Whatever! – Motorcycle Magazine Confidential

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As print magazines continue their long slide into the abyss, the competition between them only grows more heated. The smaller the pie, the more the rats fight for the biggest pecan. It’s even more fun to watch than the UFC. Wait, I hate the UFC.

Strangely enough, it’s always been this way – even before the invention of the internet, when the pie looked too big to eat and was still expanding. I hadn’t been at my new dream job at Cycle magazine more than a few months, way back in 1989, when that title was acquired by the company that was already putting out Cycle World. A scouting party rode up from CW’s Newport Beach offices to reconnoiter the conquered peoples, led by CW’s former editor and at-the-time editorial director, Paul Dean. Heads rolled, including that of the beautiful human who’d hired me, Phil Schilling. I and a few others were spared and invited to move south to Newport Beach along with the magazine. Why not? I got nowhere else to go.

Once ensconced behind the Orange Curtain (Newport Beach might be the worst place in California to put out a motorcycle magazine, surrounded on all sides by ocean and urban sprawl), the title remained Cycle, but the new Editor and staff were nearly all Cycle World alumni. CW tech guy Steve Anderson became the new Cycle Editor. Steve’s a brilliant guy I have a ton of respect for, an MIT engineering graduate who went to work for Erik Buell after they shot Cycle out from under him – but many felt his sometimes brusque bedside manner would make it tough for him in a role that requires delicate diplomacy as well as screaming. A decent interval passed before the axe fell, and there we all were, unemployed, and Cycle magazine defunct. And never mind it had a bigger readership and circulation than Cycle World did.

In the old days, magazine editors were busy winning the 1977 Daytona Superbike race and writing great stories about it. Ducati tuner and Executive Editor of Cycle, Phil Schilling (cool shades), rescued me from law school. Bless his heart.

In the old days, magazine editors were busy winning the 1977 Daytona Superbike race and writing great stories about it. Ducati tuner and Executive Editor of Cycle, Phil Schilling (cool shades), rescued me from law school. Bless his heart.

About that time it occurred to me that the goal is oftentimes not to put out the best possible product; the goal for many people is to protect their turf and keep other people from putting out a better product. Before the internet, the bike magazines had a lock on the motorcycle information market. It was the coolest thing to find a glossy bike magazine in your mailbox in those days – even a schlocky one – because there’d be photos of the new bikes at least. I’d read all of them for years before settling on Cycle as my favorite. (And before I’d discovered the British magazines.)

I hung around the ocean-view hovel we were renting on the hillside in Laguna Beach for a year while wifey paid the bills, reading books, swilling Natural Light and calling Shelby Foote on the phone, amazed he answered after I got his number from Memphis information. Too stunned to know what to say, I just told him how much I loved his Civil War trilogy, and asked him what he was working on now? “I was workin’ on my dinnah till you called and interrupted me.” Genius.

I digress.

Eventually the phone rang and David Edwards gave me a job at Cycle World, and that was cool. David hired Mitch Boehm a while later, and when Mitch became Editor of Motorcyclist, he lured me away to join him with a fat raise. And that was very cool for about eight years when all of a sudden it wasn’t, and I was ejected from the club. I’d been feeling pretty cocky in those days, I suppose. I’d been writing a monthly column for about a year, and got a lot of fan mail for it. And even though I was never a real fast guy, I got to go on all the best bike launches, sampling R1s and Hayabusas around Circuit Catalunya in Spain, R6s in Phillip Island, Metzeler tires in Sicily, etc. – not to mention sampling all the finest accommodations in all those places. It beat driving a forklift all night in the freezer of a grocery distribution warehouse.

The hole I left at Motorcyclist closed right up behind me, which was a valuable lesson and a good way to find out who your friends are in the world. Minime (aka Brent Avis) picked me up from my ex-job and transported me to Motorcycle.com and put me to work the same day, at a time 12 years ago when the internet was still a cottage industry. It was tons of fun with nobody but ourselves to answer to, but there wasn’t enough money to feed a family and I wandered off into the wonderful world of advertising. Then it was 2009 and the great recession, and the advertising train threw me off between stations. Then my woman left. Then my dog died.

