Collision Course: Advertising and Enthusiast Publishing
Enthusiast publications confront a fundamental problem at the very outset of their existence. Whether the magazine or web site covers bicycles, guns or cars, much—if not most—of its revenue will come from advertisers. Keeping those advertisers happy can be a challenge, even if its products are good. One lousy (or just substandard) product followed by an honest review can see ad revenue dry up faster than British humor in the summer sun.
The Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning car reviewer, Dan Neil, once stoned (verbally, mind you) a GM vehicle and suggested that some of the company’s top brass were out of touch and didn’t much deserve their jobs. He stopped short of asking for their heads on pikes, but anyone who read the reviews heard that between the lines.
GM pulled their ad dollars and asked for Neil’s head on a pike.
Surf magazines have generally skirted this issue by forgoing reviews of surf equipment; most surf magazines just don’t review surf boards. Bike magazines arouse suspicion in their readers by finding all bikes to be stiff at the bottom bracket while offering stellar vertical compliance. The products that most reviewers don’t like usually have at least one detail in common—the manufacturer isn’t an advertiser.
How did this situation arise? It’s hard to say, but one practice helped corrupt the relationship between publisher and advertiser. It used to be that there was a separation between church and state: editorial didn’t know what advertising was up to and advertising didn’t poke their head into content. Somewhere along the line the ad sales director realized that if he knew about positive editorial ahead of time, those mentions could be leveraged to sell more ads. Editors were forced to plan issues in advance and tell advertising what those plans were. Naturally, there was pressure to say who was getting positive, rather than negative, mentions.
The fouling of the tide pool came when advertising started asking for specific products to be reviewed and to make sure those reviews were positive. At times, it’s possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship between ad and edit. In a small staff, both can serve as eyes for the other. Many times I’ve told ad sales guys about someone doing interesting work who seems to be well-capitalized. Other times I’ve had ad sales guys come to me and tell me about a new bike, new energy bar or other new product. I’m a bike guy; I love hearing about new stuff.
I’ve had conversations with some manufacturers and they made it clear that they believed the bigger the ad they purchased, the better my review would—or should—be. I’ve yet to meet someone who held this belief who believed me when I told them I didn’t play that game. In more than 18 years of writing about cycling, I’ve had exactly one instance where I was instructed, yes, INSTRUCTED, to change what I wrote. In that case, I was told to soften a negative review. It was, coincidentally, the most overwhelmingly negative review I’d ever written. The energy bar in question failed just fine without my input.
When I launched Asphalt Magazine, I decided my job was to excite the reader about cycling. Given a reader’s busy day, the few hours each week that can be spent reading a bike magazine ought to reinforce the idea that cycling is the best feature of his or her life, outside of family. In talking with manufacturers I balanced my need to be honest with their need to have positive editorial by telling them, ‘If something seems substandard or if I just plain don’t like it and can’t see beyond my prejudice, I will send it back to you with my suggestions. I won’t lambaste you in my pages.’
Radio Freddy and I had many conversations about new directions that Belgium Knee Warmers might take. Several companies expressed some interest in advertising with BKW. Radio Freddy and I talked about the backlash we might see in the readership by moving from no advertising to taking ads. It’s reasonable for readers to wonder if the sudden introduction of advertising into a blog will change the content out of a concern to keep the advertisers happy.
I decided I was willing to risk a readership backlash in order to meet other goals I had for our content.
BKW readers have seen the blog go silent for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We never offered an explanation, but you might have guessed why. As we weren’t making a dime from BKW, jobs and family sometimes precluded us from devoting time to something we loved enough to do for free.
Advertising isn’t going to change what we write. I’ve never been interested in pursuing the Consumer Reports angle of product testing and the bike industry doesn’t present too many opportunities for Time-like investigative journalism. Unsafe products are few and far between and our only negative or critical posts are generally confined to the issue of doping. That won’t change.
Advertising dollars will give Red Kite Prayer the opportunity to recruit more contributors on a more consistent basis and it will give me the needed justification to devote more time to what has become the most enjoyable and challenging work I do.
As I write this, we have yet to sign a single ad contract. Even so, I know the short list of companies that are the likely advertisers for the site. Those companies that choose to advertise with us will wind up getting some very favorable edit. I won’t be shilling for anyone; rather, the support we receive is an endorsement of the content we provide. I can think of no higher compliment than to have some of the industry’s top manufacturers say they support the work we do. Well, almost.
The best compliment we’ve gotten is your readership.