Every business has an ugly side. Secrets. The things they don’t want you to know. The facts and politics swept under the rug, hidden from view. We’ve seen it in the auto industry. Volkswagen’s cheating of emission testing systems. Is it possible that there are things in the motorcycle industry that the average consumer, or even dealership owner or employee, doesn’t know about?
At the FEARLESS photo exhibit, someone asked me the question, “Are those motorcycle magazine reviews really unbiased?”
There’s nothing revolutionary about this question. The gossip of biased published motorcycle reviews is older than I am. In today’s world of “Alternative Facts”, you would be naïve not to think everything you read comes with bias. Perhaps more so now than ever.
After having worked in the motorcycle industry, I do have some personal experience to share. I hope you’ll share your own experiences in the comments section below, and draw your own conclusions. Here’s my story on the ugly side of the shiny pages.
THE RECESSION STRIKES
The blow of the recession would devastate the North American motorcycle world. In much of the world, motorcycles are a gateway vehicles but the North American mindset sees them as a non-essential luxury. The well had dried. Sales of vehicles, parts, and accessories plummeted. The motorcycle media wasn’t safe either.
THE MOTORCYCLE MEDIA FELT THE BURN
Cycle World Magazine, first established in 1962, carries an impressive readership of nearly two million. The American Audit Bureau of Circulation indicates that their numbers have decreased nearly 30% in the past decade. This trend is widespread, and readership is down throughout the industry.
- Cycle Canada is thinner and more modest than it was ten years ago
- Magazines are falling prey to selling controversy in order to gain readers
- As readership declines, so to do advertising revenues
- The trend is for motorcycle magazines to be bought and resold, or else closed completely
The journalists, and the people who write their paycheques, are feeling the pinch. Uhlarik points out that online publications are seeing growth, while traditional and established paper magazines are shrinking. Lastly, he admits that people prefer to read reviews by motorcyclists who’s salaries aren’t paid by the makers of the bikes they’re reviewing.
TWO INSTANCES OF CORRUPT MEDIA
In my time in the motorcycle industry, the media twice left a fishy taste in my mouth. The first was a phone call where a motorcycle magazine editor carried himself as if indebted to the manufacturer while discussing a test ride. The second was a magazine that offered to allow me to write a product review myself, assuming I signed on as an advertiser. We declined the offer and did not sign on as an advertiser.
WHY WOULD THE MEDIA FEEL INDEBTED TO ADVERTISERS?
Your magazine subscription likely costs about $20 for ten issues. A half page advertisement in just one magazine costs over $2,500, while a full page will run over $4,000. Advertising revenues are a magazine’s bread and butter. Manufacturers, not subscribers, represent the vast majority of a magazine’s revenue, either through direct advertisements or through co-op advertising programs set up for their dealers.
Given that the motorcycle media is funded by manufacturers, can we trust the magazine test ride reviews to be impartial?
MOTO JOURNALISTS – THE TOUGHEST NERDS, EVER
Not only are moto journalists excellent riders, but like all gearheads, they are glorified nerds. They can speak candidly about the smallest piece of a motorcycle’s innards. They understand how the slightest modification – a change of a few degrees, a clearance of a fraction of a millimetre – can affect a motorcycle’s handling and performance. They understand both the physics and the engineering of motorcycling. The best of them don’t just tell us, but teach us, in their reviews.
SOCIAL, IN THEIR OWN WAY
They’re a friendly bunch, too, and quite social. Despite their closet geek status, they will outride you, outdrink you, and sometimes even outnaked you. That’s you, Mark.
Not all of them are the most social. Steve Thornton may have been the first person to leave the FEARLESS exhibit, but at least he showed up. Steve Bond gives me the impression of being locked in a cabin by Lake Scucog, with nothing but a typewriter, a tool box, and a carrier pigeon, as he carefully dissects the latest Honda. Nevertheless, these are my two all time favorite motorcycle reviewers, and I will read and re-read their reviews before writing my own.
Lastly, motorcycle journalists are a gallant and generous bunch. When this site was in it’s infancy, Motorcycle Mojo magazine hooked us up with media passes, as well as free magazine subscriptions as prizes for YouMotorcycle visitors. Later, when a company I worked for made a major announcement, neither Gwen nor Glenn Roberts asked any questions of me to gain insider knowledge. I spoke with them a handful of times over that weekend.
But sometimes… sometimes employers and employees call it exactly as they see it. Based on what I’ve seen, it would be wrong to paint all publications with the same brush. Maybe this is just one of those questions that don’t have a definitive answer. Maybe we need to take what we read with a grain of salt, on a case-by-case basis. In a world of #alternativefacts, maybe that’s the best answer we can get.
What do you think?
RT @YouMotorcycle: In a World of Alternative Facts, Should You Trust Your Motorcycle Magazine? https://t.co/K0mb4uESn2 https://t.co/MPpEG9k…
Sometimes The truth is in the words and sentence structure riide on play safe
I agree. Some you trust, some you wonder about. If it’s one of those print magazines where an ad for the same product is on the opposite open page(s) of the review — throw the magazine away because no manufacturer in its right mind is going pay for placement opposite a mediocre or lousy review, so if they pay to place the ad they have confidence the review will be tepid at worst and possibly a re-puke of the ad contents. A little tougher online because ad spots aren’t usually fixed – and we see what we’ve looked up everywhere.
Also impossible to know what happened before the review. Was the reviewer sent to a cool luxury spot and equipped with cool apparel and accessories (to keep) incidental to the review? Has the same guy or gal been writing about that same company for a while? The relationships between journalists and manufacturers can help in getting explanations and insight, but if the same p.r. and product people that’s paying for your room and bought you dinner last night are waiting to see what you write, at best you won’t want to offend them and might use more polite terms than otherwise to explain some wonky crap you turned up while riding. Or… well, maybe you just forget that part because there’s no room and you’re all outta words describing the turn signals.
But yeah, still most magazines/websites and reviewers have to earn the trust of their readers. Trustworthy site and mags set and communicate their standards to reviewers. From the perspective of a working journalist (not bikes, but electronics) I know if an editor tells you you’re being too nice in something you write you know they work hard to keep everyone honest and to punch when needed. Otoh, if you turn in copy and only the harsh or even slightly critical bits in your article copy are questioned, you get clued in about butter and bread.
When the magazines mostly blew away, the ones that hung on had to have good business sense and maintain advertisers, for sure, but they only could do so by keeping readership up by telling the truth consistently.
Also, maybe a small point, but readers need to be savvy enough to get that a news article about a new product announcement isn’t likely have much if any negative content. Even a first look/first take/first impression piece usually isn’t too harsh, unless the defects and problems are outrageous. The place to really tell if the reviewer is dealing straight is in an actual review that digs deep – if everything is perfect or wonderful in a review, something is smelly.
Back in the day in paper mags at the best pubs anyway there was a hard wall between editorial and advertising. We reviewers couldn’t even have a cup of coffee with ad buyers. We could have meals with press reps and product managers, but at the mags I worked for we were required to pay for the meals ourselves (we were reimbursed). We could go to press events and accept small stuff like pens or mouse pads, or maybe hat or bags, but if companies tried to gift us with hardware or other stuff we weren’t allowed to accept it and if we did we could lose our jobs.
I think I’ll have that second cup of coffee now.
Well said, Bruce. Really glad you chimed in to give a journalists perspective. I’m grateful, albeit a little saddened, to see that your experiences align with mine. Thanks for sharing!