There’s one Barnes & Noble near me and the Laguna Newsstand, and that’s about it. Sad really, but then we couldn’t watch videos on our phones when I was a kid.

There’s one Barnes & Noble near me and the Laguna Newsstand, and that’s about it. Sad really, but then we couldn’t watch videos on our phones when I was a kid.

Then it was 2010 and I was back at Cycle World, wow, full circle, clam-happy, back where all the big-magazine fun happens! Not so fast. A bloody coup had seen the ejection of my friend/mentor David Edwards, and power had been seized by a cabal including (guess who?) Paul Dean, who’d first been editor of CW himself in what? 1984? And Cycle Guide before that. PD’s key to success? Strive always to never “over-entertain the reader.” PD is in his mid 70s now. The man truly inspires me to keep doing what I love; my goal is to outlast him. It will be a battle.

Fast forward a few years and welcome to the Bonnier Motorcycle Group. Bonnier had already acquired Cycle World in a fire sale two years ago, and last year doubled down, buying Motorcyclist and a bunch of other titles including Dirt Rider, Hot Bike, Motorcycle Cruiser, etc. Suddenly Cycle World and Motorcyclist, which for the last few decades were the Hatfields and McCoys, are now not only owned by the same company, but are also on the same floor of the same office building in Irvine. (Guess who Motorcyclist Editor-in-Chief, Marc Cook, first worked for in the business? Give up? Paul Dean, circa 1982. Some of us think the Freemasons are involved.)

Now when the Editors-in-Chief are trying to cut deals with the manufacturers to get exclusives for the cover (like Cycle World just did with the new V-Strom 1000), they have to put their hand over the mouthpiece to keep the other guy from overhearing the plot, which is not near as fun for the spectators. One of my cherished memories is listening to one former editor grow increasingly hot on the phone until he finally shouted loud enough to cause the whole floor to go scared silent, “because EVERY TIME I try to HELP YOU, you F**K ME IN THE ASS, MOM!!”

Glad he wasn’t yelling at an advertiser!

Then too, there’s nothing like snuggling up with a good print magazine. In spite of the genius of “Nicky Hayden’s Travel Tips,” I have to say I think the Brit magazines are usually worth twice the money, though Motorcyclist is looking good lately, too.

Then too, there’s nothing like snuggling up with a good print magazine. In spite of the genius of “Nicky Hayden’s Travel Tips,” I have to say I think the Brit magazines are usually worth twice the money.

Given that these days most of us have already seen the new bike numerous times online by the time it arrives in the snail mail, it’s hard for me to see why they bother to go after it so badgerly? MO’s own Tom Roderick already covered the new V-Strom here back in January. (Heck, I rode it in Europe last December for Cycle World.) A lot of it has to do with tradition, I suppose. The magazines have always battled to get the scoop on the cover, and seem to claw and bite even harder as the noose tightens, even if the scoop is sort of gamey by the time it shows up in print. Next thing you know, they’ll be consolidating power the old-fashioned way, through intermarriage and clan warfare. Wait, that’s already been done too.

Okay, maybe I am just a troublemaker. The “U” word has been applied to me more than once in the last few years: Unprofessional. I prefer to give it a different interpretation: Unwilling to bend completely over. It’s good to be back at MO again. We may not always get the scoop, but dammit we’re still watertight.

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  • JMDonald

    Life like a career is a linear progression. It is very tempting to create an alternative reality. The better one is at seeing and transmitting the truth the better. No man is an island and we all can’t just up and go Galt. We just keep on keeping on. Let the rags fight it out. By the way, it’s not the Freemasons it’s the space aliens.

    • BigPeeWee

      The older you get, the less of an expert you realize you are. Oh to be young again when I had all the solutions unencumbered by knowledge.

  • fastfreddie

    I loved the magazine called ‘Cycle’.Missed it when they faded out.Tried to look where the majority of contributers,but at that time there was no google:(

  • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

    INCOMING! Hit the deck boys!

  • Max Wellian

    I’m just happy to see occasional contributions here and there from the bitter little man. Never fails to entertain me.

