our population) and then decline. Three decades which have produced some great writers and editors, and a worrying number of fools and wannabes, who have, through nothing other than attrition or self-declaration, seen themselves elevated to editorships they had not earned, were not qualified to perform, and who subsequently placed motorcycle magazines into the downward-spiralling gyre in which they now find themselves.
I know how this happened, because I watched it happen. I know why this happened because I was there when it took place. I pre-date the lot of them in the motorcycle magazine game; even the late and much-lamented Ken Wootton, which caused him no end of amusement.
Certainly, the Internet has more than its fair share of shit when it comes to motorcycle content. But it’s free, so the quasi-sensationalist and very badly written dross churned out by sites such as Hinchliffe’s motorbikewriter.com can be forgiven and ignored, while ever it sits in cyberspace alongside Trevor Hedge’s comprehensive, authoritative, pictorially strong though staidly-written MCNews site.
And there are any number of overseas sites with great writers producing outstanding content, and all for free.
In the other corner, there are the Australian-based motorcycle magazines (some with attendant websites). Their readerships are dwindling, their content (with a few ever more rare exceptions) is boring, badly-written and irrelevant to the majority of riders, and advertisers are deserting them irrevocably.
And they cost money. And you have to go and get them from somewhere.
Naturally, the Internet has had an impact on motorcycle magazine sales. Traditionally, as older readers dropped off, younger readers would replace them. That no longer happens. Young motorcyclists are not buying magazines. They get most of their information from Facebook and various websites. They form social groups on Facebook, go for rides, crash their brains out and talk among themselves about which tyres work best, which helmets are the coolest, and how they can get out of speeding fines. Yes, exactly as riders of my generation used to do in the 70s and 80s, but without the actual face-to-face socialisation, and most importantly, without any trusted, over-arching authority like a motorcycle magazine whose expertise would arbitrate pub arguments. Back then, if AMCN or Two Wheels said the GSX was the best-handling bike, it was graven in stone. You couldn’t even argue the point. An expert, a trusted and tried journo who had actually ridden dozens of models (or tried tyres, helmets, jackets) over many kilometres, and who spoke with the perspective of years of doing so, was in a position to compare all the bikes (or tyres, helmets, jackets), and thus it was true and therefore Amen.
Do you imagine that is what happens now in motorcycle magazines? On rare occasions, yes, but largely no. I can count on the fingers of one hand the editors or road-testers who have any credibility to make any such calls, and that number would grow even smaller were I were to name those editors and road-testers who could actually write an interesting sentence or an engaging paragraph, let alone be possessed of the craftsmanship and skill required to churn out a motorcycle magazine you’re expected to pay good money for.
You see, that’s the rub, right there.
Never mind that you have to pay for motorcycle magazines.
And you also have to physically go and get them.
Yes, you can subscribe. Our postal system still chugs along, but subscription has always been a hit and miss proposition because it relies on a third party, Australia Post, to do its bit efficiently.
But the Internet…well, you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything other than turn on your phone.
Instant road-tests, instant gear reviews, and very importantly, instant social interaction. An entire super-universe of motorcycling media in your hand. Sure, it’s not all quality and you have to look around to get the good stuff, but it’s to hell and gone easier and cheaper to do than buy a magazine which promises all sorts of stuff on the cover with the aid of pretty colours and (hopefully) catchy coverlines (though if one more motorcycle “breaks cover” my DNA will break itself), and then does not deliver inside.
And so we come to why motorcycle magazines have become what they have become, ie. Fast-fading irrelevancies, poorly crafted, compromised by old friendships, sentimentalities and commitments, filled with heinous, unimaginative copy written by unskilled keyboard-mashers, often approved unchecked by editors constrained and crippled by their own lack of talent, but emboldened to carry on by bizarre delusions of grandeur.
Is it all like that? Certainly not. There is still the odd gold nugget in the pages of some magazines. It’s just not worth wading through all the dross to find it, though. Not anymore. And I have nothing but praise for the photographers, whose magic still awes me, as does their tolerance of editorial hysterics.
What’s gone wrong? Is the Internet to blame?
Pretty much everything and no, not really.
It’s a cop-out to blame management. It’s a cop-out to blame budgetary restrictions. It’s a cop-out to state that when paying peanuts you’re getting monkeys.
Business exists to perpetuate itself and make money.
Budgetary restrictions have always been a factor in any business.
The monkeys doing motorcycle magazines have always worked for peanuts, and because they are passionate, they will always work for peanuts.
The problem lies in the type of monkeys that are playing editor or being hired by the ones that are playing editor.
Sure, they are passionate.
But so what?
Passion is not enough. Loving bikes and bike magazines is not enough.
