Thursday, November 20, 2008

Climbing magazines

Very nearly 20 yrs worth of climbing mags

I had reason today to defend some critical comments that I made online about one of the British climbing magazines. I have nothing but respect for the person who was questioning me, which of course means you do your best to explain yourself as clearly and fairly as possible. And it was in doing this that I realised how important a part of my 'climbing life' magazines have been. For me climbing magazines have never been ephemeral - to be chucked out with the recycling like the daily paper. They are more like journals that you go back to every once in while and re-read the best articles.

The now defunct and sadly missed On The Edge - the gobby upstart of British climbing culture

I bought my first magazines whilst I was still at school and knew no climbers and very little about where people went climbing. Reading the magazines was a window onto new world that I wanted to live in. At the height of my 'addiction' I bought all three of the British magazines available at the time, and read them cover to cover. I wasn't really interested in the results of the Northern under-16 boys bouldering championship or the access agreement for a crag at the other end of the country from where I lived, but I would still read about them.

OTE's successor, Climb magazine, big, glossy and with great pictures and a spacious layout

But slowly things change. I stopped subscribing to Climber in 2006, it wasn't a bad magazine I had just been reading it for so long I felt I was just reading the same articles again - a problem for any magazine. It was okay though because Climb was the new kid on the block, the successor to OTE and High. Climb is great except for sometimes the quality of the copy editing, and that is what I have been critical about.

Climber and Hillwalker (as it was then) from March 1989 and April 1990, the first climbing magazines I bought.

It was pictures in the climbing magazines, particularly the ones below, from those very first mags that I owned, that pretty much led to me moving to Scotland when I was old enough to leave home. Scottish winter climbing just seemed like the most exciting thing in world (it can be as well, although not always in good way!), and I wanted to do what I saw in the photos.

Deep Cut Chimney on Hells Lum, 80s-stylee

The schist revolution begins - Incubator on the Cobbler

Climbing magazines, like much of the rest of the print media, are going through hard times with advertising being competed for by new online sources whilst their news function is threatened by websites that can update instantaneously. Mark Reeves, another UKC regular, has written a provocative piece about this on his blog that you can read here. It was really sad that Alpinist, a particularly fine magazine from the US with an excellent website, became one of the first victims of the credit crunch in the outdoors business sector. I hope other magazines don't go the same way.


mark reeves said...

Nice post Toby. My blog was deliberately provocative because I too use to buy all three magazine, and I used to wait eagerly to read them. Like yourself I am now more than dispondent about them.

I did like your trip down memory lane though Climber and Hillwalker!

ed said...

I think your nostalgia is justified.. magazines like Climber and the rest had their day back in the 90s/early2000s... after all, it was the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-80s which let them flourish (Quark, Photoshop, the Apple Mac). It let people set up publishing companies from their bedroom (OTE eg). The web is just the easiest way to publish nowadays, like magazines were 10-20 years ago.

Magazines do have their place, but they have to offer something different, as you say. And that is usually expensive.

It is not only sports magazines that are threatened by the web ... all print media are struggling with how to cope. In the UK the Independent looks like it is about to close - sooner or later - and without an investment in the web - it ignored it for years - it will simply vanish. Other titles are using the web to launch 'global brands' - notably already has

But back to the point, which is sports mags:

- the writers and editors are usually enthusiasts first, publishers/journalists second.. and it often shows
- they can't do gear reviews or be properly objective because of advertiser objections if they review something as rubbish.. hence blandness
- advertisers like print but it's expensive and they are coming round to web... classified is all web now, while brands increasingly get their adverts for 'free' (see next point)
- many fulltime outdoor photographers are retained by the brand and release their images for free to the mags (is this the case with the TNF guy? I don't know)... the result is editors can't justify paying for other photography.. budgets fall.. contributors fade away
- the web is more immediate, as you both discuss.. magazines simply can't compete with that
- distribution for print is expensive... either through a distribution company or direct mail it all costs a fortune.
- editorial is apallingly paid for these magazines - £200 for 2000 words plus photos.. it's just not worth anyone writing for them, writers may as well do it for free online (like you - informed, experienced, thoughtful, and willing to do it for fun and the odd bit of free gear).. which they do of course. Hence everything gets written in the magazines by hobbyists or editors' mates.

All this adds up to a lack of rigour, depth, informed knowledge, immediacy and honesty in lots of print magazines... why would you pay for it? It's all on the web for free.

Where print can compete is where it offers analysis, journalistic rigour and credibility where that isn't found on the web - all expensive things to build and maintain. If sports magazines aren't offering that - and managing to balance the budget at the same time - then they will not be able to compete with online. Sadly, you will see more fold, or wither away.

And btw, typos in a magazine are indefensible.. especially if you're paying good money for it!

ed said...

you might also like to consider this:

if you were 18 again, you might just go to uni in Glasgow again on the strength of it