The beginning of the end for print magazines?

by Wade Wallace


I was saddened to see that one of Australia’s most respected magazines, RIDE, just announced it will be finishing its print edition and going online.

RIDE publisher Rob Arnold said in a newsletter to his readers, “RIDE Media will continue to deliver transformative stories about cycling but in a more immediate manner, one that embraces the potential of modern technology: digital, video, newsletters … as well as print publishing and branded content.

“This is a time of significant change for media and we are going to respond to market demand.”

RIDE was CyclingTips’ first advertiser, and it was the first and only magazine I bought from the newsstand when I discovered the publication after moving to Australia 12 years ago. I have a lot to thank RIDE for in helping this business turn into what it is today and I sincerely wish them a successful future.

To imagine a world without paper magazines is like a world without bike shops. Both have been harshly disrupted by the internet and even though most people will say they love them dearly, the market will gravitate to the most convenient and cheapest option. I’m no different, and I must admit that we’ve unwittingly played a small part in this disruption.

I’ve kept most of my issues of RIDE on a bookshelf to serve as an anthology of cycling. When I flip back through them I fondly reminisce about the kit, sponsors and equipment from another era, and stories that take place on the same roads still used today. My life’s memories are catalogued by that year’s Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix, and flipping through a cycling magazine can trigger endless thoughts.

Of course all of this can be found in a digital grave that’s not packaged or curated for us and impossible to find if you weren’t specifically searching for it. It’s an editor’s role to focus on a niche and use his or her judgement and expertise to tell the audience what is important and interesting. Facebook, YouTube and Google don’t have editors to help educate us. They have algorithms that are intended to make you stay for longer and to buy more.

There is sanctuary in removing yourself from a screen and the constant distractions of social media, emails and YouTube tangents; instead sitting in silence while flipping through a magazine and studying all the details in the photos and writing. Online content exists in a different environment, one in which you’re always a click away from something more mindless and quickly rewarding. Online content operates at a different cadence than magazine content, and quantity — not quality — prevails.

When we’re running through the checklist of considerations we apply to all our online content, we always put ourselves in the place of the reader and ask, above all, “Why do I need to read this now?” It’s a different mindset when consuming a magazine, something you’ve set time aside to indulge in. Even though we publish more features here at CyclingTips than any sane online publication would ever consider, they’re among our least-read articles.

I comment about this topic often in my weekly newsletter: online content is trending towards a vicious race to the bottom rather than the other way around. The online business model rewards quantity over quality, and Facebook has created an environment for this content to thrive. And it’s not the publication’s fault – it’s simple market demand. Many complain about trash content, but it gets read and shared via social media more than any other content. A wonderful positive story, coverage of women’s racing, or amazing imagery of riding through the mountains gets almost nothing.

Publishers who chase the numbers will continue to do so. We’ve run tests on this and we admit we’ve sometimes gotten it wrong, but we’re well aware of what underlies the numbers and it’s not healthy. But when advertisers ask “How many visits do you get to your site?”, we pale in comparison to others.

The business of online publishing is at enormous risk. I hope magazines are able to stick it out for another five years, because I truly think they are the ones who have a model that works in the long-run. That is, a combination of a cover price and advertising to pay for it all, and to turn a profit so it can be done again. Dollars for pages turn into fractions of a penny with online advertising.

For every dollar spent on digital advertising growth, 99 cents goes to Facebook and Google and they’re tough beasts to battle. If the trend continues, not only will paper magazines become extinct, but so will niche cycling content. All you’ll get is what Facebook serves up to you in your newsfeed, and we’ll be conditioned to never question or care whether it’s true or not.

Again, it’s not a world that anybody wants to live in, but we vote with our dollars, our clicks and our attention.

We wish RIDE success in its next chapter, and the same for all other printed magazines.

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