For enthusiast media, ethics can be costly

In Reports

Last month VeloNews, a bicycling magazine, obtained the specifications of a highly anticipated new product by bike parts manufacturer Shimano and called the company for comment. Shimano’s rep told VeloNews Editor in Chief John Bradley to kill the story about the secret product. If he didn’t, Shimano would cancel the rest of its 2016 advertising with VeloNews.

Bradley stood his ground. “The argument comes down to, am I going to kill a story because an advertiser said so? I don’t think any story is too small to be treated ethically,” he says. Shimano, a leading manufacturer of bicycle components like brakes and pedals, is a key advertiser for VeloNews.

Though standing up to angry advertisers is part of any media business, the VeloNews incident underscores the particular power large advertisers hold in so-called “enthusiast media.” Niche titles like VeloNews, which has an eight-person staff and publishes 14 times a year, have long survived by selling advertisers small but highly-engaged audiences with expensive hobbies.

Despite a downturn in print advertising across the magazine industry, enthusiast publishers continue to make businesses out of voracious interest in topics like fishing from kayaks, artisanal soap-making, and backyard astronomy. Modern Ferret, a magazine about domestic weasels, enjoyed a respectable nine-year print run before closing its doors in 2003. But a constricting print advertising market means advertisers wield greater leverage at narrowly focused magazines like VeloNews.

Shimano has yet to announce if it has cancelled its advertising relationship with VeloNews and its publisher, Competitor Group. Competitor and Shimano remain in contact and are negotiating, according to Bradley. “I don’t think [Shimano] thought they were doing anything wrong,” he says. Eric Doyne of Dispatch, Shimano’s public relations firm, declined to provide details, calling the incident “a private business matter.”

A mix of sports coverage and consumer advice, VeloNews covers professional races like the Tour de France and reviews cycling products, with a focus on elite racing bicycles costing thousands of dollars. It has a print circulation of 30,000 and a digital audience of 1.2 million unique visitors per month, and is owned by Competitor, a California publisher of sports titles including Women’s Running and Triathlon.

According to Bradley, Shimano also threatened to pull advertising from other Competitor Group titles and tried to persuade other bicycle companies to cancel their business with VeloNews.

“They’ve got clout they wouldn’t in other publications,” says Bradley, who previously edited product reviews at Wired. “When I was at Wired, if Apple pulled an ad, you’ve still got Citibank and Corona,” he says. Not so at VeloNews and the rest of Competitor Group’s titles, which rely on the narrow elite sports industry for virtually all of their advertising.

“In these siloed publications, they’re focused in a very narrow market,” says Marc Sani, founder of Bicycle Retailer, a bicycle industry trade magazine. In the past three to five years, he says, competition for the advertising dollar among niche magazines has grown “more intense.”

Sani, who writes a column about the bike business for Bicycle Retailer, was among the first to identify Shimano as the culprit in the VeloNews flap. The incident became public in late March, after Bradley inadvertently posted a comment to his Facebook wall, which he’d forgotten to set to “private.” He later posted an update expanding on his views.

He did not name Shimano in either post, however, claiming to be highlighting an industry-wide problem for niche magazines. “This isn’t a problem with a single brand, but, rather, one facing enthusiast media in general,” says the updated post. “To focus on a single brand is to ignore the much larger issue.”

In the narrow but often intense bicycle press, Bradley’s initial post set off a lively debate over how much advertisers influence editorial tone for small, fan-based magazines. The VeloNews story that angered Shimano revealed updates to an exclusive collection of wheels, gears and cranks called Dura Ace, used on high-tech bikes costing from $4,000 to $12,000. Publishing the specs for the new Dura Ace collection, a brand-defining “halo product” in marketing parlance, could encourage high-end consumers to delay purchases until the new models are released. That would rob the new line’s rollout of its drama and make it hard for Shimano to move existing stock already in stores. Older editions of the Dura Ace collection typically retailed for between $1,500 and $2,500.

Though its pages feature spry professionals pedaling across Europe, VeloNewsaverage reader is a 50-year-old American male with a $156,000 annual household income, who spends an eye-popping $4,489 on a new racing bike, according to data published on VeloNewsinformation sheet for advertisers. The profile suggests a readership of fewer aspiring Olympians than what cyclists call M.A.M.I.Ls, or “Middle-Aged Men in Lycra.”

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Reaching such a specific, spendy audience has obvious benefits for Shimano, but Bradley says he understands the company’s threat to cancel its ads. Like a new iPhone or fashion design, high-end bicycle parts are often kept secret for as long as possible, generating intense curiosity as fetish objects for fans. Bradley felt obligated to run the story anyway, he says, because withholding information from readers who might be pondering purchases of “eight, nine, ten thousand dollar bikes … borders on fraud.”

“If I sit on that story for two months and during that time you make that $10,000 bike purchase, maybe you would have held off. Reviewing these products is financial advice.”

He claims the magazine had ignored an initial leak about the Dura Ace parts because they couldn’t verify it, and that VeloNews’ reporting did not rely on information resulting from industrial espionage or improperly-acquired corporate secrets. Other publications were also working on stories about the line, and Bradley wanted to be first.

Complicating matters, Shimano has a reputation for secrecy. VeloNews’ scoop on Dura Ace meant someone had shared closely-held details of the company’s flagship product with reporters. The company’s pique did not go unnoticed among some journalists who struggle to cover the large manufacturer.

“It is a gruesome company to do anything with,” says Sani, the Bicycle Retailer columnist. “They’re very proprietary. They don’t like it if anyone reports on anything they’re doing in the future.” Like many industries, bike companies have begun experimenting with reaching customers directly, via corporate websites and slick videos produced in-house and posted to YouTube, rather than by paying enthusiast publications like VeloNews for ad space. The move also gives companies more control over product rollouts.

Bradley says he would have understood if Shimano had cancelled its relationship with VeloNews after the article came out, but trying to get the story spiked crossed a line.

A principled stand, to be sure. But is a story about $10,000 bicycles really the place to stand on principle?

“A lot of people really buy these [bikes],” he says. Moreover, the pressures behind the dispute represent a broader challenge for enthusiast media, which includes mainstream titles in industries like fashion and electronics, and affect Bradley’s dealings with advertisers of lower-cost products, he says. “I want to be honest about bike shoes too, which cost $80 to $400.”

First published in Columbia Journalism Review.

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Marc Herman
Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado, an account of his travels with gold prospectors in the Amazon forest, and The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on his reporting from the Libyan civil war. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Slate, Politico, Matter, the Believer, and GQ. A freelance reporter since 1993, he has lived in worked in Oakland, California, Georgetown, Guyana, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Barcelona, Spain, where he now lives with his family.