medium

The Medium Is Dead, Long Live Independent Media

Words Seb Kemp
Date Aug 22, 2018

Originally published 2015-04-28

It happened. I spoke too soon and one of the big dogs went down. Or should I say, got put down. Dirt was a leading light since the day it launched 18 years ago. When it first erupted into the mountain biking consciousness it was a kick in the balls and a middle finger raised from a Fox glove.

Over time Dirt ‘matured’ into something that was irreverent, always on point and professionally unprofessional. It humorously yet staunchly penetrated the smoke and mirrors, presented the beating heart of mountain biking’s zeitgeist, lived fast on the front lines and behind the scenes, and never took itself too seriously. You’d find Dirt stickers on helmets, frames, cars and laptops all over the world because even though it was put together in a chaotic and isolated headquarters somewhere on the border of England and Wales, it perfectly spoke a language that was universally understood by mountain biking’s most core and adrenalized demographic.

seb_dirt_1600

Issue 159 was Dirt’s last issue. Just like Seb, you know you wanted a better look. Photo – Jonathan Hayward

Anyone who loved Dirt remembers the first copy of the magazine they found like it was a treasure map or sacred scriptures. Dirt magazine was a true influencer and mouthpiece for mountain biking, so it was a sad day when it was announced recently that the print side of Dirt was ceasing production.

Some people have responded to this by sitting back in their chair, placing their hands behind their heads to smugly say ‘Well, I told you so – print is dead.’ But these people aren’t right. They’re not wrong either, but they really aren’t right. You see, print isn’t dead but print being able to be used as the medium to generate massive market share and suitably Mercedes-affording return on investment for big publishing companies is.

Dirt didn’t stop printing the magazine. The giant media conglomerate that owned Dirt (Factory Media) shut it down because they wanted to save money (jobs, print and production costs) and increase their profits. They didn’t select Dirt especially for the chop, they made a wholesale, sweeping gesture to shut down all the print titles. This was a dispassionate decision that was made by people who didn’t care for the titles it owned, the sports they represented and the readers they serviced other than how much money they could generate. For Dirt’s announcement click here.

Dirt, like every other title Factory held, was just a line item on a spreadsheet. These executives didn’t know or care that they were taking away a vital piece of mountain biking culture. They were just moving figures around on a profit and loss document. Which is fine, that’s business, and you gotta do what you gotta do to survive in that system (I promised myself that I wouldn’t get into a socialist rant about the failings of the economic and political system into which we have made ourselves slaves, so I won’t). But I can’t help thinking that if a few years back Dirt hadn’t been herded into a giant media holding house, like a little cow whose succulent milk was sucked from its teats by an enormous metallic automated machine in a dystopian factory, and bottled by the thousand and shipped to grocery stores, then what would have happened. What if Dirt had been able to stay in its couple of acres of green pasture, allowed to chew on the cud and take in the sunshine? And be hand milked by the milkmaids who would take the milk and drink it themselves? What if Dirt had stayed independent?

Well, most of the big magazines aren’t independent anymore. They were started by small groups of passionate individuals who poured their heart and soul into them because they loved mountain biking and they loved communicating something about it. The good ones kept going and the great ones became so popular in our little niche that big business saw the potential of buying them and skimming dollars off the top. Selling to these bigger media groups has its benefits; the potential of larger circulation which can mean more budget to do more rad stuff, or perhaps to just take a cheque and relax after years of slogging it out to meet deadline after deadline trying to put out an issue each month and making a pittance – but the tradeoff is a lack of control and ownership. Which is why Dirt got put down.

It wasn’t like no one was reading the magazine and no one wanted to advertise in it. What I understand is that Dirt’s subscriber list is larger than it’s ever been and the magazine WAS turning a tidy profit. The editorial crew were still putting out great content – precisely because some of the OGs who had been there for years were still passionate about mountain biking and providing their readers with great content. And people were still buying, subscribing and voraciously digesting every word, picture and printed page like it was the holy bible. I have no doubt that if Dirt was still held by the people that were closest to its core then it would have kept printing until either the printing press failed or they popped their Wellington boots.