I am passionate about and love MotoGP racing like a shark loves surfer-meat. That does not mean I can race MotoGP.
To race, or to edit, or write for motorcycle magazines, you need to be good at one of those things. You need to have the craft. Because then, when you combine your passion with your craft, you will create wonderful things. And your racing career or magazine title will prosper.
And this is not a new revelation.
Mediocrity has attended motorcycle magazines and their staffers for a long time. The punters put up with it because motorcycle magazines were the only game in town that addressed their interest. The less mediocre mags sold better than the more mediocre mags, and now and again some gun editor or writer would come along and sales would maybe climb a bit. But in a country with hundreds of thousands of riders, the largest-selling bike mags only ever sold maybe 40,000 a month on a good day.
Then the Internet came along and rather than view this new development as an opportunity to find new writers, create exciting new content and discover new frontiers, and also lift their magazine game to counteract all the new content being delivered for free, the motorcycle mags just kept on keeping on as they had always done.
I imagine the editors believed that their passion would suffice to weather the oncoming storm.
Sales flattened, then began to decline.
As the pinch began to be felt, budgets were cut. Resources were reduced, and the wailing began.
The talent-pool among Australian motorcycle journos is very shallow. There are very few great ones, a few competent ones, and a solid chunk of clowns who are there kinda making up the numbers and copy-pasting industry press releases.
Attrition and the new hard-times paradigm quickly began to re-shuffle the deck. Editors jumped from magazine to magazine. People were promoted to the level of their own incompetence. Some people died, others found themselves suddenly editing magazines that would not have employed them a decade before. Close enough very quickly became good enough, as more had to be done with less, by people without the skill or training to do much of anything at all.
Meanwhile, the Internet grew and grew and grew. Social media came into the mix and suddenly every motorcyclist had on opinion, could air it publicly, and link to any number of tests or reviews to reinforce it.
The news sections of magazines became redundant. Why would anyone pay money to read a dreary recount of a MotoGP race that happened a week ago, when one had already seen the highlights on Facebook?
Breaking industry news? That was already all over the Internet and Facebook weeks before the magazines could publish it.
World scoops were gone.
It wasn’t long until even the bike tests became redundant.
Australia is a very small market for the motorcycle industry. We usually get our bikes well after they have been released elsewhere. So when one of our mags feverishly churned out 2500 tedious, sad and hastily cobbled-together words about the new GSXR1ZXCBRRRRRR, it had already been done better on-line a few weeks earlier.
So what was left for the motorcycle magazines?
Where could they shine? How could they counteract the logistical difficulties of lead-times?
To write great motorcycle lifestyle features you need two things: 1.You need to actually have a great motorcycle lifestyle; and 2. You must be a writer of some skill.
The existing talent-pool and the dumb incestuous nature of how the motorcycle mags were staffed, soon became evident when attempts were made to write “lifestyle features”. When you have staff who drive to work, or ride their pushbikes to the office, or who go rock-collecting on the weekend, or do something other than ride motorcycles all the time everywhere, and when test bikes sit idle in the garage for days and weeks, there is a problem.
But wait. There are always Special Features, huh?
Great, lyrical pieces about legendary racers or events or historically significant motorcycle things, yes?
Sure. These require research, solid writing skill, and so are invariably written by a superb Pom journo like Mat Oxley and syndicated throughout the world. It’s easy enough for a magazine to buy them and thus add some great content to the surrounding dross. Thing is, you can read Mat’s stuff on-line. For free. And it’s certainly worth reading.
What were the motorcycle mags left with in terms of native content, ie. Content they themselves generated at the behest and guidance of the editor?
Special insights into the MotoGP? Exclusive interviews with various industry luminaries? Hard-hitting exchanges with major riders? Brilliant How To explanations? Actual real world product testing?
Sure. Where are they?
Over there? Oh yes, I see them. Gee, they’re great, aren’t they?
The world has had more than an elegant sufficiency of columns from motorcycle racers.
How many more tedious paragraphs about a bike we cannot buy in this country do we need to be subjected to?
Do the editors honestly imagine 1000 amateurish and awkwardly cobbled together words masquerading as a bike comparo is the way forward?
Or do they hang their entire yearly hopes on the rubbish that passes for what they deem to be the Bestest Ever Motorcycle Of That Year?
Stop it, you twats. Dig up. Or piss off. But cease to get all butthurt when people stop buying what you’re selling. They’re not buying your magazine because of The Internet. They’re not buying it because it is shit.
Shit, as you can see and as they say in the classics, has indeed happened.
And it keeps happening.