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    Oh boy! I’d say Johnny burned some bridges, but does JB really need bridges? If everything goes south for you, I hear Matt Chambers is looking for a pool boy.

    Can I quote from Hunter Thompson writing about himself? “The problem with that sunnafabitch is that he can’t help but to tell the truth.” Applause to JB for writing what’s on his mind and

    I worked at Cycle World for 18 surreal, dream-like months before Hachet-Fillet figured out what a horrible mistake that was and laid me off. I spent much of that time sitting in the offices of guys I’d been reading for years and picking their brains about moto-journalism.

    I recall sitting in Paul Dean’s office while he went through something I had written with a fine-tooth comb. After reading the intro to my story, he looked at me and said gruffly, “We’re not here to entertain our readers. We’re here to inform them,” to which I responded, “well what the fukc am I doing here?” Anybody who reads my written jabbering for information needs to take one of those free classes on how to use the internet they give at the senior center.

    Anyway, God Bless America and our right to say what’s on our minds!

    • john burns

      What? I thought that was pretty tame. Trying to be nice. It’s a company town isn’t it? The perfect CW guy is Managing Editor Matthew Miles, but that’s not his title anymore, who I hear is like a son to Mr. Dean. He wasn’t speaking to me about the last three years I was there.

      CityBike is about the most fun thing out there to read, Gabe. I would pay for it if you sent me a bill every 3 or 4 days like the big magazines. Personally I’ve never understood why you can’t inform and entertain? I guess it’s like Japanese baseball at CW. A tie is the best possible outcome. We’re all winners.

      Things have a way of changing.

      • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

        Could I please have your billing address?

        • Mark Lindemann

          “I’d say Johnny burned some bridges . . . ”
          He can’t help it. I mean, his name is Burns, right?
          –ML

      • Maverick Moto Media

        Can it be that the John ‘Prurient’ Burns of old, is going soft with age, pulling punches and wearing kid gloves?! Let it out Burnsie, don’t hold back, that’s why we love you. Your new boss is a big boy, he can take the heat you’ll generate.

        • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

          The big boy has a business to run as well. I can take a lot of heat, but I do not wish to harm others with the publication. Sometimes punches will be pulled (NOT about motorcycles!) out of common decency to the humans who still populate this industry. Call me a humanist.

          • Maverick Moto Media

            Decency in the industry?! Madness! :-)

          • Bruce Steever

            So you DID edit the piece and pull a line or two?

    • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

      You’d think he’d learn by now as getting a job in motojournalism is akin to finding an apartment in Manhattan by looking in the obituaries. :) I love obstinate people.

  • sospeedy

    So if the Brit bike mags are worth twice the price (and I too believe they are), is there room for something like that from the US?

    • john burns

      Beats me, but that time sort of seems to have passed. I know Cycle World reader average age is around mid-50s, but their online readers skew lower–in their 30s. My kid, who’s 20, reads nothing in print. Picking up a magazine is as foreign to him as milking a cow. But that’s just one kid, not exactly scientific.

      Maybe magazines will become cool again, like vinyl. But then they’ll be an even smaller niche. And CW would have to find people to take over from Peter Egan and Kevin Cameron–Peter’s semi-retired and Kevin’s not getting any younger either.

      Motorcyclist is pretty fun lately, not afraid to let Joe Gresh and Jack Lewis and some other off-center characters run with the ball now and then. And Zack and Ari bring a fresh perspective to the page.

      I don’t know how they do it in England. Maybe it’s just a more homogenous culture, and they’re less worried about offending each other? Even the Brits have dialled it back lately though. Their readership is like the U.S. one–aging. And with age comes a little mellowing no?

      What we need is a change in the tax code that gives the masses a few bucks so they can go out and buy motorcycles again, really. I fear new motorcycles, which were good blue-collar fun when I was coming up, have mostly become expensive luxury items.

      • Bruce Steever

        Dirty secret, John: even the gen-y editorial types in this business aren’t sure how to get gen-y readers interested in print. Digital editions and web-centric content is a stop-gap, but long-format articles don’t seem to really matter to younger riders.

