Can sports magazines survive?

Another day, another paddling magazine. At least, that’s how it felt in late 2012 when two titles called “The Paddler” emerged and I spent hours a week indulging a shameful habit on the internet. That’s, er, scouring the web for the plethora of canoe-related e-zines out there, in case you were wondering.

I glimpsed what might have been signs of new thinking at the BCU when I heard that the publishing of Canoe Focus was being contracted out. I wondered if this would be the governing body’s ‘moment’ when it went digital. But, no, it turned out to be just a bit of a redesign and a ‘new’ magazine which, to my untutored eye, looked pretty similar to what went before – and which I never really bothered to read either.

Yes, by the time anything’s published in Focus, it’s old news. And with e-zines a-plenty on the web I have already satisfied every canoeing fantasy possible by the time the BCU’s glossy tome hits my doormat – browsed acres of wonderful pictures, race results, video footage and stories about just about every kind of canoeing you could think of on sites too numerous to single out, all produced by fans and enthusiasts around the world, some in English, some in variations of it.

So what chance does the traditional magazine have? Not much, I’d say. Canoe Focus’s future is assured as long as the BCU wants to pay for it. Canoeist magazine, on the other hand, and others like it, have to bring in revenues. And Canoeist may be an exception to the rule that says mags are all doomed.

The title, which describes itself rather oddly as ‘Britain’s favourite canoeist’s magazine’ – which canoeist would that be? – is much better than I remember it in the 90s and is colourful, varied and knowledgeable. It seems to soldier on despite the digital revolution in paper form with PDFs of selected back issues available on its website.

The great thing about paper magazines is that they are pure editorial products, created lovingly and with precision by journalists who care about their subject matter. Take the best of their work and combine with the bells and whistles of web publishing and you have an attractive combination. But can you really do that and succeed? And who will pay?

Peter Tranter’s ‘The Paddler’ is a good read, with plenty of text and lots of great accompanying photos. Well researched pieces, a form of storytelling that gives the same depth and beauty of print magazines.

I like reading this stuff on tablets, my own iPad gives me a magazine-like feel and while I’d be reluctant to use it in the bath it otherwise matches the magazine reader’s user experience.

The real challenge, though is whether these titles will pay for themselves. It’s all very well relying on unpaid freelancers (aka canoeists) who just want to write about their great holiday/trip/descent/accident [delete as applicable] and show their friends and relatives how clever/wise/foolish/downright silly they were.

But, seriously, while this sort of content may be free it’s not really a proper business model. The state of online advertising means there’s not much of a business there at all. And introducing subscription charging will surely kill off interest in your magazine – won’t it?

Well, maybe. It’s likely that in the long run some form of payment for content will be necessary. The Times (and FT) charge for content but other dailies show little sign of joining them.

For feature writers, one possibility is an e-zine publishing platform like Atavist and Byliner – but no one has yet come up with a definitive ‘single sport’ magazine product that pays for itself. There’s just a lot of fan-driven publishing – which is great for us readers, but bad news if you’re the editor and have to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

When will we get to the point where there’s a viable business model for these titles? The online advertising market is in the doldrums and set to stay there (search the internet for the phrase recovery of online advertising and you’ll see numerous articles dating back to 2009 – that’s three years of promising recoveries, even Gordon Brown didn’t manage to do that!)

Perhaps we won’t arrive at that financial mecca for some time. But the journey towards it will be fun. I’m looking forward to enjoying the many great canoeing titles that are out there while they last – and the others which will doubtless spring up over time.

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