By all means, see if I am lying. Go out and look through the current crop of motorcycle magazines touting their wares inside what few newsagents remain. Flick through them. Does anything catch your eye? Does anything leap at you from the page and demand to be read? Does the content justify the cover-price? Is there anything between their covers you just have to read? One thing? Two things? What about the other 100-or-so pages?
Sad, isn’t it?
So how can they be made better? Can they be saved? Are they worth saving? Or has their time passed?
The answers to those questions are: In so many ways; yeah, up to a point and not all of them; only some of them are; and no, not just yet.
Without any question, the first thing that has to happen is that shit magazines have to stop being shit. Shit on-line content, since it’s free, can remain shit. Happy days.
But if you expect people to pay for a magazine, you’d best give them content worth paying for.
Here’s a list of things a magazine (and its editor – which is actually the same thing) must not do lest the product begin to look and smell like a turd:
- You must not ever lie to or disrespect the reader.
- You must not talk at the reader. You must talk with the reader. You must engage. You certainly must not talk down to the reader from on high.
- You must not publish content that does not sing. You don’t recognise copy that does not sing? Go away. If your headings, your subheadings, your captions and your body copy, every word of it, is not great and good and right, then it should not be in your magazine. What’s that? You don’t have enough time to do that? So you’re admitting to incompetence. Once again, go away.
- You must not promise the reader something on the cover, then not deliver inside.
- You must not hang an entire issue on the main coverline and image, and leave the reader expecting a major exclusive world scoop feature on say the new Ducati Streetfighter, which then turns out to be nothing but a computer-generated mock-up and three shitty paragraphs of speculation on Page 12.
- You must not just fill space with vacuous shit because you can’t think of what else to put into that double-page spread you suddenly have because an advertiser has pulled out or a story has fallen over. You’re the editor. Come up with something good, monkey. People are paying money for your kung-fu.
- You must not give jobs to your mates because they’re your mates.
- You must not expect someone who rides fast to be able to write (or edit a magazine) well. And the former is not ever a substitute for the latter.
- You must not whine about “crushing deadlines” and you must not use them as an excuse for not doing your job well. Your job is crushing deadlines, you dickhead.
- You cannot produce a good writer from someone with potential unless you mentor them.
- You cannot mentor a writer unless you can write well yourself.
- You must not keep doing things a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done.
- You must not just publish letters from readers praising your awesomeness. Bullshit self-validation is just that. Bullshit.
- You must not be afraid or intimidated by writers who are better than you; the very best editors have always surrounded themselves with geniuses and revelled in the commensurate glory. The very worst editors have always done the complete opposite and paid the price.
- You cannot expect people to hand over their hard-earned money just to indulge your incompetency in magazine craft.
Of course, you can do all of the above. And that is exactly what’s been done to our motorcycle magazines.
Whose fault is it?
The editor’s, of course. It is always and forever the editor’s fault. Because it is always and forever down to the editor. The buck stops there. The editor is responsible for every word. Every full stop. Every page number. And yes, mistakes happen. When they do, you confess, cut off your little finger Yakuza-style and go back to work.
As an editor, you can do pretty much as you please. You rule your magazine much like a king rules a kingdom. It is you and you are it. If it is shit, then you are shit. And vice versa.
But you rule, as rule you must. It cannot work any other way.
Magazines are not democracies. They are, at best, benevolent dictatorships, and at worst tyrannical slave-ships. Care to venture a guess which ones are the most successful?
So yes, as an editor, you can do whatever you like. But if you wish to be successful, and remain an editor until they drag you screaming from the chair as they did with Ken Wootton, then you really cannot do those things I mentioned.
The readers do not forget and they rarely forgive.
And if you’re going to treat them like retards with money, it will come back and bite you and the title you edit.
So that’s the editing bit.
Now we must consider that the way people consume motorcycle media has changed dramatically.
And because motorcycle magazines have become indifferently-edited, poorly-written and largely irrelevant dross, people who have habitually bought them, or bought them because they were the only game in town, have stopped buying them.
It’s just easier, cheaper and more satisfying to go on-line and find a great road-test written by a writer you enjoy, or a source you like and trust.
Google is your friend always and forever in that respect.
Even people my age (I’m in my early 50s) have largely dropped off motorcycle magazines.
Likewise, advertisers, who have for years accepted the fantasies they were told by motorcycle magazines about unquantifiable numbers such as “readership” as opposed to actual copy sales, have embraced the Internet.
Many advertisers don’t quite understand the massive and irrevocable impact social media is having on society (because no-one yet does), but many of them are switched onto the fact that Google Analytics does not lie. If it tells you X number of people have read an article, then X number of people have actually read that article. If YouTube states that a video has had X number of views, then that is a mathematical fact. It is not a projection, it is not an extrapolation. It is what it is.
