The handwriting had been on the wall for a while: insiders knew that Cycle News, the quasi-official organ of America’s racers, industry insiders and die-hard enthusiasts, was struggling with the double-whammy of competition from new media and an imploded industry. So that’s why hearing Cycle News has shut down as of August 31, 2010 was saddening, but not surprising.
The Cycle News story began in 1965 when Chuck and Sharon Clayton purchased an existing L.A.-area motorcycle publication and renamed it. It quickly got a reputation for providing the best and most timely coverage of Southern California—and later national—motorcycle racing. Sharon (herself an enthusiastic rider) would cover events herself, but the Claytons soon began relying heavily on a network of freelancers, training an army of moto-journalists who would go on to careers at other publications. By the early 1980’s, Cycle News had three regional editions and was known as the authority in all things motorcycling. Chuck passed away in 1992, but Sharon maintained ownership and control, keeping up the quality and reputation of the publication.
Regardless of the quality of the newspaper, competition from online news and information sources took its toll. Ad sales and circulation were down, and CN’s raison d’etre—providing timely race results—was made irrelevant when racers and race fans could get that information hours or even minutes after the races ended. Just a week before the paper shut down, long-time Editor-in-Chief Paul Carruthers (son of racing/tuning legend Kal Curruthers) was unceremoniously laid off; “Just do me one favor,” writes Paul on his blog the day after he was laid off, “when you see me at the grocery store unshaven in a white T-shirt, plaid shorts and flip-flops, don’t tell me “When one door closes, another one opens.” Yesterday the door hit me so hard in the ass, I’m writing this while standing up.”
CN’s demise is tragic, but we saw it coming. Though the company expanded its online presence and engaged in all the hot new social media, just participating in digital media is no guarantee of success, something I’ve learned working at many different online and print publications. The tremendous overhead a real news organization has to pay can only be supported by big-bucks print ads from national companies and organizations. Those banner ads you see? Given the same “readership,” they bring in pennies on the dollar compared to print ads, even in 2010. So no matter how much free content a website posts, unless you can count on a million or more pair of eyeballs reading your site every month, having more than a few employees is a dream, and employing copyeditors, fact-checkers and responsible publishers is sheer fantasy. And those few employees had better be working 18-hour days, churning out enough fresh content to keep the ever-more-demanding eyeballs coming back. Will that content be of the same quality as that of a more-carefully produced medium? We here at MD like to think we do a good job, actually asking questions of the sources that churn out the press releases and doing some fact-checking and investigation of our own, but the challenges are obvious.
So a few talented, dedicated people lost their jobs. Why should you care? You should care because you care about motorcycling. Cycle News was real journalism, contrasted to the vast majority of motorcycling websites that merely regurgitate either industry press releases or rehashed articles from real news sources. When those real news outlets that have the infrastructure necessary to produce actual journalism, like—disappear, what will be left? Unfiltered press releases, which though informative, are hardly unbiased sources of good information. Would you read a magazine that was just advertising? Without real journalism, the Internet will be nothing but unfiltered, disorganized data (which isn’t news) and carefully targeted advertising.
We also lose our history. Carruthers writes, “for every photo on a proof sheet that was chosen for publication and circled with a blue grease pencil, there are 35 other photos of equal importance.” What will happen to those thousands of photos, those millions of words, the rough notes of interviews with every famed racer and motorcyclist you could name? “I fret not for the things that will be saved, but for the things that will probably get trashed. I fear someone going through the wreckage who knows nothing of Dick Mann, of Giacomo Agostini, or of Kenny Roberts or Roger DeCoster.”
“It’s gone now, but it will never be forgotten,” writes Carruthers. I’m not so sure. The motorcycle industry is a microcosm of the larger world, and media in general in this country is in big trouble. Can we be an intelligent, thoughtful voting and decision-making public when commercial news sources turn into little more than an amplifier for the three-billion-dollar P.R. industry? I’m hoping for a successful revenue model for real journalism to emerge, so the next generation of motorcyclists have the same enthusiasm for our sport as we do.