Archive for December, 2009

Some thoughts on NGA’s demise…

December 4, 2009

News today that National Geographic Adventure magazine is shutting its doors left me ‘touching wood’ that I had just accepted a steady corporate job in the outdoor industry, but also evoked some thoughts about the state of adventure journalism in this brave and ever-changing on-line world.

This is truly the sh*ttiest Xmas gift for the staff that I’ve heard of in some time – hell, the Society is a not-for-profit, is it not – surely they could have staggered on until, say, March or April. I truly feel sorry for the staffers and freelancers affected by this closure – it has been such a brutal year.

Alas, once a magazine starts cutting the number of issues it produces in a year, that’s pretty much the beginning of the death spiral. Being down 44 percent in one year is a lot of ad dollars down the drain, in an industry where profit margins are never great to begin with.

I’ll be honest, though, while I really liked the idea of NGA, I quite often found its execution left something to be desired. In fact, what was wrong with NGA was what is wrong with magazines at many different levels.

NGA’s editor John Rasmus elevated “service journalism” to new heights in men’s magazines when he was over at Wenner Media’s Men’s Journal, and NGA – with its constant obsession of “to visit lists” grated on me. Unlike National Geographic, which was pretty much the antithesis of service journalism, NGA’s departments and story packaging often came off as looking a bit cheesy. We all know that it was Rodale’s Men’s Health that started the egregious trend to giving men ‘tips’ to improve their lives – and we know that Men’s Health was very financially successful and tapped into a lot of non-endemic advertising markets for that reason (though I do note that 2009 also claimed “Men’s Health Best Life” – a more upscale, Gucci – or at least TAG Heuer – version of MH). Also of note is the death of Outside GO, a similarly targeted magazine to NGA.

A couple of years ago when it came time to move offices, after a cursory glance of some back issues, I actually pitched all of my copies of NGA – aside the odd piece from Jim Gorman and David Roberts – the “well” of the book – where the features are written – was pathetic. The super-high standards of the parent magazine – driven by outstanding photography by the likes of Nick Nichols and Flip Nicklen – to say nothing of Bill Allard and even Sebastian Salgado – was generally absent.

And, as USA Today proved – mindless service writing (full disclosure, here – I have written a LOT of these sorts of stories in the past) – seems to have an audience. But I’ve always believed that it’s an readership that is a continent wide and only a inch or two deep.

I know, of course, that NGA was always going to be a version of NG Traveler for the Gore-Tex set – hence, the plethora of short, bite-sized stories. But hell, if I wasn’t going to shell out $5 at a newsstand for it, then who would?

It will be most interesting to see where the demise of NGA leaves its West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro, who is truly the Swiss Army Knife of outdoor journalists. He writes features, reviews gear, takes photos, and has his own website – indeed, if there was anyone better equipped to take advantage of the “social media space” it is Casimiro. He has enormous respect in the industry and grasps the importance of reaching out to his audience, yet at the end of the day I would bet that only ten percent at the most of NGA’s readers have any idea who the guys is. Will advertisers rush to support his website/blog? If he has impressive metrics, maybe they will. But virtually every special interest blogger I’ve talked to over the last couple of years has faced enormous challenges in actually making any money. Casimiro has a brand amongst industry insiders, for sure. But does he have the kind of mega-readership that would compel a Garmin, Canon, or Salomon to spend money on his site? I sincerely hope they do. Better work on that SEO strategy for your site, Steve!

The real problem, from where I sit, is that magazines like NGA, Outside, MJ, and MH simply do not offer content that I cannot already get on the internet. Magazines that thrive on service writing are destined for the bathroom, and that’s about it. Heck, even I read most of my gear reviews on backcountry.com these days, anyway.

A secondary problem also exists in that marketers are more flummoxed in how to spend their promotional dollars than ever before. Website? Hire bloggers? Make YouTube videos? Underwrite a core sports tweet-up? Sponsor a pro team? Suddenly, buying an advertisement in a magazine seems so, oh, 1998. I also don’t think that account execs are exploiting the very advantages that magazines have to offer to an advertiser – they keep saying things like “oh, all of our content is available for free online! You’ll get plenty of page-views!” This, at a time when internet marketing metrics show that click through rates on banner ads are in fact at an all-time low.

What would work, or does work, then? Truly beautiful, art-book style magazines like Frequency, Surfer’s Journal, the Ski Journal, and Alpinist, to use four examples. Yet, ironically, those magazines have their problems, too – while the presentation is superb – wonderful glossy-stock paper, perfect bindery, and generally clean art direction, the content itself leaves a bit to be desired. In their earnestness to be ‘core’ and everything that NGA and Outside are not, their stories are overly insider and simply – in many cases – not that well written. They are crafted by dedicated B-Listers for the most part speaking to their tribes. Yet as a group they seem to be doing relatively well – The Ski Journal even offers copies of its magazine in hard cover format.

Oddly, the very best skiing story that I’ve read in the past five years or so did not appear in Outside, Powder, SKIING or The Ski Journal. It was a 15,000-word plus opus by New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten on the intense rivalry (at the time) between Hermann Maier and a relatively obscure American racer named Bode Miller. The important distinction here is that it was not a ski story, it was a New Yorker story – seamlessly constructed, meticulously researched, and, despite the fact that there were no photos – the reader had a very, very clear idea of what the ski racing was like. I have read that story two or three times since, and it really stands up.

So what, then, if we could combine the outstanding journalism of the New Yorker with the beautiful imagery of National Geographic, and carry it forward into the adventure world? That was the promise of Larry Burke’s Outside magazine, and you can easily go back into the 80s and 90s and see some stellar examples of award-winning story packages. I seldom ever saw features of that type in NGA, and that is why I often browsed the magazine and then left it on the 7-11 shelf.

So, in the end, I say, RIP, National Geographic Adventure – “you shoulda been a contenda…”