Many folks say that the greatest invention of the last millennium is Gutenberg’s printing press. I’m inclined to agree, largely because it leads to almost every other invention since. The mass production and distribution of the printed word, not to mention imagery, has had an unequaled effect on everyone in society and every society on earth. Some say, in this 21st millennium, the printed word is dying… if not dead. I’m inclined to disagree with that. But something is going on and it caught up with me quite recently.
As a lad, I used to ride my 80cc tiddler to the closest motorcycle shop and buy “expired” leftover magazines. At 25 cents a copy or less (if the cover was missing) I could afford a precious few, now and then, on paper route money. I learned a lot from the articles, loved the pictures as grainy and small as they often were, and studied every page as though it were holy writ, my young and open mind soaking it all up like a sponge. Road tests, tech articles and a whole lot more… I kept almost all of them. Not a collection… a hoard. I referred back to them frequently, thumbed them to death to gain insight as to what I should dream of and aspire to in the future. Soon, there came a time when I could afford some new mags. They mostly told, in depth and in advance, what was new, what was happening, from whom, where, when, and how—the only pipeline into my passion there was at the time. After a time, a compulsion to read all I could from whoever printed it became second nature. There were plenty of good choices… so I chose ’em all. The stacks of monthlies proliferated like rabbits. With notable ebb and flow through all the times, triumphs and tribulations of my life, acquisition continued as a constant and a comfort for 55 years. Then, sneakily, silently and swiftly, something shadowy and seductive snuck up behind and started to compete, then take over.
As this is written, I have donated well over 6,500 car and motorcycle magazines and books to the Friends of the Library… over a period to two weeks. That’s about half of ’em. I was astonished! Then, on a whim, I booted my computer and discovered I had somehow, sort of surreptitiously, collected several hundred digital articles about the machines I love on the hard drive, with more available daily… if you know where (and how) to look. I was astonished! Finally… it dawned on me.
Digits and widgets
Hey, does anybody still use an 8-track to play music? Keep a jukebox in the basement to boogie to? Carry a boombox on your shoulder at the beach? Headphones and a turntable still giving you the full effect of Sergeant Pepper? Fact is, thanks to the digital revolution, all the music you can get at via these methods can be stored on a thumb drive, played on your phone or tablet… taking up a fraction of the space, with none of the bulk the older systems demand. Instantly accessible, portable, no skipping, scratching, warping or fouled tape, either. The music remains, the delivery systems don’t. Disney, for instance, has made a science out of this. Snow White was a movie from 1937, then a VHS, then DVD, now a digital download… which keeps selling to this day. You get the drift.
It was much the same with my moto mags. Time to reevaluate the delivery system. What had started as tidy, organized stacks under the bed and on the nightstand, then in the closet, grew and grew, filling up a long-wheelbase Dodge van when times were hard and I was mobile… then expanding to fill all the space in a 10′ x 20′ room once I settled down. And I mean all the space! The total clutter got to epic proportions and finally choked on its own bulk. You can’t read a magazine if you can’t find it. You can’t find if it’s buried behind and under thousands of others. You can’t dig it out if there’s no room to move the stacks. What good is that?
I’m not one who waxes lyrical about the smell of old books, or the tactile delights of bindings and silky pages… aesthetics be damned. I just want to read… but preferably without worrying about a low phone battery or an Internet connection. All the same, something had to give. Realizing I could carry a huge digital library around in my pocket, the decision I never thought I could or would make… came naturally.
Separating wheat from chaff
Here are some figures you might find illuminating. In the U.S. the top magazines in regard to recent circulation are:
AARP The Magazine: 23,144,225
AARP Bulletin: 22,700,94
Costco Connection: 8,740,785
Better Homes and Gardens: 7,645,364
Game Informer: 6,353,075
Jeez! Three outta five aren’t much more than sales catalogs. BH&G I can’t account for at all (although my wife laments that her fave Martha Stewart Living has only half as many pages and half the circulation it had a decade ago. A clue?). Game Informer is also a fat clue as to why millennials don’t ride motorcycles!
Meanwhile, there’s this: Cycle World magazine had a circulation of a bit over 220,000 before its publisher Bonnier recently made the call to take it to a quarterly publication. The same company also owns Motorcyclist, the oldest motorcycle magazine title in the world, and determined that six issues a year would be enough of that. Sport Rider folded. Although Buzz Kanter’s American Iron seems alive and well by today’s standards, Easyriders in its prime was one of the top-selling magazines… of any kind… at, near or above, a million a month! Not anymore. Cycle World and Cycle both spent most of their respective lives enjoying circulation numbers consistently close to half a million a month. Way more than the circulation of today! It’s mostly the moto mags published in the heyday of all these titles and many more… that I’ve kept. It’s complicated and based on personal preference. Not intending to ignore or insult anyone involved… only to never give up on the printed word or the pictures that are worth a thousand of ’em.
Through not much fault of their own, the digital thing being what it is, print moto mags have been forced to re-trench over the last decade or so. Lordy-Lordy, it’s been ever-less depth in ever-thinner page counts for too long! I can only hope that the latest format changes and publication schedules… work… to keep print mags alive until they find their future. If you can’t beat the Internet, you shouldn’t compete with it.
Quality not quantity
Cycle World appeared on the scene in 1962 and immediately went to the head of the class because they actually tested new machines and told the truth about what they found. CW also invented the “data panel” that gave the reader the basic findings, all on one page. Quarter-mile times and trap speeds as well as zero to whatever speeds were standard… every test… every issue. In March 1970, Cycle published the first comparison test of newly-minted “superbikes.” Eight years later they printed (wait for it)… a 21-page… road test of the Honda CBX!
But more than that, there was the journalism, the sheer intellectual quality of writing and turn of phrase, that made these mags a must-read. Waiting impatiently for each issue to come in the mail or show up at the grocery store became an ingrained habit. It was great stuff cover to cover! Because the men behind the mags made it so. Guys like Bob Greene, Ed Hertfelder, Gordon Jennings, Phil Schilling, Cook Neilson, Allan Girdler, Peter Egan, and David Edwards, to name a few, didn’t just go for it… they took you along! I kept almost all of ’em!
Today, CW’s Mark Hoyer, the inimitable Kevin Cameron and the latest wordsmith to make it big, Paul d’Orleans, (among others), uphold the tradition. Hoyer’s got to manage both CW’s digital and print formats and d’Orleans is the epitome of the new way to go… a blogger who’s hit the big time in print media, writing for several mags both here and abroad! Cameron’s worth volumes and seems to walk his own path anyway. But most of the men and machines that shaped my life in motorcycles and inspired me to the paths I took along the way, were of the ink-and-paper era. Looking back is useful and fun but looking forward is necessary.
Modern magazines have to take on a different role… youthful appeal, unique artistry, elegance and taste, new angles and insights, in-depth perspectives on the sport that can’t be matched elsewhere. Modern moto mags must catch the eyes of the readers, keep their noses in the pages, brains in gear and hearts longing. Print books and magazines must always strive to be the “gold standard” in whatever format and form they take. You know… stuff you’ll want to keep under the bed or on the nightstand.
Fortunately, there are many legs under the bed. We can have the latest trends and tidbits instantly via the web. Get the in-depth details and insights in our print magazines, or digital versions of same (or both in some cases)… and… take the old moto mags the digital route as well! Either on the web or with a good scanner and some patience. We’ll look back on it someday, as Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us!”
As for me, it was high time! When clutter gives way to collection… there’s room for all… at my house, anyway.