The Rise of... Coffee-table magazines?
"I'd really like to point out that Sideburn isn't a normal
kind of magazine," Inman told me. "The quality of
paper and print is better than any bike magazine on the
planet (I'd argue), we don't have results or race reports.
It's about the feeling. It is anti-mainstream, but it is
made with love." If that appeals to you, you can
subscribe at www.sideburnmagazine.com
We’ve endlessly parsed the effect that the recession of ’08 had on the motorcycle industry. The sector that took perhaps the heaviest casualties of all, however, may have been the motorcycle magazine
Newsstand sales dropped and long-time readers let subscriptions lapse. Nonsensically, manufacturers responded to the recession by slashing ad budgets. At big, old-guard, something-for-everyone titles like Cycle World, and Motorcyclist, perfect binding gave way to saddle-stitching. Big media conglomerates sold titles to companies I’d never heard of. New owners laid off Editors-in-Chief of long standing (and, I assume, large paychecks.) The venerable motorcycle weekly-of-record, Cycle News, briefly disappeared altogether before being reincarnated as an e-zine. My last regular U.S. print gig disappeared when the owners of Road Racer X magazine folded it altogether.
The problems faced by the magazines weren’t just economic, they were structural. Readers divided their time between print and new media, and the Internet fed their desire for news on a daily or even hourly basis. Advertisers sensed their audience’s new priorities, and divided what little that remained of their ad budgets between print and online media. Magazines aped the informal style of the Web, cut word counts (and editorial budgets.) The ones with web sites basically put up sites that looked and read like magazines. In short, they made about every strategic error possible, bringing the worst of the Web to print, and the worst of print to the Web.
A small consolation for the beleaguered print guys was, things soon got more complicated for the websites, too: Up-and-coming sites struggled and failed to get readers to pay even a couple of bucks a month for access. And digital subscriptions haven’t proven viable for websites that have repackaged themselves as online magazines, either. Over the course of the recession, the center of audience attention shifted from dedicated websites where there was editorial control, into social media where everyone was his or her own editor. Editors who once wielded real power and decided what people would read now curate input from amateurs.
For what it’s worth, Cycle World and Motorcyclist outlasted mainstream magazines that once had far larger readerships. Even Newsweek just shipped its last print edition. It lives on in vestigial form, online.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the motorcycle magazine graveyard. Since the recession tanked the whole business, there have been several daring magazine start-ups. I’m not talking about last-ditch, I’ll-start-my-own-damn-magazine efforts by old-school editors. (Those do exist, but they’re pretty recidivist.) I’m talking about smaller-circulation, carefully crafted ‘outsider’ publications focused on narrow moto-cultural niches. They’re the moto-journalism equivalents of the slow-food movement.
While the bottom was falling out of the U.S. moto-magazine business, Gary Inman (seen here with Dave Aldana) launched a very cool flat track magazine. The catch: it's British. The U.K. flat track racing organizers occasionally bring over past and present GNC stars, both to promote races and teach workshops. Chris Carr's been over a couple of times.
The first one I noticed was ‘Sideburn’, out of the UK. It’s the work of Gary Inman, who has been a staffer on big UK bike mags and a successful freelancer for donkey’s years. Sideburn’s focus is American-style flat track racing, which is about as far outside mainstream motorcycling as you can get in Britain.
Then, I noticed another labor-of-love magazine over there, called Benzina. It’s focused on classic Italian motorcycles, and the history of our sport from that Italianate perspective.
I chalked this curious optimism about the prospects for print publications to some fundamental difference between the UK and US media scenes. It seemed both ironic and noteworthy to me that the best glossy magazine coverage of the uniquely American sport of flat track racing was being produced in the UK. I was struck that a start-up magazine produced by an enthusiastic amateur, narrowly focused on vintage Italian bikes, was outdistancing Motorcycle Retro Illustrated – a magazine produced by Mitch Boehm, the ex-editor of Motorcyclist, who must have a huge Rolodex. That, again, seemed to suggest that the US was a very different and much tougher print media market than the UK.
Or is it?
A few months ago, the retro-hipster website ironandair.com launched a glossy print special edition during the big AHRMA vintage festival. “The Road to Ace Corner” was a one-off and the press run was only 5000 copies, but the website’s editorial team recently announced that Iron and Air would, in 2013, focus on producing a print magazine.
The new Iron & Air print magazine has very different origins than either Sideburn or Benzina -- it’s an outgrowth of a very savvy new-media business, assembled by a larger team of people who first built a website, then leveraged that into a social media following. But notwithstanding its digital genesis, it has a lot in common with those UK mags. All of them have a distinctly retro vibe; Sideburn covers contemporary flat track racing, but the magazine’s spiritual roots are in the heyday of the Grand National Championship in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
All three magazines also pride themselves on delivering a physical object that is the antithesis of an online experience. They’re printed on heavier paper stock, for example. The editor of Iron & Air, Brett Houle, told me that they were going for something half-way between a magazine and a coffee table book. It’ll be priced that way, too, at $15 a copy. “These are people who like doing things with their hands,” he told me. “They want something they can touch, and feel.”
These new magazines have, wisely, decided they want to exude timeless permanence. They’re the opposite of the timely-but-ephemeral Internet. They’re going for a look and feel that’s entirely different than any of the American mainstream bike mags. Even Iron & Air’s advertisers create ads that are art-directed to conform to its carefully curated image.
