It happened. I spoke too soon and one of the big dogs went down. Or should I say, got put down. Dirt was a leading light since the day it launched 18 years ago. When it first erupted into the mountain biking consciousness it was a kick in the balls and a middle finger raised from a Fox glove.
Over time Dirt ‘matured’ into something that was irreverent, always on point and professionally unprofessional. It humorously yet staunchly penetrated the smoke and mirrors, presented the beating heart of mountain biking’s zeitgeist, lived fast on the front lines and behind the scenes, and never took itself too seriously. You’d find Dirt stickers on helmets, frames, cars and laptops all over the world because even though it was put together in a chaotic and isolated headquarters somewhere on the border of England and Wales, it perfectly spoke a language that was universally understood by mountain biking’s most core and adrenalized demographic.
Anyone who loved Dirt remembers the first copy of the magazine they found like it was a treasure map or sacred scriptures. Dirt magazine was a true influencer and mouthpiece for mountain biking, so it was a sad day when it was announced recently that the print side of Dirt was ceasing production.
Some people have responded to this by sitting back in their chair, placing their hands behind their heads to smugly say ‘Well, I told you so – print is dead.’ But these people aren’t right. They’re not wrong either, but they really aren’t right. You see, print isn’t dead but print being able to be used as the medium to generate massive market share and suitably Mercedes-affording return on investment for big publishing companies is.
Dirt didn’t stop printing the magazine. The giant media conglomerate that owned Dirt (Factory Media) shut it down because they wanted to save money (jobs, print and production costs) and increase their profits. They didn’t select Dirt especially for the chop, they made a wholesale, sweeping gesture to shut down all the print titles. This was a dispassionate decision that was made by people who didn’t care for the titles it owned, the sports they represented and the readers they serviced other than how much money they could generate. For Dirt’s announcement click here.
Dirt, like every other title Factory held, was just a line item on a spreadsheet. These executives didn’t know or care that they were taking away a vital piece of mountain biking culture. They were just moving figures around on a profit and loss document. Which is fine, that’s business, and you gotta do what you gotta do to survive in that system (I promised myself that I wouldn’t get into a socialist rant about the failings of the economic and political system into which we have made ourselves slaves, so I won’t). But I can’t help thinking that if a few years back Dirt hadn’t been herded into a giant media holding house, like a little cow whose succulent milk was sucked from its teats by an enormous metallic automated machine in a dystopian factory, and bottled by the thousand and shipped to grocery stores, then what would have happened. What if Dirt had been able to stay in its couple of acres of green pasture, allowed to chew on the cud and take in the sunshine? And be hand milked by the milkmaids who would take the milk and drink it themselves? What if Dirt had stayed independent?
Well, most of the big magazines aren’t independent anymore. They were started by small groups of passionate individuals who poured their heart and soul into them because they loved mountain biking and they loved communicating something about it. The good ones kept going and the great ones became so popular in our little niche that big business saw the potential of buying them and skimming dollars off the top. Selling to these bigger media groups has its benefits; the potential of larger circulation which can mean more budget to do more rad stuff, or perhaps to just take a cheque and relax after years of slogging it out to meet deadline after deadline trying to put out an issue each month and making a pittance – but the tradeoff is a lack of control and ownership. Which is why Dirt got put down.
It wasn’t like no one was reading the magazine and no one wanted to advertise in it. What I understand is that Dirt’s subscriber list is larger than it’s ever been and the magazine WAS turning a tidy profit. The editorial crew were still putting out great content – precisely because some of the OGs who had been there for years were still passionate about mountain biking and providing their readers with great content. And people were still buying, subscribing and voraciously digesting every word, picture and printed page like it was the holy bible. I have no doubt that if Dirt was still held by the people that were closest to its core then it would have kept printing until either the printing press failed or they popped their Wellington boots.
Print as a medium to deliver a full immersive reader experience isn’t dead. Sure, readership isn’t at the same levels it once was and the digital experience has taken a great deal of the market share from print, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there that still enjoy sitting back – either on the bog, the couch or the lunchroom bench – and losing themselves in something that was carefully curated and creatively crafted. In recent years there’s been a boom in beautiful, impeccably laid out, limited run magazines that are being put out independently of the big publishers. There’s so many great indie print titles now – and many more being started all the time – that now really is the best time for print there has been for many, many years.
There is a strong future for independent print publications, not necessarily because of the mode of distribution (print) but because of the form of their organization. Small, focused, inspired and creative teams are setting up magazines which service a specific subset of readers. They are flexible enough to respond to the editorial needs and they operate on slim budgets that go right back into making the best content they can, rather than servicing the feudal tyrants of a large publishing company (which are by their very nature greedy and fat). The people behind these titles aren’t trying to make a million dollars, they are just driven to do something and make something they love and can feel proud of.
Today, in mountain biking circles, the Web is where there’s independence. Look at most of the major websites and they are owned and operated by mountain bikers just like you and I (I say most, not all). The people behind them are passionate, bike-infatuated nerds. They started their website because they loved mountain biking and wanted to be thinking about, writing, photographing and riding them 24-7, 365. Again, the good ones are still around and the great ones are doing very well. But the difference is that for now the ownership and control is in the hands of the mountain bikers. For now every decision is a business or editorial decision that is placed in the context of mountain bikes, whereas when big media groups hold the reins then the context is ‘What Mercedes can I afford next year? Just a mid level model with no extras? Nope, I want a better one than that. Let’s make me some more money!’
So, to recap: Although this might seem like a blithering soliloquy for print magazines in mountain biking, it’s not. Instead it’s about celebrating the message over the medium and paying tribute to those that favour self-governance, autonomy and independence of their media outlets.
Do you still buy print mags? How will you get your Dirt fix now?