Bespoken Word – MTB media meltdown

Cranked magazine
(Image credit: Seb Rogers / Cranked)

There are all sorts of rumors – and some solid facts – flying around about the state of the bike media right now, so I spoke to Seb Rogers, the editor of independent MTB magazine Cranked, about why the issue on sale now is the last one ever.

“Like many things the media landscape has changed beyond all recognition. When I started in the late '90s, there weren’t many openings into the media, just a few magazines with already established staff. You had to earn your place not just by being an expert who could communicate OK, but also by being professional. Whether it was politics or writing about £500 mountain bikes, there was a real sense of responsibility because it was the only real place to get information. That also meant it was the only place brands could promote their products through advertising or get a third party review. So those few magazines that there were had a lot of income and a lot of influence.

"Now, there are so many ways for brands to self-promote and so many other sources of information, stories and imagery. And you can get most of them for free through the internet, so producing something that people want to pay for is really hard. In a way Cranked was in a good place because I deliberately took it in a different direction. I realized that if route guides, race reports, product guides or reviews were all available instantly online for free, there was no point in putting them in a magazine. Cranked has always been about storytelling, which is the earliest human instinct. The mud, sweat, dust and being out with your mates on bikes and I think we struck a nerve. I wanted to make a magazine that I wanted to read and goodness knows I’m a cynical old git, so it had to be interesting. The gamble was that there’d be other COGs like me. And surveys showed that our subscribers had given up buying traditional magazines years ago.

"We never compromised on our paper, publishing standards or or paying contributors properly either and we took a lot of care over what was printed in it. It ran for eight and a half years over 34 issues and I’m proud that I proved a magazine like that was valid. As a photographer, I was particularly proud to have top US photographers who were heroes of mine asking if I’d consider publishing a story of theirs. Even legendary bike designer, Dave Weagle, commented on the Insta post announcing that number 34 would be the last issue.”

Cranked magazine pages

Seeing big pictures on quality paper is a totally different experience to scrolling through them on a phone (Image credit: Seb Rogers / Cranked)

The last post

"In terms of why 34 is the last issue, Cranked is actually still currently a viable concern so I could keep on going with fingers crossed. But I’ve been crossing my fingers for four years now and that’s really really tiring. The frustrating thing is that this time last year we actually had good prospects and it was potentially looking like a record year. However, by January the amount of ads we’d had pulled meant it would have been the worst year ever. 

"There’s a whole load of reasons you can cite for that too. The internet has got publishers and advertisers even more focused on numbers and ever bigger numbers – even if the gains are very short term and hollow. From a marketing manager point of view, the cool thing about the internet is you can get numbers to make a nice graph. Print can’t compete with that, even though (or perhaps because) the circulation figures quoted for magazines by publishers really took the p*ss. But then a lot of people in marketing don’t seem to care what the quality of each bit of exposure or engagement is, they just skim off the headline numbers rather than assigning any sort of value to different outlets/media.

"There’s a really symbiotic relationship between the bike industry and bike media, but with a few notable exceptions, it doesn’t feel that’s really recognized. News, stories, reviews, routes, etc, all help to sell bikes which is ultimately what pays everyone's wages. While Cranked was designed to inspire rather than talk about products directly, it was less overt than a website bristling with Best Black Friday Deals, but I’d argue we had a more lasting effect on enthusing people about riding.

"I don’t want the industry to come out as the bad guys as we have had some fantastic support and current circumstances are really hard. Attitudes changed a lot over Covid too and the writing has really been on the wall since then. A third of our advertisers ran away and hid behind laptops on kitchen tables pulling ads. What nobody anticipated was how long it was going to stay that hard, we never really recovered. I had a lot of conversations with people saying they didn’t need to advertise because they were selling everything they could get hold of, but there was very little sense of sharing that windfall with the media who’d supported them for so long but were clearly struggling.

"Right now there aren’t enough brands who can afford to support the mag when they’re having to look at redundancies and facing a very unsure selling landscape. If I’m honest it doesn’t make sense to have tons of unsold stuff but not be trying to sell it, but there we are. I'm trying not to sound grumpy and cynical as the industry is clearly having a hard time. The cost of living crisis meant subscriber numbers were going down too, and if you don’t pass round the begging bowl then people don’t know you’re struggling yourself. Tolerance to that is really low though as ultimately a bike magazine is a luxury item and I always wanted Cranked to stand on its own two wheels, not be seen as a charity. Plus, it’s all about going out on a good note. Everyone will get paid and the subscribers will be refunded because I want to be able to sleep at night and issue two would never have happened without those people who did support us, let alone issue 34. I also want to thank everyone from the printers to warehousing, subscription posting people to the pool of freelancers who made it what it was. So yes I’m sad it's not continuing, but I’m not bitter and at least I’ve got a lot more time to ride my bike now.

"I do hope that the the industry continues to support small media rather than being blinded by shallow stats though. Because I still believe independent, interesting media is important and without it everybody loses."

Cranked magazine page spread

There's a lot of similarities between threading singletrack through trees and navigating the current media landscape. (Image credit: Seb Rogers / Cranked)

Be careful what you wish for

As I hinted at the start, Cranked might not be the only outlet that doesn’t survive the year and various other websites and cycling channels are up for sale at the moment too. In other words, cycling media is reflecting exactly what’s going on with manufacturers, distributors and shops right now. Things like AI automatically plagiarizing existing content and spewing it out elsewhere and the continued emergence of more and more ways for people to create, publish and view content make the future of media look even more volatile. That’s before you factor in the rise of influencers/ambassadors, self-proclaimed experts, dramatically shortening attention spans due to how social media is consumed, and increasingly polarized/extreme views being used to gain attention seemingly everywhere. 

In the meantime, I’ll be launching my own OnlyFans page soon as that seems to be the only content creation channel that you can make decent money on these days.

Guy Kesteven

Guy Kesteven has been working on Bike Perfect since its launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. He’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and he reviews MTBs over on YouTube.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg