The Bitter End
There's more to blame for the struggles of print than the online migration of readers
At an auto parts, housewares, and sporting goods retailer, on the rack alongside GQ, Esquire, and Maxim, is a magazine cover out of sync with the graphic franticness of the men’s magazines. The title that stands alone is Cycle World, and the question it poses (serenely, austerely) is whether the reimagined monthly-to-quarterly is the future of motorcycling in print or the swansong of an American heavyweight.
I pick it up. It’s thick. Like a book. Or the bible. And the exclamation marks once so beloved by the editor are gone. Instead of shout-it-out cover texts of the past (Pure Fun! First Ride! Performance Per Dollar Comparo!) the new Cycle World presents the year of publication, the issue number, the cost, and a photograph of an unidentified motorcycle. That’s it. There’s no hint at what the pages within contain. (Even The New Yorker’s newsstand edition lures readers by teasing content.) Cycle World’s cover channels the vibe of an impoverished literary magazine, like Ploughshares or The Idaho Review. While likely unintentional, Cycle World’s depression-era aesthetic is eerily apt.
The years following the great crash of ’08 crippled the motorcycle industry, with few facets of the business as decimated as print magazines. Cycle World, once reliably thick, shrunk below 100 pages per issue. Stories became shorter, the graphic design busier, and the content increasingly anodyne. And the paper became so thin that the magazine, rolled tight in the hand, couldn’t execute the
wayward housefly that survived the frosts of fall.
Once upon a time, manufacturers viewed Cycle World as an essential element to marketing motorcycles in America. Because of its clout, Cycle World viewed itself as responsible to, and for, the success of motorcycling in the US. This sense of obligation gave Cycle World the leaden earnestness of a two-wheeled Foreign Affairs. Cycle World’s editor was tasked less with generating vibrant and engaging content for readers than he was with the airless obligation of diligently shepherding an industry organ.
Most striking about Cycle World in recent years was the abandonment by advertisers. Motorcycle—and other special interest—magazines have advertising rates higher per reader than general interest magazines. The rationale is that a motorcycle manufacturer will pay handsomely to reach an audience exclusively of motorcyclists, whereas manufacturers of shaving cream or beer can reach potential customers more economically via mass market titles. For this reason, motorcycle magazines depend on a narrow advertising base—essentially a half-dozen major OEMs and, to lesser degree, the oil, apparel, and accessories aftermarket. What happened to Cycle World is that OEMs severely curtailed spending on the full-page, full-rate ads that had been the financial backbone of motorcycle magazines for a generation.
It's thick, it looks good, and Peter Egan is on the masthead. But it's not enough to prevent Cycle World from embodying the fast-fading era when America ruled the motorcycling universe.
At first blush it’s hard to fathom how a magazine that boasted 300,000 subscribers could fall so hard so fast. Cycle World’s vulnerability is due to the economic model created by publishers in the era of plentiful advertising dollars. Before society migrated online, print magazines were the gatekeepers to enthusiasts. The title with the most readers could charge the highest ad rates. Absurdly cheap subscription rates lured more readers because it wasn’t your money publishers sought, it was your eyes. Advertising revenue, disproportionately, paid for the show. If you’ve ever wondered why expensive European motorcycle magazines have more freewheeling content than magazines from North America, follow the money trail. Predominantly reader-funded titles serve readers. Ad-funded titles serve advertisers.
Citing research that “millennials and boomers” would support a motorcycle magazine with coffee table aspirations, parent company Bonnier Corporation, who had previously turned another of their titles, Motorcyclist, from monthly to bi-monthly, rang in 2018 by pruning Cycle World to a quarterly. Freed from the tyranny of timely reporting (Cycle World’s website handles the nitty-gritty on new bikes and news), a quarterly promises a broader, more enlightened mix of content, and, with months between issues, the time to fully develop and finesse stories.
On the masthead, the new Cycle World looks like the old Cycle World. Atop the list is editor (in chief!) Mark Hoyer, trailed by technical editor Kevin Cameron, editor-at-large Peter Egan, and art director Justin Page. Egan has long been one of motorcycling’s most reliable writers, but his contribution to Cycle World’s second issue of 2018, a piece on Ducati’s 1991-98 900SS, reads like recycled content, and, at six pages, is stretched a page or two beyond what its visuals can support. (Three of its four photographs are images from the same photo shoot—art director Page should have dug into the archives with more conviction.)
Kevin Cameron contributes significantly to the issue, and while Cameron is more adept at shimming a transmission mainshaft than most motorcycle writers, his tendency to become mired in minutiae at the expense of the broader story undermines his success as a writer. In a story about Honda’s RS750 flat tracker, Cameron dutifully writes of the RS’s “…three ring pistons fitted at the usual Japanese engine clearance of 0.0012 to 0.0016 inch.” Piston-to-cylinder clearances merely bulk-out text, especially since, as Cameron admits, it’s the “usual” specification—what makes this worthy of inclusion?
A page later, in the same story, Cameron asks of Honda’s then-nascent participation in flat track, “How did folks see these newcomers? As adding welcome diversity to Harley’s 27 GNC titles in 38 years? Or as destroyers, unfairly buying success?” Then Cameron elliptically references intake restrictors, the governing body’s attempt to slow the Hondas, but it reads more as non-sequitur than satisfactory answer to his own question. Had Cameron answered his own—very good—question, he’d have written that Honda, despite employing red-blooded American riders Bubba Shobert and Ricky Graham, were often booed when they won because flat track was viewed by many fans as Harley’s exclusive domain. Hardly a welcome to encourage Honda to stay in the game. Sure enough, Honda quit flat track. It’s the story that could have been told.
Elsewhere in Issue 2, 2018, is a test of the Husqvarna Vitpilen 701, a piece by Cameron on the late car racer and motorcyclist Dan Gurney, an editorial by Hoyer on the late car racer and motorcyclist Dan Gurney, and a mix of pieces that cover motocross exotics, the cover’s (now identified!) Indian FTR1200, soft-core profiles of industry titans, Cameron’s musings on carburation and carbon fibre, and a photo essay on the Goodwood Revival.
In story variation Cycle World succeeds. And the paper is heavy. And the photographs, especially by staffer Jeff Allen, are excellent. But the issue is let down by lacklustre writing and poor editing. The section “Components” is explained, clunkily, as “The Pieces of Motorcycles and Their History That Matter.” Attention to detail is equally wanting. Engine rpms are written as 1,000 and 8500 and 10,000 and 9000. Are you in or out with the commas? Minor? Maybe. But a quarterly is about sweating the details. And editor Hoyer should have demanded Egan dig deeper for his Ducati story and Cameron clarify his Honda text. It isn’t only the writing that disappoints. Three of 2018’s four covers have a photograph of the right side of a motorcycle in profile. Since when is banality an asset to any endeavour?
In a video posted to cycleworld.com, Hoyer introduces the quarterly as having “…returned to the core values of in-depth storytelling.” Hoyer notes “group assets” and “brand eco-systems.” But Hoyer’s language is the rhetoric of marketing, whereas journalism’s goal is to debunk the nonsense of empty buzzwords. Should Cycle World fail in its new format, it’ll be interpreted as another victim in the decline of print. But there’s more to it than that. It’ll be the tale of a magazine whose time has come. And gone.