Who Pays for Your Magazine?

My wife was an avid reader of Gourmet magazine. She was disappointed when the magazine ceased publication a little over a year ago. It wasn’t that Gourmet was not popular – it had as many readers as before. But in the recession, ad revenues had declined

This points out how modern magazines are financed. Most of their revenue comes from advertisements. In fact, 2010 was a good year for magazines, not because readership increased, but because more car companies ran ads. The subscriptions play a minor role in the balance sheet, which is why you see so many “specials,” where you can subscribe for 50%, 70% or even 90% off the cover price. (More readers mean the magazines get paid more for the ads.)

Mainstream magazines contain just enough editorial content to keep you reading, and thus looking at the ads. With that business model, it also is obvious that the editorial content should not contradict the ads.

When the Detroit News a few months ago changed a car review after a major advertiser complained, many were shocked, but in the bike world, this is much more common. I write for other magazines from time to time, and last year, my editors changed an article I wrote. Why? I had criticized a material used in a bag that they were selling through their online shop.

Most of the time, however, this is more subtle. Modern magazines represent the industry, not the readers. (After all, it’s the industry who pays them, not the readers.) This means that certain questions just won’t get raised…

You rarely find a mainstream car magazine telling you that the quality of  many modern cars is lower than it was 20 years ago. (Toyota pays 30% less for the same parts today than they did 10 years ago. How do their suppliers make ends meet? By cutting corners.) Mainstream bike magazines rarely tell you that modern bicycles could be improved. (It wasn’t VeloNews or Bicycling who figured out that wider tires roll faster on real roads.)

None of this means that mainstream magazines are bad. They are what they are – vehicles created to make you look at advertisements. There are a few exceptions, among them Consumer Reports, which does not solicit advertising at all.

Similarly, Bicycle Quarterly tries to represent the interests of our readers, not of the bike industry. More than 90% of our revenue comes from our readers. Our income from ads has gone down in recent years, not so much because of the recession, but because of our honest reporting and testing. We don’t mind: We can afford to lose advertisers, because our readers, who pay our bills, appreciate honest reporting. And the growth in readership has more than made up for the lost ad revenue. Most of all, as cyclists, we see ourselves as partners, but not servants, of the bike industry.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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18 Responses to Who Pays for Your Magazine?

  1. djconnel says:

    Great quote I heard once: “In the media, the advertisers are the customer and you are the product. It’s the media’s job to deliver you to its customers.”

  2. Keith Andrews says:

    Bravo Jan!… another devoted follower

  3. Ray Niekamp says:

    Integrity is a rare commodity these days. I’m pulling for you.

  4. thelazyrando says:

    I was given a free glossy magazine by a shop owner the other day. I had to take a 90min ferry to get home so I thought I would read it on the trip. After 15mins I came to the conclusion the 40 page publication didn’t contain a single useful article for the reasons you describe.

    Later that day a friend was over and asked to borrow the magazine when I was done with it. I told him to take it when he left, but I think the fact it looked pristine made him ask me “…have you read it?…”

    My reply was “…there isn’t anything to read…”

    safe riding,

    Vik
    http://www.thelazyrando.com

    • Tim says:

      Your comment on the quality of various publications rings so true! Here is my story: I have subscribed to the magazine Rouleur since it first came out some years ago. It has a very different focus from BQ, so isn’t a competitor. If you are not familiar with the magazine (although “magazine” doesn’t quite describe it, or BQ) it is a beautifully illustrated, beautifully written British publication mostly about racing. Anyhow, I loaned a copy of an issue to my doctor who said he was an avid cyclist. During a follow-up appointment during which he returned the magazine he gave me a telephone number to call for additional questions. When we couldn’t readily find a scrap of paper, he wrote the name and phone number on the front of the magazine! Horrified was how I felt and I’d feel the same if that happened to one of my BQs. One of these days I need to get around to ordering a back issue of BQ that I spilled coffee on…

  5. As a sidenote to this topic, I think it is a mistake for manufacturers to fear negative (or more likely, mixed) reviews, or to only advertise in magazines that review their products positively. Honest and well-balanced reviews are informative and valued by readers. We still purchase products despite reading mixed reviews of them, because it is often obvious from the reviews that the criticism is user-specific, and what the reviewer found unappealing we might find appealing indeed. On the other hand, overly glowing reviews tend to be regarded with suspicion by readers, especially if the manufacturer is an advertiser. I think that this is something manufacturers should give some serious thought to.

    • I think a lot of makers understand this. For example, we really appreciate working with the builders who send us bikes for review. They know that we won’t just gush over the “hand-filed lugs” and “heritage,” but provide constructive criticism. Almost all of them report that they got a good number of orders from the reviews… and we’ve formed lasting friendships with quite a few of them.

      • Mr.S. says:

        One of the kayaking magazines has the best example of this I have seen. They start with manufacturer copy; follow with their own review, including physical descriptions of the testers; and allow the manufacturer space to respond to the review. Seems the most fair and honest way to go about it. Also very informative.

      • That is very similar to our approach. We also provide space for the makers to comment on the review. Our goal is to provide information for our readers, so they can make up their own minds.

      • James says:

        Did you talk with Dario Pegoretti before you reviewed his frame? I think your experience may have been different had the bicycle fit you better.

      • As with every review, we sent the draft to the importers, Gita, before we published it. They had nothing to say. In an internet forum, they later wrote that they prefer their fans trash our magazine over engaging in a serious discussion.

        Most of our criticisms in that review had nothing to do with the frame fit, but with the harsh ride and overly stiff frame. A smaller frame would have ridden even harsher and been even stiffer. If Gita/Pegoretti had asked us to test a smaller frame or a different model, we gladly would have done so. The Pegoretti did not fit any differently from many of our test bikes, which we liked a lot and which performed great for us. But it’s easy to deflect the criticism of the bike by focusing on one detail, rather than addressing the concerns we raised. Most of those so critical of the review haven’t even read the article.

  6. doug in seattle says:

    This is why I so anxiously look forward to your magazines four times a year.

  7. Mr.S. says:

    And much appreciated. Been lurking on your blog. I have to look into the subscription price to Japan…

  8. Ryan says:

    I hope to see “Bicycle Monthly” one of these days!

    • It is hard enough work to produce a quality magazine every three months… There is no way we could keep the quality of content if the magazine were to be monthly. We’d have to cut the time we spend on research, shorten the time we spend on our test bikes, etc. Not the way we want to go!

      • Mr.S. says:

        What I’d really like to see is a DVD compilation of your magazines. Saves a lot of trees, searchable, and easier to get shipped to me in Japan (hopefully a bit cheaper, too).

  9. Tim says:

    I really appreciate your reviews of bicycles and equipment. You do hold builders and manufacturers to a very high – and occasionally very specific – standard, but anyone who submits a complete bicycle for review should certainly know this. The response of most builders is generally positive, and I question the commitment and business sense of those who do not respond in good faith. It is really astonishing to read how often you receive bicycles which have been improperly assembled! I recently bought a high-quality and expensive juvenile bike from one of the big Dutch manufacturers and had to rebuild several areas before I’d let my daughter ride it.

  10. Bill says:

    Motorcycle Consumer News is another publication that lives exclusively on subscription revenue, however even then they are fairly weak as far as criticizing tested products. You call them as you see them, and that kind of objectivity is what makes your publication stand out. Keep it up!

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