When I lived in California I was a surfer, and read Surfer’s Journal. It was an endless source of frustration to me that the sport of surfing could support such a beautifully-photographed and printed magazine, with long and erudite feature stories, but the sport of motorcycling seemed unable to do likewise. Surfers – trust me, I know – are neither more numerous, literate, or spendthrift than we are.
Benzina is another upstart UK magazine. The bikes featured in Benzina are of Italian origin, like the slow-food movement. Magazines like Sideburn, Benzina, and (soon) Iron & Air, are all about slowing down, too. Their publishers are not trying to compete with the Internet; rather, they're trying to turn print's disadvantages into advantages. Strategically, that makes great sense.
So while established motorcycle magazines have been in a race to the bottom, at least in the case of Surfer’s Journal, it’s been true that, “If you build it, they’ll come.” Or if you’ll print it, they pay to read it. And advertisers will pay premium page-rates, too. Advertisers know that no one ever throws it away; their ad will be seen intermittently into the indefinite future.
Back in about 2008, a motorcycle journalist friend of mine told me that he had a meeting set up with the Surfer’s Journal folks, who were looking to line-extend their publishing concept. The meeting never happened once the publisher realized how severely the recession was hitting the motorcycle business.
It remains to be seen whether or not any of these upstart motorcycle magazines will have the long, successful run that Surfer’s Journal has had. Both Sideburn and Benzina are essentially hobbies; the guys putting them out would love to start making real money doing it, but they haven’t turned a profit yet. And while people like me who write (or photograph) for a living will occasionally throw something their way just because we support the cause, in the long run they’ll only continue to get great content if they can afford to pay for it.
By contrast, Iron & Air is already a real job for several people. Advertisers are eager to tap into that social network. The Iron & Air crew is more sophisticated when it comes to marketing its own brand. So they’ve got an advantage there. That said – and while regular Backmarker readers will know that the garage-built cafe racer phenomenon is a fad I’ve welcomed – it’s still a fad. I suppose if the economy picks up again, all those hipsters with ironic facial hair and tattoos may start riding new, expensive bikes again.
Overall, I have high hopes for these coffee table magazines, and this ‘trend’ gives me a little optimism heading into 2013. I am already convinced they can create a tangible object that feels as if it’s worth a few bucks, and seems worthy of a permanent place in readers’ homes. I hope the quality of the writing and the ideas expressed are as artful and timeless. If that’s the case, they’ll flourish.
Now, who will create a broad-spectrum motorcycle journal that’s worthy of a place beside Surfer’s Journal?
Last but not least, a New Year’s Resolution
I’m sure that tens of thousands of kids across the US had their Christmas morning improved by toys donated by bikers who rode in Toys for Tots runs all over the US last fall. Riders for Health does great things with motorcycles in Africa, bringing medical care to remote regions. And then there’s breast cancer, which has basically trademarked the color pink. There were even pink motorcycle sprockets on race bikes last year.
Those are all great causes... for other people to support. As motorcyclists, let’s make 2013 the year that we direct our charitable giving to spinal cord research. And, as individuals, let’s pressure the manufacturers to put their weight behind it, too.
Let's make 2013 the year that the motorcycle industry stops acting as if spinal injuries aren't a real problem. Injuries like the one that sidelined Joan Lascorz are tantalizingly close to becoming treatable. That's urgent research that we all need to support.
For years, spinal cord injuries have been almost a taboo subject. Last April, we all held our breath after Joan Lascorz crashed his Kawasaki in World Superbike
testing. It was obvious that he had some kind of spinal injury but we waited ages for any kind of detailed report. It was as if the whole industry shifted its eyes from side to side, cleared its throat and after a pause said, “Yeah, well...” and moved on. World SBK nearly had two such injuries in one season, but my fellow-Canadian Brett McCormick got lucky.
We’re all afraid of paralyzing injuries, but no one is served by a collective effort to pretend they aren’t our biggest safety problem. Telling yourself, “Well, I wear a back protector,” is just whistling past the graveyard. It might help protect you from an impact, but few spinal injuries are incurred that way.
Inventions like Dainese D-air suits, Leatt
braces, and the Alpinestars
Bionic system are more likely to prevent spinal injuries, but so far they’re expensive and have limited applications. It will be a long time before a significant percentage of riders are protected, and such protection will never be perfect.
The solution is finding a way to treat and cure spinal injuries. This would have been a fantasy 20 years ago, but there are several promising techniques in development.
In the motorsports world, the one player that has really faced up to spinal injuries is Red Bull. Red Bull’s founder Dieter Mateschitz and ex-motocross World Champion Heinz Kinigadner created the Wings for Life charity with a simple goal: Spinal cord injury must become curable.
Wings for Life is part of the International Campaign for Cures of spinal cord injury Paralysis (ICCP). The ICCP website, www.campaignforcure.org
lists several tax-registered charitable organizations in the US and Canada that fund essential research that will eventually lead to a cure for paralysis.
Face your fears this year. When you’re inspired to organize a charitable event, direct the benefits to an ICCP member organization. There is no better cause for motorcyclists to, um, back. Help make sure that the wheels under us are on motorcycles, not chairs.