Last night, returning home from Denver and the Outdoor Retailer trade show, I was stuck in the third row from the back on an oversold United flight, with two babies behind me who cried and fussed the entire two and a half hours. Surely, I thought, there’s a metaphor in there about business today, or publishing, or the competing demands of readers and advertisers, but it didn’t come to me. I just slipped in my ear plugs, pulled my hood over my eyes, and settled into a a semi-lucid dream nap.
That’s pretty much how OR, and trade shows in general, come off—as semi-lucid dream naps. For me, this show was light on brand appointments and heavier on connecting with individuals, allowing room for the aisle magic that occurs when you run into an old friend (or a new one) on your way to the free coffee at Bogs. Perhaps because of that, or maybe just because, this show’s tea leaves were a bit more muddled.
The most intriguing technology development at the show was the launch of a new waterproof and breathable fabric from the North Face called FutureLight. TNF actually announced FutureLight at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, but this was its launch to the outdoor press. Two years in development, and led by Scott Mellin, TNF’s GM of mountain sports, the fabric is air permeable, which increases breathability and comfort. That isn’t new, and neither is the “nanospinning” process that lets the North Face create a mesh-like waterproof membrane that Mellin says is so porous it’s 85 percent air, but TNF claims FutureLight outperforms similar products, while being made of 100 percent recycled nylon and using PFC-free water-resistance coatings. Not trivially, it also allows TNF to stop using expensive Gore-Tex products in its technical pieces (no word on pricing yet).
I caught up with Mellin afterward and he was most fired up about the tunability of the fabric. There are five weights of membrane and more than 50 face and backing fabrics, allowing TNF to make garments you can wear in the Himalaya (as Hilaree O’Neill did on her first descent of the Lhotse Couloir) or t-shirts or single-wall tents. If FutureLight works as claimed, and if the delicate membrane holds up under heavy use, it’s a big deal. I’m eager to test it and see how it compares to eVent, NeoShell, Outdoor Research’s AscentShell, and Gore products.
Personally, the product I’m most excited about it the Kalk Cake electric motorcycle, which is now available street legal. It’s spit-your-coffee expensive ($13,000) but offers a really compelling look at an exhaust-free future. I’m hoping for an exploration vehicle that more fun than a truck, less taxing than a mountain bike, and less polluting than a dirt bike. Every few weeks, I find myself trolling Craigslist for low-hour dirtbikes, but, really, there isn’t room in my life for a commitment to something that environmentally dirty (with my LX470, that’s more than enough dirt). Cake is far lighter than, say, Zero electric bikes, and nimbler, too, and I have a serious case of lust. That price, though. Jeez.
Burying the lede here because I wanted to get the lightest stuff out of the way. The thing people were talking about the most was the disappearance from OR of the crew from Powder and Transworld titles. Normally, these guys are a staple at the snow show (and parties like the Teton Gravity Research bash Wednesday night), but after brief appearances on the first day, they all canceled their appointments and flew home, sparking a wildfire of rumors.
As it turns out, the publishing group that holds them—The Enthusiast Network, or TEN—is being sold to American Media, which is owned by David Pecker, lately famous for his friendship with Donald Trump. American Media also owns National Enquirer and Men’s Journal, and Pecker was deeply involved in the efforts to keep Trump’s extramarital dalliances a secret. TEN employees received an email telling them to be home for a mandatory meeting on Thursday, where they were funneled into one of two time slots. The group in one time slot was fired, while the other was retained, reported Australia’s Stab magazine.
“It was like you were either being sent to the gas chambers, or you’d get to live another day,” one anonymous employee told Stab.
I have not been able to reach my friends of Powder—having been through something like this in 1998 when Surfer Publications was sold to Peterson Publishing, I know how much it rocks your world—but it’s been reported that half of Surfer’s staff is being let go, including 20-year veteran photo editor Grant Ellis and publisher Tony Perez. Transworld Motocross is being shut down, wrote founder Donn Maeda in a blog post that was later taken down.
Only one of TEN’s 14 titles, which also includes Bike magazine, made money last year, and the group lost $1 million in 2018, Stab reported. American Media this afternoon acknowledged the purchase in a bland, perfume-covered pig of a news release, saying that TEN will remain in Carlsbad, California, and that (cough) no staff reductions are planned.
This news follows a wave of gnarly developments in the media world. BuzzFeed announced it’s laying off 15 percent of its staff and at HuffPost 800 people are losing their jobs. Gannett, my old employer from way, way, way back, is slashing jobs at many of the small newspapers it owns across the U.S., further gutting local journalism.
