Some thoughts on NGA’s demise…

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…”

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9 Responses to “Some thoughts on NGA’s demise…”

  1. mikeberard Says:

    Very well said Steve. If I wasn’t on vacation, I’d put in a more thoughtful comment. You’ve revealed some insights that publishers (both in print and online) should be paying attention to. Unfortunately, very few seem to care whether people actually like to read what’s in their pages. They only care that the advertisers are happy, or more accurately, that they aren’t unhappy. Fear rules.

  2. Darryn Shewchuk Says:

    Amen! Let me know if you start writing for SKI Journal, I actully have some ad dollars left after pulling the plug on Powder and SKIER this year.

  3. Andy Dappen Says:

    Personally, I agree with you Steve. Haven’t read much in the outdoor magazines that inspire me for some time now…hence my subscription to every one of them has lapsed. Like you said, gear reviews, service pieces, etc grow on the Internet like apples in Wenatchee. I, too, long for the days when outdoor stories were well crafted, thoughtful looks at the experience and offered a window into a personality, an issue, a problem, the human condition.

    On the other hand, I recognize that people of my ilk may not be in plentiful enough supply to float a yester-world specialty magazine. People with twice my mental horsepower haven’t figured it out so I’m not going to pretend to have any answers.

    But I can continue to wish for more outdoor journalism that emulates the type of journalism that keeps the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly afloat.

  4. Gear guy Says:

    I agree with parts of this, though I always found plenty to read and like in each issue, especially all the regional adventure ideas for otherwise adventure media-neglected parts of the U.S., like the southeast and midwest.

    Plus I have a book on my nightstand that’s a compilation of terrific feature stories from the magazine. You just can’t get away with 5,000-word stories on the web. People don’t have the patience. Speaking of that, you can find that whole top-10 list thing duplicated on far too many websites as well. You could even argue that magazines are doing more of that to be more like what’s working on the Internet. Unfortunately…

    • sthrendyle Says:

      Yes, in ten years you likely would be able to compile a decent anthology from NGA and you are also correct about ‘neglected’ regions of the USA (and Canada) getting some much-needed love. You unwittingly hit the nail on the head, though – magazines should succeed BECAUSE the web does not work well with 5000 word stories and seize that opportunity to provide gorgeous photography and award winning writing. After all, Vanity Fair does it every month, why not NGA? The real issue, though, is why WON’T marketers advertise in NGA? The general economy and outdoor sales did NOT contract by 44 percent – that is a whopping decline that is way out of whack. Some account rep isn’t doing their job. And make no mistake – the outdoor world is certainly worse off without NGA; heck I even hated to see Men’s Health Best Life go under.

  5. Bob Howells Says:

    I did a lot of service writing for NGA. I don’t believe any of it was mindless. Service was the mag’s bread and butter, and a lot of us took pride in doing it well. It was what allowed breathing room for Roberts, Junger, etc., to entertain and inspire us. It was a successful balance for more than a decade. Why? Because service SERVES readers. Can’t forget that part of the equation. And believe me, readers avidly embraced NGA. Adventure’s emphasis on service and avoidance of the cynicism and hipper-than-thou tone of many other magazines helped it stand apart. I really don’t think quality service writing killed the magazine. I wish I knew the exact formula that guarantees success in the print world. But I’m quite sure that neglecting service journalism is not part of it.

    • sthrendyle Says:

      I have enormous respect for Bob Howells, Steve Casimiro, and the other writers who contributed to NGA over the years. I really believe the issue for both of those writers will be: is the magazine form inherently superior to what the web can do, especially in regards to service writing? I think that reviews and UGC on both tripadvisor and backcountry.com have had an enormous effect on service writing ‘punditry’, in the same way that blogs have/are affecting political discourse. And believe me – I am not saying that it’s right, but… it’s the way that it is. And I will be going out to my fave magazine stand today to grab that last issue. Of course, readers will have to FIND that content, which takes us into the murky world of SEO strategy. For TV networks, newspapers and web publishers – not to mention marketers – it’s all about “monetizing eyeballs” – a phrase I know that well all hate. Alas, it always has been, and always will be.

  6. Steve Casimiro Says:

    Thanks for the kind and critical comments both. Steve and I have been communicating outside this space, so I won’t bother reposting that conversation. However, I do want to address the issue of service vs., what, journalism? Bob defends service more eloquently than I could, and I thank him for that.

    The big issue here isn’t content and it isn’t the ratio of service to everything else. To argue that service drove down the quality is missing the forest for the trees. NGA resonated with readers in a big, powerful way and service was a huge part of that. Those who snark about service–and yes, I do it, too–are insiders, magazine junkies, professional media geeks. We don’t need service (or don’t think we do) because we’re the ones who create it, one way or another. But people who live and work outside this little pond do–they find great value in it, no matter how ignoble you might think it.

    The issue is the business model. Magazines…man, it’s a tough business. All those big brains and talented people, the cost of paper and ink, distribution, the kickbacks to the mafia to get on the newsstand. And for what? A product that wholesales for two bucks and expires in 30 days. The only way to get the big advertising is huge circulation and the only way to huge circulation is to give it away. So readers like you but are taught not to pay the real cost…it’s subsidized just like corn. And inevitably, no matter how well intended, the equation shifts toward those with the big money to spend–advertisers. The problem with NGA wasn’t that readers left, it was that advertising dried up. When you’re sitting on a one-legged stool and one leg is removed, you have a problem. Magazines like Powder, where I used to work, have more balance between circ revenue and ad revenue. Helps weather the inevitable storms, though of course it doesn’t completely seal you off. All magazines are struggling–I can’t imagine that MJ and Outside are completely out of the woods yet, though they have the advantage of single owners who might be more willing to suffer…

    Finally, it’s a quaint but hopelessly naive idea that 5,000-word stories are somehow purer than service or anything else in the magazine. More respected, maybe, but a lot less read from beginning to end. Let’s face it, guys, magazines are commercial ventures and that means compromise…or if not compromise, it means keeping a pragmatic hairy eyeball on what sells and what attracts. If you don’t want to compromise, go make art in your garage. Or better yet–ha!–create a blog.

  7. sthrendyle Says:

    Some quick thoughts on my recent blog (above) about the demise of NGA. Interestingly, input came via a) e-mails, b) FB comments c) blog posts d) a cell phone conversation and e) water cooler talk – ie – live chat, as opposed to ‘live chat.’ General comments a) everyone I know is passionate about magazines (GOOD) b) many of these same folks HAVE cut back their magazine purchasing recently (not so good) c) no one feels optimistic about the future of print (really bad) and d) SOME people would like to read 5000 word stories (and I’d love to write ’em) and e) maybe I was a bit harsh on service journalism (let’s be clear: NGA did not shut its doors because it offered “10 Best Winter Adventures” or whatever – as a coverline). I find USA Today service stories to be ‘mindless,’ not NGA.

    Best of luck to ALL of the ex-NGA staff and contributors as they continue to wade through this period of uncertainty and fear. And thanks to all for the lively online discussion, and PR/outdoors blogger Drew Simmons for reposting. One (fire that fact checker!) error in my blogpost was pointed out by A list writer and all-round good guy Alex Frankel – the 2004 New Yorker story on the Miller/Maier rivalry was writter by Burkhard Bilger, not Nick Paumgarten (who did, however, write a very fine New Yorker story about Andrew McLean a couple of years later).

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