        And as you noted, (relatively) cheap bikes are only starting to make a comeback…

        • john burns

          I feel their pain, but I somehow feel like the written word will always be with us. There’s no more precise way for communicating; videos don’t quite get it. I’m starting to be a big fan of Top Ten lists, weirdly enough. Not only are they easy to digest, they’re easier to sit down in front of your blank computer screen and knock out. The Mule one we just posted is around 3000 words I think, which is about 2x as long as a print story in Cycle World these days. But I don’t think it feels that long when you read it. No?

          • Bruce Steever

            Good point. Information is still getting out there via Buzzfeed lists formats, and with decent word counts, too.

            But are you able to tell a story in that format? Does story narrative matter compared with just getting the info out there?

          • john burns

            why not? I feel like I have a better feel for who Richard Pollock is after that Top Ten Mule Things than from anything else I’d seen about him before. But that could be because I met him to write the thing…

          • John A. Stockman

            I grew up in a motorcycling family and would excitedly wait every month for my grandpa (avatar pic on his ’39 Indian Chief) to get his motorcycle mags so we could read and talk about everything motorcycles. He always had subscriptions to the British mags, and with Cycle News every week, we could follow racing. Some of my best memories are from those times with my grandfather and the magazines. He taught me to be a positive sort about motorcycling, especially towards those that don’t ride and never will and always seek training and to practice my skills. I have racks of many of those old mags, going back to the late 60s, when I was allowed to have my own subscriptions when I turned 10 in 1967. One of my favorites? Motorcycle Consumer News…continue to tell it like it is Bruce Steever. The demise of Cycle and the weekly Cycle News was sadness. Every time I pick up a print mag, it reminds me of all the things motorcycling I experienced and learned from my grandfather. I was afflicted with an insidious auto-immune disability (SEDT) that destroyed all my joint cartilage by the time I was 14…spine fused and so did both hips, along with much-reduced range-of-motion in every joint. My budding off-road career was stopped short, since I couldn’t even straddle a motorcycle seat. I had to use crutches for 12 years, atrophying my leg muscles. In 1980, I found a doc that would perform total hip replacement surgeries on someone who was only 22. My goal was to ride my own motorcycle alongside my grandfather on his Indian. Everyone thought I was insane, an idiot. I was “wasting resources” to what, ride a motorcycle? My goal was not very popular, so I ended up keeping it to myself after a few very negative reactions from friends and doctors. I had 3 total hip replacements between ’80 and ’83 (first one failed, had to be re-done) and got my first street bike in May 1983 after having a throw-the-crutches-away party. Docs said even though I got new hips, my leg muscles were too far gone. I proved them all wrong. I had to endure tortuous physical therapy 3 times a week for years, plus what I did on my own at home. I went through 3 more hip replacements up through 1993, when I had new cement-less implants put in. I started with a used early 80s KZ250LTD and rode all over the west and Canada on that bike, 38,000 miles in two years. I graduated to bigger bikes over the years and have accumulated 310,000 miles on just the bikes I owned, not including off-road miles and all the bikes I’ve been fortunate enough to ride for evaluation purposes. On every trip or ride, motorcycle magazines would accompany me. I appreciate all the words you guys have written and the effort, and have been privileged to have met some of you folks, sharing my dream and what it took to get to where I could ride a motorcycle again. It gave me back the physical freedom I lost and thought I could never experience again. As one of your compatriots said recently, motorcycling saved my life and gave me back my personal physical freedom. Thanks guys for letting me share a portion of my own story and keep up the great work.

      • Jim Miller

        When the entire country’s smaller than the state of Oregon, you’ve got a
        lot more opportunity to sell ads in a national magazine. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in Britain there’s little difference between local and national ads. A London Honda dealer can advertise in Bike and reach a national audience, which doesn’t happen in the states.

        • john burns

          Wow THEE Jim Miller?! Hello Jim. Good point. I also think there’s some kind of British National Sense of Humor they all strive to uphold. Meanwhile, all the Puritans got on the Mayflower and came over here, so we could endlessly battle and be incensed about ridiculous things that have been long settled in the rest of the first world.

          • Jim Miller

            Yes, Mr. Burns, the same one who inevitably badgered you for copy as Cycle’s M.E. Still hanging around, though these days I’m feeling more like a floater in a toilet bowl.