I am an idealistic capitalist, if there is such a thing. I believe wholeheartedly in the basic human right to pursue one’s fortune. I also believe in capitalist Darwinism—if you can’t deliver something people want and do it profitably over time, your company will die, and that’s as it should be. But in the 1990s, when I was the editor of Powder and Bike, I watched as a small group of well-intended and right-minded employees tried to purchase our publishing group, only to see it sold to a group of feral speculators at a higher price. I lost my job in that transaction, but I understand that these things happen: The old management goes. What soured me was seeing firsthand and experiencing personally how a small group of people can screw over dozens, hundreds, while eviscerating culturally important entities like Powder and Surfer in the name of profit.
Then in the 2000s, I watched as National Geographic closed Adventure, which had been my editorial home and bread and butter for 11 years. I was freelance, and NGA was orders of magnitude my biggest client, so it hurt a lot, but worse was seeing so many friends lose great jobs, as well as the dissolution of a phenomenal staff.
Both of these developments led to the creation of Adventure Journal. While still at NGA, I started a blog called The Adventure Life. That evolved into AJ, and when NG Adventure shut down, AJ started accepting advertising and began the commercial path that it’s following today. From the beginning, I have tried to incorporate the best practices of small enthusiast publications like Powder while embracing philosophies of big ones like NGA, all while trying to say lean in the name of flexibility.
Most important, I have tried to live my values expressed in the way AJ is made, how we treat the people who contribute, and how and what we cover. I don’t want to come across as sanctimonious, but many of the practices I saw and experienced working with other titles, in particular as a freelancer, disgusted me. This has led to policies that aren’t necessarily in the best financial interest of AJ, but are the right thing to do. Our contract, for example, asserts that the copyright of a story or photo belongs to the creator. Sounds basic, right? And yet, almost every publication now insists on taking (stealing) the copyright for themselves. We pay far higher word rates than any publication our size and we pay people promptly or early. We do not accept sponsored content, we don’t sell our social posts, and you can’t pay us to write about your product.
With our printed journal, we use high-quality, heavy weight paper that’s Forest Stewardship Council certified sustainable. We print in the United States. We send the magazine via EcoEnclose recycled paper envelopes that are dang expensive. Every single one of these practices means lower margins and less profit, but we do them because I believe they’re the right thing to do. We also do them because I believe the only truly sustainable path is to publish on a smaller scale, be good at what you do, be transparent at how you do it, and put your readers first. Not only is that ethical, I believe with everything I have that it’s the smartest path for enthusiast title like ours.
Publishing, as today’s headlines remind us, is damn hard. The path we’ve chosen is even harder. But we are profitable, and our experience gives me faith that professional enthusiast publishing remains a viable business, not to mention a really fun way to make a living. But I also think that as creators and communicators we need to be more transparent about business practices, more demanding of who we support, and more supportive of what we value. We need to consider alternative structures for publishing, B Corps or non-profits, perhaps, and we need to call bullshit on a regulatory system that says the legal imperative of a public company is to maximize shareholder profits. If the owner of Surfer Publications had agreed to an employee buyout in 1998 rather than selling to the highest bidder, those magazines might not be in the place they’re in today.
Who knows? I sure don’t. Large forces, like social media, are at play. Advertisers have sooo many places to put their marketing dollars. Readers—all of us—are fickle. Business owners have to be nimble and smart. But it can be done, even for an enthusiast publication embattled by branded content and YouTubers and forums. You have to be entertaining, and insightful, and open, and have a personal connection to your readers, but you can do it. My hope for Powder and Surfer and Bike and all the other titles is that they quickly get sold off to small independent publishers who can give them the love they need.
Last night, as I sat on the plane, listened to those babies cry, and speculated on the fate of TEN, I kept searching for the metaphor but couldn’t find it. Despite the darkness in the publishing industry, despite the incredibly dynamic challenges of our times, despite learning today about people losing their jobs, I’m feeling optimistic.
I’ve often said that I want to high five or give a hug to every single one of our subscribers as an expression of gratitude, and at the show I had that opportunity. My friend Laura was there with her boss, who said, “I’m a subscriber!” I said, “Can I give you a hug?” She said yes, so I did, and it was just about the best moment of the show.
And now I’m left thinking that as simple as it sounds, if we can just remember the importance of face to face respect, gratitude, and connection, if we can bring, for lack of a better word, love into our business considerations, then we’ll be okay. And crying babies will be just that, crying babies, and nothing more.
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