Categories: Features
April 23, 2014
| On 5 years ago

Whatever! – Motorcycle Magazine Confidential

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.

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 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.

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.

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.