Print as a medium to deliver a full immersive reader experience isn’t dead. Sure, readership isn’t at the same levels it once was and the digital experience has taken a great deal of the market share from print, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there that still enjoy sitting back – either on the bog, the couch or the lunchroom bench – and losing themselves in something that was carefully curated and creatively crafted. In recent years there’s been a boom in beautiful, impeccably laid out, limited run magazines that are being put out independently of the big publishers. There’s so many great indie print titles now – and many more being started all the time – that now really is the best time for print there has been for many, many years.

stackmagazines

Stack Magazines is a service where a different independent magazine title is posted to subscribers each month. I have been doing this for a while and I’m amazed at the quality and number of excellent magazines that are popping up or flourishing.

There is a strong future for independent print publications, not necessarily because of the mode of distribution (print) but because of the form of their organization. Small, focused, inspired and creative teams are setting up magazines which service a specific subset of readers. They are flexible enough to respond to the editorial needs and they operate on slim budgets that go right back into making the best content they can, rather than servicing the feudal tyrants of a large publishing company (which are by their very nature greedy and fat). The people behind these titles aren’t trying to make a million dollars, they are just driven to do something and make something they love and can feel proud of.

Today, in mountain biking circles, the Web is where there’s independence. Look at most of the major websites and they are owned and operated by mountain bikers just like you and I (I say most, not all). The people behind them are passionate, bike-infatuated nerds. They started their website because they loved mountain biking and wanted to be thinking about, writing, photographing and riding them 24-7, 365. Again, the good ones are still around and the great ones are doing very well. But the difference is that for now the ownership and control is in the hands of the mountain bikers. For now every decision is a business or editorial decision that is placed in the context of mountain bikes, whereas when big media groups hold the reins then the context is ‘What Mercedes can I afford next year? Just a mid level model with no extras? Nope, I want a better one than that. Let’s make me some more money!’

So, to recap: Although this might seem like a blithering soliloquy for print magazines in mountain biking, it’s not. Instead it’s about celebrating the message over the medium and paying tribute to those that favour self-governance, autonomy and independence of their media outlets.


Do you still buy print mags? How do you get your Dirt fix now?

Comments

vernon-felton
0
Vernon Felton  - April 30, 2015, 10:32 p.m.

Well put, Seb.

Reply

jim
0
Jim  - April 29, 2015, 2:56 p.m.

Subscriber to Stack here, strongly recommended, they always bring a dose of serendipity to my doorstep, more than anything it's great to have an hour away from every distraction and educate myself. I don't think print is dead, people just need to rethink it. What can it do that the web can't? How can having a physical, tangible object mean more than a fleeting web experience? How can a picture on a piece of paper excite you more than one on a screen? How can ink grab your attention in a way that code can't? How can you share something more meaningfully with a mate in a shed than on facebook? All the web did is streamline and simplify what print has done for 200 years. In the same way that the car didn't kill off the horse, the web won't kill off print. It just needs to become more elegant and elevated. That's what I think anyway….
As for Dirt, I'll certainly miss it. The reviews were the best and Steve Jones is an absolute hero. It's getting tougher to be creative in bike journalism as brands start to exert more control, I like how Dirt tried to be different. It does however leave the door open for someone to try something new, and that's certainly exciting.

Reply

jamie-hamilton
+1 Velocipedestrian
Jamie Hamilton  - April 29, 2015, 5:23 p.m.

Well said Jim! Here in NZ we have Spoke magazine an awesome independent rag with pithy writing, amazing photography & printed on great "feeling" paper stock. I still have most of the issues still in the magazine rack, boxes & hidden "man zones" throughout our house, much to my wife's dismay. It's a tangible record of my own personal journey with riding & reading. I would be devastated to loose that.

I work in the web industry & would be horrified if we ended up getting good quality media fixes only online. Personally my time away from a device is far more important & meaningful. Riding with friends, trail building, discussing stuff! These are all things that are tangible and help us grow on a personal level.

I agree with Seb that if you look & want to "see" there are still & always will be quality publications out there that engage us & expand our ways of thinking. That can only be a good thing! It's been said before but, put the device away, look around you and get out with your mates and ride!

Reply

bryce
+1 IslandLife
bryce  - April 29, 2015, 1:03 p.m.

I'd subscribe to a new Dirt

Reply

shane-bracken
0
Shane Bracken  - April 29, 2015, 9:45 a.m.

It definitely seemed like they were being shut down instead of shutting down. Thanks for the back story Seb. And I wholeheartedly agree with you on the chances of them still being open if they were still independent. There was no other magazine that told it like it was while providing the professional side of it as well. Their recommended items always seemed to be actually recommended instead of an advertisement. RIP Dirt, and if there is a Dirt 2.0, I will subscribe to that too

Reply

slyfink
+1 IslandLife
slyfink  - April 29, 2015, 6:40 a.m.