            Yeah, the Brits always got away with a lot more irreverence than we did. Always had to battle the literalists, though sometimes it was fun to find ways to work around them and sneak something past.

          • john burns

            They were wacky enough to talk to me a little about becoming the big cheese at Motorcyclist, in the EMAP days. Then they realized they were broke, sold the whole farm to Primedia, and beat a hasty retreat back across the Pond. Probably just as well.

          • Jim Miller

            I suspect you would have been miserable. Nothing sucks the creativity out of a person quicker than endless meetings about shit you couldn’t care less about.

      • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

        I stopped reading Motorcyclist when Brian turned it into Sportbike World. Has it improved in his absence?

  • Capo

    This is fantastic ‘inside baseball’ perspective on the biz, as told by a grizzled veteran. Much appreciated, funny, subversive. Digital versions of Brit mags ( Bike, Classic Bike, Ride) are my mainstays now, with MO the portal of choice for the daily e- doses of motorbike news and color…as long as JB is on board.

    • john burns

      I’m grizzled? more moisturizer from now on.

      • Capo

        Seasoned…I meant seasoned…yeah, that’s it.

  • Emptybee

    Need longer cords on my computer to read in the bathroom, I guess.

  • Billy Bartels

    I’ve wanted to write something similar for years.

    I had a similar experience to your Cycle one, when Primedia bought EMAP. Suddenly my beloved Hot Rod Bikes is owned by the same people who put out Hot Bike. Though our circulation was bigger (just not on the newsstand), we were transferred down to work under the thumb of the people who make Hot Bike. Also located in sprawl-y Orange County. Under the direction of the Truckin’ people. Because that makes sense. They proceeded to slash the budget and take away almost all of the things that made it a different magazine. But, at the time, Street Chopper was just the chopper-only version of Hot Bike that didn’t even have a different staff, so clearly this approach worked for them.

    Thankfully, at that exact moment, I was trusted to start ATV Rider instead, so I avoided that whole mess.

  • Larry Little

    Ah, JB, always a fun read. However, you effectively showcase the bane of the internet, which is to never let facts get in the way of a good story. Perhaps if you wanted the facts on what led to the demise of Cycle (the fact that it was a great magazine really had nothing to do with it), placing a call to someone who was involved in the decision to pull the plug might’ve been in order. But, then again, I was waiting until I retired to tell the real story – and what a story it will be with a central character by the name of Pecker!

    • john burns

      Larry! You’ll have to retire that argument about the internet soon, the www seems to be not going away.
      I wasn’t really aware I’d put forth a theory about why the thing happened, only that it did. Feel free to enlighten us man. If you wait till you retire, nobody will remember. Or care. Did I miss Jim Hansen’s funeral? He seemed like a good guy. Glad you’re a MO reader!

      • Larry Little

        JB, not sure what the family did for Jim’s funeral. We’re organizing an industry memorial, and as soon as the details are nailed down I’ll let you know. I will say that Jim enjoyed your unique view of things Moto, so I hope you’ll come out. He was one of the genuinely good guys in the biz.

        • john burns

          (Jiim Hansen and Larry L were Publisher and Associate Publisher (right, Larry?) at Cycle and CW during the Great Schism. We affectionately referred to them as “Big Daddy and the Small White Staff.” And Larry is AMA Person of the Year. Congratulations again, LL!)

          • Larry Little

            Actually, Jim retired as publisher in December of 1990, and I took over the helm at that time. But, at that moment, the plans were already in place for the ‘Great Schism’… Like I said, it’s gonna be a great story with the central character named Pecker!

          • BigPeeWee

            So, LL, why did David Edwards go away from CW? To many, similar in importance to the question, “Why did HD shut the tap off to Buell?”

  • DickRuble

    ‘; the goal for many people is to protect their turf and keep other people from putting out a better product.” — This pretty much is the mantra mid-level management lives by at medium and large corporations.

  • john_m_flores

    Great read and insight into the publishing biz. Been reading you a long time; you’re one of the memorable voices that got me interested in writing about motorcycles as well (I write for RoadRUNNER Magazine).

