Bike Mag is dead — this is probably why

Bike Magazine, which has been the leader in mountain biking publications for decades, is dead. (Kind of.)

This is obviously a sad moment for the sport and especially media geeks like us. But it doesn’t mean Bike wasn’t working, or that it couldn’t work in another format. 

I don’t know all the facts — the following analogy is based on assumption; never a good look, but I’ll continue anyway — behind the title’s staff being ‘suspended indefinitely’. However, I’ve seen a similar saga play out from the inside as a staff member at the now-defunct (but still kind of wearily wandering zombie-website-like through cyberspace) Dirt Magzine.

It was early 2015 when a suit descended from London to briefly pull Dirt magazine staff into a meeting room to deliver a message: we’re closing all print titles, they’re costing the company too much. The true message was this: we’re closing all print titles, they aren’t making us enough money. Not necessarily meaning they were greedy, just that Dirt was carrying a lot of dead weight. I have a sneaking suspicion the same is true of Bike and its publisher.

I know from firsthand experience (through the annuals, zines and one-offs we produce) that print is very much a viable medium. Just because people like to stare at phones and websites and videos, doesn’t mean they don’t also like to read and enjoy photography in print. As we’ve also discovered, do something well and the industry will get behind you too — we enjoy fantastic support from big and small companies.

What we think are the keys to sustainable print media in the modern era are in a list below — because who doesn’t enjoy a listicle?

It’s really just a jotting down of the rules we have followed in building Misspent Summers as a print-centric (but not limited to print, that wouldn’t work) brand from nothing to microscopic in a few years. The irony is that Bike ticked pretty much all of these boxes — it was always dedicated to including the best features by top journalists and photographers, paid people well, was printed to a decent standard, and so on. But, like Dirt, it was — another assumption — probably supporting the enormous overheads of a swanky HQ, propping up poorly judged investments, paying dozens of full-time staff, dealing with a massive logistics nightmare (see: circulation), and so on.

  • think realistic: there are tens of millions of mountain bikers in the world, but you ain’t going to be selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies like some magazines did in their heyday
  • be small: we are a minuscule team with minuscule costs
  • stay small: don’t employ chancers who are in it for an easy ride and happy to waste company time and money
  • be not greedy: don’t expect to get rich, but you can make a living if you are small
  • stay not greedy: as the company grows, get behind other people and brands doing similar stuff and who have an outlook like yours
  • respect your freelancers: pay a respectable amount (as much as you feasibly can — we’d like to pay more and will do as we grow) and they’ll pay you back with excellent work
  • quality counts: when you start watering down your product with free content and crap adverts, people will look to the internet instead (there’s plenty of both and they don’t have to pay for it)
  • don’t be a corporation: Dirt was well functioning when it got shuttered. It was doing well enough to support other parts of the publishing company that were failing, but that put added pressure on Dirt
  • support your suppliers: apart from our freelancers, we try to send as much work as possible to a small number of suppliers (printers, distribution, etc) to help them stay alive and thrive (relatively speaking)
  • don’t be silly: monthly mags sold in shops, in my opinion, are a disaster waiting to happen. I used to go into stores and browse mags (and buy them) daily. Now it’s probably once a month, max. Think modern: lower quantities, core audience, reach them directly thanks to the wonders of the internet
  • don’t do circulation speak: mags and some brands are still obsessed with circulation numbers — the figures quoted when discussing how many copies of a publication an advert will appear in. I’ve heard ludicrous circulation quotes recently (50k for a niche MTB mag, for example). At Misspent Summers we regularly joke about the number of those magazines being circulated directly to recycling, because it isn’t a ‘copies sold’ number. Most of them probably sit on a shop shelf then get binned. We tell advertisers that our sales numbers are embarrassingly small but our customers are the core of mountain biking and they are passionate, devoted and influential. (I can think of one brand that has said they would advertise only if we could give them higher circulation numbers — something we could easily achieve by, well, lying; or doing the other industry-standard method of pointlessly printing extra copies we know we won’t sell. We said no, sorry, this is us, this is the truth. They didn’t advertise, but lots of cool companies get the point)
  • limit the ads: fill it to the brim with advertising and why the hell would anyone pay for it? We limit our books even though it means we have to turn away valuable (duh) money
  • be fluid: print, in my opinion, is the best way of displaying and consuming well thought out writing and inspired photography. But we are more than happy to publish online, make films, sell merch and so on. It’s all creative media stuff at the end of the day
  • love your customers: we have a small but dedicated core of customers who we speak to on social media, via email, even by snail mail. We make stuff we think they will love because they are the people who make our company possible. We respect their feedback and use it to keep improving so they stay involved and keep supporting us
  • don’t let the bean counters take control: if you love mountain biking and creating great media things, you know where your priorities lie and they probably aren’t on a spreadsheet with a profit column

 

Maybe I’m being a little (lot) presumptuous here. As I said, I don’t know the details behind Bike’s probably-permanent closure. Plus, maybe we’ll feel the tighter pinch of Covid now I’ve doomed us with this cocksure piece of brain fart writing.

The point is, I’m pretty gutted that another pillar of mountain biking, a vital piece of the sport’s foundations, a place that celebrates amazing photography, writing and design, has been taken away when it could have thrived, relatively speaking, in the hands of the right people — its staff members, not its managers and managers’ managers and micro-management managers.

That is to say, a small team and modest publisher could make a living and continue to create Bike’s defining features in print and online (its occasional, brilliant, video pieces will be missed).

The problem, in my humble guesstimation, is that a big corporation (the owner of Bike) expected to wring equally phat money from the magazine — but getting rich from any media platform is never going to happen in this day and age (how many websites do you know that are raking it in without diversifying into various different areas? And how many social media accounts make money? A few Youtube channels or individuals do OK but they tend to sacrifice journalism for the algorithm).

I hope Bike’s staff get together and create something that is timeless and sustainable and as much an industry leader as the original, whether that be a quarterly or annual print product, online thing or something else I don’t have the vision to dream up while waffle typing.

Some small cycling publications we love that seem to have the balance right:

Freehub (well worth subscribing to)

Cranked (on sale in our store)

Shredder (on sale in our store)

Cheers.

James

Update: I’ve just read a suit wearer on a social media platform spouting boardroom talk about ROIs and moving-forwardses and loss leaders and so on and saying this proves print is dead. (It’s exactly this sort of unvisionary that can kill any project.) I agree, magazines and even online outlets in their traditional format — that is, loads of suits in boardrooms patting themselves on the back and bleeding a company dry while a small team struggles to run the pointy bit (the publication) at the top (or the squashed flat bit under the bottom, depending on who you ask) of this pinstriped pyramid — is ludicrously outdated and impossible in this day and age. But the beauty of accessible, cheap technology (computers, publishing software, etc), modern printing (it’s hard to tell if something has been printed digitally these days — which opens the doors for companies to print in smaller runs without the outlay of traditional print setup costs) and easy, free global marketing (social media, websites) means the megacorp structures behind old school publications are no longer needed. Now the core team members, the people who create the thing, can do it all themselves. Which is great. And they can mix it up with an online platform (starting at £Free) and social media content (also starting at £Free — assuming they have a smartphone) too. Because the world is a marvellous place that doesn’t always need boardroom meetings and doesn’t always need to follow spreadsheet logic.

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CORE TEAM:
FOUNDER-DIRECTOR: James McKnight
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CO-DIRECTOR: Mike Rose
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