When I first started freelancing as a mountain bike writer and photographer in 1996, the internet was just about enough of a Thing for me to need an email address. Magazines were produced by big companies with shiny offices, corporate hierarchies and (for the most part) healthy bank balances. And people bought a lot of them, mostly in person in bricks-and-mortar shops.
You don’t need me to tell you that things have changed a bit, and that print magazines have been having a hard time. So it’s not particularly surprising – although it’s sad, and symbolic of the bigger picture – that this weekend the owners of Bike magazine decided to close its doors (along with sister titles Powder, Snowboarder and Surfer).
There always used to be an unwritten rule – at least, during the days of Big Publishing – that one didn’t speak of The Competition. Well, screw that. Bike always punched way above Cranked’s weight anyway, having been owned by a number of big publishing companies who used their corporate muscle to extract as much revenue as possible from it. But – and this is the important point – the team that put it together were real enthusiasts, passionate about riding and passionate about the art of ink-and-paper publishing. The quality of writing, photography and overall editorial craft in Bike was, for years, head and shoulders above any other bike magazine, anywhere in the world. The bean counters never quite managed to reduce it to the listicles-and-sponsored-content pap of some of their more mainstream titles, and that was a Good Thing. The photo annual was a sought after collector’s edition, and the work of photographers like Sterling Lorence and writers like Mike Ferrentino, to name just two Bike alumni amongst many, set the gold standard for a long time.
Niche markets like mountain biking are increasingly problematic for Big Publishing, though. They have corporate headquarters and corporate hierarchies to pay for, and those fixed costs keep eating into the bottom line of magazines like Bike. Once the numbers at the bottom right of the spreadsheet are red, the suits won’t care about the dedication or passion or attention to detail of the editorial team. And so it’s goodbye to Bike, unless another buyer can be found.
And that’s the reason that, increasingly, the magazines catering to discerning, niche audiences are owned and operated by small, agile companies that begin by stripping out the lead weights of account managers, senior publishers and mirror glass rental. The good news is, there are enough experienced, dedicated professionals to keep those niche titles alive, and they’re mostly doing OK.
But here’s the thing: magazines can’t exist in a vacuum. Without readers, there’s literally no point. So, if there’s a magazine out there that you quite like – and particularly if it’s one produced by a small publishing company – put your hand in your pocket and subscribe. The wonderful tactility of ink-and-paper storytelling still has a place in our lives, but it needs support. If the small publishing houses – with their modest costs and high quality ethos – go, there’ll be nothing left. So support them. Whether you’re into surf, snow, climbing, cycling or something else, seek out the surviving analogue publishers and help them out.
We all benefit, when we can share our stories.