    I cut my teeth in digital marketing and advertising in the 90s and aughts, and we were always the red-headed stepchild. I’d have to fight tooth and nail for budget and resources yet all the money still went to channels with increasingly diminishing returns–TV, radio, print. And trade shows…waste of money trade shows.

    It’s great to see digital grow up, still red-headed and perhaps still a stepchild, but now a 5% body fat CrossFit monster that will break you in half and then run a 5k. The problem is that we’ve given the stuff away for free for so long to readers (and on-the-cheap for advertisers) that we’re still struggling with the business model. Sure, we can race to the bottom with click-whore headlines leading to dubious content, but that’s like living on Sugar Smacks and Coke. That’s not going to end well.

    The future I think, belongs to sharp, smart niche plays and the Andrew Sullivans and (I can’t believe that I’m writing this) Jenna Marbles of the world, unique voices connecting directly with their audiences, freed from the machinations of the, ahem, machine.

    Keep on keeping on…john m flores

  • Lee Parks

    Nice job JB. I always enjoy your non-PC rants. I don’t think the British style of magazine could find a wide audience in print in this country because there aren’t enough advertisers who would risk supporting it. One of these days all of us in the “old guard” should get together and write the definitive story on the history of our genre.

    Mine started in 1992 with being physically threatened by a Petersen coworker on only my second day, and 60 days later being fired. Years followed as the Editor both on a “prostitorial” trade magazine and then its polar opposite, consumer advocate MCN.

    Next I jumped onto the high-speed motorcycle dot.com fantasy train right before and during the dot.bomb explosion. Finally I decided to do my own thing as a product manufacturer and riding school which is working out much nicer.

    In the meantime I enjoy penning (typing?) the occasional piece for Motorcycle (formerly RoadBike) magazine, and wherever Gabe Ets-Hokin hangs his fanciful hat from MO to City Bike. Gabe once threatened to never run any article I wrote if it was wholesome enough that Friction Zone would even consider running it.

    For now I’m happy to spend most of my writing time on books which enjoy the “write once, get paid many” business model I’ve come to adore after years as a motojournalist slave. Keep up the good fight JB et al. I’m proud to call many of you from the Comment list here friends.

  • Jim Miller

    We should urge Little to tell us more about what happened at Cycle. I’d love to know what a professional apologist has to say about pulling the plug on the most-respected magazine in the business. As I recall our “severance package” was tied to us not complaining publicly about the decision. We never got the full story, but suffice it to say that it’s no coincidence that, Kevin Cameron aside, the only ones who survived were all CW alumnae–and that Larry Little and David Pecker are the most aptly named guys in publishing.

  • Christopher Nugent

    Wow Whatever! This is one of the few motorcycle articles where the comments have as much relevance and quality as the article. I’ll try not to dilute it. But motorcycle journalism went the way of all journalism (Whatever the subject or delivery system) being sucked into a death spiral when Capitalism finally emerged victorious from the back alley dragging the barely breathing body of Democracy. After having kicked the shit out it for years, it now struts the land with the heads of democracy, civil responsibility, fair play and justice, hanging from it’s belt like an putrid charms proclaiming, “Make me money or die. Print/say/testify/swear to this!” Journalism never had a chance as the “certs breaths” and bean counters started worrying more about paying the bills and quarterly profit reports than telling the truth. I suspect the overall hostile environment all of journalism found itself in at that time had as much to do with Cycle’s demise as any single weasel or villain. And it hasn’t improve much today, look at the Net Neutrality Bill as proof.

    • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

      You confuse capitalism with corporatism or really fascism, which is about where we are now.

  • DeadArmadillo

    I’m an old, paper in my hand type of guy but I agree that the end is near for some of the motorcycle mags. The only ones I will keep reading until either I or they die are Motorcycle Consumer News and Road Runner. Every time Ducati changes the length of a bike’s dipstick there is a new article from the likes of CW that gushes on and on about the awesomeness of the bike. Enough already with paying to read monthly stories about marginal motorcycles that no one other than the Squids that write for these mags seem to care about.

  • will

    Always loved your work Burnsy!