Saturday, 14 May 2011

Phil Schilling's genius rewarded - about time too

Phil Schilling has finally made the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in the US, and for most of us the only surprise is it took so long. Phil could write, ride and spanner better than any of today's half-hearted magazine folk, and what he and Cook Neilson achieved has been praised on these pages before - but just to rub salt in current editorila team's advertising-centric wounds they turned Cycle into the best selling bike magazine on earth, simply by writting what people would read. They ignored what advertisers wanted, and treated readers with respect: so they didn't run articles on "How to kickstart a bike" (I'm not joking - that piece is this month's CB.) They also trusted readers to have an attention span - most editors these days are terrified of running anything longer than 1,200 words, and are happier with 7-800. Cycle's editorials would be longer than that. In other words Cycle was written by clever, literate people for clever, literate people. And they sold so many copies the advertisers had to bite their lips and kow-tow to the sometimes less than flattering reviews their products got.
I still cherish my copy of Phil's book, The Motorcycle World and various articles I tore from Cycle way-back-when. If any editor wants to find out how to stem his falling readership and advertising revenue, reading these would be a good place to start. Or the terminally lazy can just try the following editorial from Phil back in 1985, although some of you might need a dictionary: there are long words involved...

Memo To Black Rock, by Phil Schilling
On February 4, 1985, CBS locked the deal. CBS, Inc., bought 12 special-inter­est magazines from Ziff -Davis Publish­ing Company, and William Ziff, Jr., be­came 362.5 million dollars richer in the exchange (cash, thank you). CBS Mag­azine Division, an important chunk in the CBS empire, will profit as well from the experience. Cycle was one of the 12 magazines in the Ziff group, and in cu­bic dollars this high-roller deal was the largest magazine transaction in history.
In setting, atmosphere and altitude, Cycle’s transfer to CBS differed mark­edly from its arrival at Ziff-Davis Pub­lishing Company in 1966. According to legend, William Ziff, Jr., bought Cycle from Floyd Clymer at an Orange Julius stand on Pico Boulevard in one of Los Angeles’s seedier sections. Ziff paid the princely sum of $300,000, and Floyd Clymer, as company legend has it, took the money and ran, laughing his way to the bank. Ziff, events would demon­strate, had a later, richer laugh on Floyd.
Cycle has thus become this small Western outpost bobbing on the Pacific shore, part of a sprawling CBS empire, which is directed from the corporate headquarters in New York known as Black Rock. This Manhattan skyscraper looks like an earth-bound version of the Black Monolith from 2001.
CBS has long owned special-interest magazines, including Cycle World, so Black Rock is hardly a novice in the business. Nor was William Ziff. The Ziff organization believed that quality mag­azines could be written about any sub­ject: radio antennae, baby rattles, door knobs or toxic dump sites. I saw little of William Ziff, though Cycle operated out of New York 13 years ago. Still, Ziff comes easily to memory. One day he shuffled into Cycle’s New York office, with the rumpled ambiance of your fa­vorite college professor: scholarly, articulate, and seemingly a touch dis­tant from this world. I doubt that William Ziff, Jr., ever rode a motorcycle; none­theless, in one sentence he summa­rized Cycle’s editorial charge. ”Rather than a magazine written for motorcy­clists, Cycle should be a magazine writ­ten for readers whose passion is motor­cycles.” That was his legacy to motorcycling. It made Cycle different.
To: Black Rock, New York, New York.
From: Westlake Outpost, California.
To understand Cycle Magazine, for­get the following: a) Motorcyclists are primitives who flunked kindergarten, entertain death-wishes, speak in mono-syllables and think in even simpler terms; b) They react primordially to heat, light, noise and the opposite sex or—more alarming to Middle America—to the same sex; c) Love of motorcy­cling is the motor-badge of the Ameri­can Moron.
At Cycle we fight this junkyard of mis­conceptions constantly, piece by piece. Outside motorcycling, one com­mon reaction is, ”What do you mean, you write for a motorcycle magazine?” This blight of stereotyping is more alarming within the motorcycle industry and its press: Give those dummies some photographs to lip-read; don’t bother with complexities or difficult concepts; simplification and mediocrity are good enough.
If true, Cycle—as a magazine distin­guished by its literacy, honesty and ex­pertise—should have been a stunning failure years ago. We’re still here, and the hallmarks of this magazine remain. The magazine has changed, of course, because its audience has changed, grown up. Today’s audience is made up of the same people as yesterday’s, from the same generation, and the magazine has grown up with its readership.

Cycle has been, and should continue to be, shaped by its audience. Funda­mentally, motorcycling belongs to a particular Internal Combustion Genera­tion that matured in the late 1950s, throughout the 1960s, and into the 1970s. Clearly, not every member of this Internal Combustion Generation became a motorcycle enthusiast, but the bulk of motorcycle enthusiasts be­long to this special generation.
In the beginning, God created motor­cyclists. CBS, the Japanese, and Cycle and Cycle World are powerless to cre­ate more of them. Assuming you reject a divine interpretation of origins, think of motorcyclists as products of mas­sive social forces in play 1955-1975. While motorcyclists aren’t exactly relics of the psychedelic age, they carry the imprint of that era, its attitudes and dis­positions: Do your own thing; never trust anyone over 30; if it feels good, it must be right; be yourself. Motorcycles were and are obvious vehicles for self­ assertion – dangerous, open-air, unor­thodox – and they fit perfectly people intrigued by things mechanical and at­tracted to the unconventional. Motorcy­clists today present themselves as in­dependent, critical, skeptical, tough-minded individuals. They may have a house now, one-point-eight chil­dren, two mortgages, they may have voted for Ronald Reagan, but Walter Cronkite was the last national figure they ever trusted.
Cycle’s editorial franchise has been built on its critical awareness. It’s part of the structure rather than the paint. In order to be taken seriously by readers who are knowledgeable, experienced, skeptical, critical, independent, and tough-minded, the magazine must be critically aware. Motorcyclists still carry a lot of intellectual baggage from the 1960s and 1970s. To them, ”non-criti­cal” translates into ”no credibility.”
Cycle has been a central source of corporate heartburn for motorcycle manufacturers. Indeed, for just causes magazines should be willing to spit into the gnashing teeth of hostile manufac­turers. In large part, motorcycle makers, to their credit, have borne our criticism of their products with public grace and aplomb, and we like to think they under­stand the importance of a credible magazine. But our purpose, however noble, scarcely eases their agony over stories that, for example, detail the in­ternal explosion of a new test bike or expose a chronic problem with a new model. Often manufacturers inquire whether Cycle’s readers care about such ”investigative stories.” The an­swer is yes, emphatically. Another query: Don’t you think the magazine grades products too hard, too thor­oughly, too seriously? Our answer: no, no and no. Readers deserve the best damn magazine the editors can do, month after month. This magazine’s na­tional treasury is readers whose pas­sion is motorcycles. The readers, their passion and our treasury shall be zeal­ously guarded.
Others think we give our readers too much credit. I say this: Tell me what you know and believe about your readers, and I’ll tell you what kind of a magazine you’ll produce.

CYCLE (May 1985)

1 comment:

  1. "Rather than a magazine written for motorcy­clists, Cycle should be a magazine writ ten for readers whose passion is motor cycles.” Good.