And here we are today.
Do I think there is a future for motorcycle magazines?
Yes, I do. Print will exist for some time yet.
But it will have to re-asses and re-invent itself and it will have to offer the motorcyclist what the Internet cannot. And it will have to be, in every sphere and on every platform, superb.
Just because you can make video bike reviews, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you know how a GoPro works and have the wit to attach it to your helmet, doesn’t mean the results are worth watching. And gone are the days when you could bullshit your way into invoicing an advertiser for a 12-month contract with nebulous statements about “readership”.
What counts are copy sales – independently audited. And who is doing that anymore?
If you wish to appeal to a broader and more discerning market, then you need to step it up several notches.
Because at the moment, your shit is really shit.
And deep down inside, you know it.
Content, in magazines and on the Internet is and always will be king.
Great content will always be a greater king.
To survive and to thrive, you must produce great content. Mediocrity will always exist, for that is its nature. And mediocrity has its place, because it makes the good stuff look really good. Great writing can only shine beside garbage writing. You only understood how great Freddy Mercury was when you heard Kanye West sing Bohemian Rhapsody, didn’t you?
Surely the well-meaning amateurs, hacks and fools have done enough damage to motorcycle magazines with their inept dabblings in the craft? The results of their efforts are obvious, are they not?
As for those of you who remain at the coalface, man up.
Cull ruthlessly the dross from your staff. Being a “good bloke” is not a pre-requisite for continued employment in the motorcycle magazine industry. I’d rather hire a heinous swine who knew how to write, than the nicest lickspittle who mashes his face against the keyboard and thinks he’s writing.
Seek out new talent. Nurture it. It’s certainly out there.
If your graphic designer is shit, find one who is not.
Stop tolerating “good enough” – because I can assure you, it’s not.
Stop accepting mediocrity.
If you are unable to tell the difference, then this business is not for you.
The only person you owe anything to is the reader.
Pay your fucking debt.
Pay it, just like a Lannister, and you and your motorcycle magazine may have a future.
Or keep doing what you’re doing.
Do I know what I am talking about?
I don’t often get out my dick and wave it around, but for those readers who might question whether I have the credence to state what I have stated, I offer my bona fides…
I was the editor of Australia’s largest-selling motorcycle magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, Ozbike, and also edited associated titles such as Passing Wind, Legends, and Born To Die under its masthead. Ozbike outsold Two Wheels by two-to-one. And it was about Harleys and tattooed lunatics and the poetic juxtaposition of the two.
At Ozbike, I created a hardcover pictorial book called The Devil May Care and scripted, directed and largely produced three volumes of Ozbike the Video Magazine back when people were still buying VHS tapes.
I then went to work for ACP Publishing (Kerry Packer’s mob), and worked on People magazine, before being offered a job at The Picture, which was then the largest-selling weekly men’s magazine in the country. I was privileged to hone what little craft I actually had beside and under the guidance of Walkley-award winning writers and authors like Jack Marx and Paul Toohey. Geoff Seddon was actually the Chief Sub and Deputy Editor on the magazine when I started, so you can imagine what a fine schooling that all was for a budding writer. Lots of people dismiss the “P” mags, as they’re known, as quasi-pornographic garbage, but the industry well understands the depth of talent required to write as creatively as The Picture demands. It does not survive today just because of its tits. And it has produced some of the finest writers, journos and graphic designers in this country – most of which have gone on to edit and manage their own titles.
I eventually became editor of The Picture, and was the last editor to sell 100,000 copies a week of that title.
I was also the launch editor (and remain the editor) of Picture Premium (like The Picture but more explicit – think Penthouse without the pretensions), Premium Babes, Models and Menace 2 Society. The late and very great Pete ‘Mr Smith’ Smith was my deputy editor on the first issues of Picture Premium, and worked alongside me on The Picture’s incredibly talented sub-editor’s bench for several years.
My involvement with AMCN came about as a collaboration between its then editor, Ken Wootton, and myself, and continued through the editorships of Mick Matheson, Matt Shields and Sam Maclachlan. I chose to part company with AMCN when Kelly Buckley became editor. My choice. My call. If you have ever heard otherwise it is a lie.
I created and edited AMCN’s Motorcycle Legends magazine and was a columnist and feature-writer for AMCN for over a decade.
I have also contributed regularly to Ralph, FHM, Zoo, Top Gear, Wheels, Auto Action and a bunch of other mags I have forgotten about. I have written two top-selling books (My Mother Warned Me About Blokes Like Me and At The Altar Of The Road Gods) which are published by Hachette, and I run and write for Bike Me! (where you are now), and am a regular columnist for Australian Motorcyclist and Heavy Duty.