Ok, so if what you're saying is true, nothing is preventing the OG editors and staff of Dirt from quitting, regrouping, and re-launching a new independent magazine. If they're thinking about it, and reading these comments, I'll subscribe.

Reply

slyfink
+3 Cam McRae Mammal IslandLife
slyfink  - Aug. 22, 2018, 8:03 a.m.

3.5 years on, and I still feel this way.  I subscribe to Bike, but don't really enjoy it.  I feel like its the same stories in different locations every issue: "we travelled to a faraway place, we overcame hardships, and are writing about it.".  I find I get my gear info/fix from the on-line sites and forums, so I'm not sure why I'm tied to print.  I guess it's something to read that's not a screen, and I like that.  But I'd love an alternative.  Something that's more focused on the scene and the vibe, as Dirt was.  I miss Dirt.

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doug-hamilton
0
Doug Hamilton  - April 29, 2015, 2:48 a.m.

That's a major bummer Seb. Dirt is a great mag that shoots pretty straight, not overloaded with BS and media hype. Some of the best product reviews I've ever read, have been written by their staff.

To me there's nothing like having a stack of bike magazines sitting on the coffee table, in the dunny and in the workshop. Great for kicking back, reading some stories and looking at cool photos. The web just doesn't cut it for that kind of entertainment. Sure video's are great and on line articles aren't bad, but they don't rate with a good mag reading session on the couch, with coffee or beer. And you can have a big old stack of them to look back on for laughs 10 years later!!

Reply

natbrown
+5 Cam McRae Jerry Willows Mammal Agleck7 Niels
natbrown  - Aug. 22, 2018, 10:03 a.m.

I'm re-reading this too, after 3.5 years. Now, I sense that we're progressing to all online content being provided by PB and RedBull. Perhaps not all, but the overwhelming majority. I personally am all about independent media in all forms, where people are driven by passion to do what they do. I don't mean that the people at PB or RedBull aren't necessarily passionate, but there's a brand that the individuals working for those places must adhere to and that homogenises the content substantially. The diversity provided by all the smaller websites (less so the print mags which probably have a real niche) just seems threatened by the dominance of the other two. Reviews of product can only go so far, even though that's valuable to me. I'm hanging on as an eager audience member here...

Reply

mudrunner
+2 Cam McRae Mammal
mudrunner  - Aug. 22, 2018, 10:55 a.m.

I really miss Fat Tire Flyer and the ilk of non-conformists, non-PC, truly irreverent, typo-riddled, bargain basement, low-budget rags...often printed in black and white and handed over between riding buddies.

Progress is good too. While I tend to know what to expect when I open PB, or RedBull, it's consistently reliable, but seldom surprises. It's a bad analogy, but sometimes you just want to try that homemade meatball sandwich instead of the Cactus Club meal.

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lev
+2 Cam McRae Mammal
Lev  - Aug. 22, 2018, 11:34 a.m.

I wouldn’t buy a mag that the current iteration of Dirt produced. I find their content and reviews tedious. They would have to un plug Steve Jones from EMBN first, but he seems pretty happy there.

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mammal
0
Mammal  - Aug. 22, 2018, 2:14 p.m.

Fully agree. I doubt very many contributors to Dirt Mag kept on with the current website. I still have my stack of Dirt on the bookshelf that feeds the rotating lineup on the toilet tank (mostly from 2004-2008).

Dirt Mag was absolutely legendary, and along with the OG DH riders that came from my local bike shop, was a huge reason I got swept away by the DH scene in my 20's.

Reply

mammal
0
Mammal  - Aug. 22, 2018, 2:18 p.m.

Now I'm getting nostalgic. One of the best recurring articles in Dirt was the Whistler Diaries, by none other than Seb Kemp. So many great contributions by great members of the mtb community.

Reply

fartymarty
+2 Mammal Cam McRae
fartymarty  - Aug. 22, 2018, 10:27 p.m.

Sebs articles were the first thing I would read in Dirt.  I miss them.

Reply

fartymarty
+1 natbrown
fartymarty  - Aug. 22, 2018, 1:34 p.m.

I would love to see Dirt back in print but as noted above with SJ at the helm.

You just need to look at indie record labels to see independent media does work.

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