Saturday 15 December 2007

Climbing magazines (do they have a future)

It’s been interesting seeing the complete transformation of the way we read about climbing in the last five years. When I started out as a regular web surfer in uni, circa 2001, climbing websites were most definitely a novelty. Interesting, in a nerdy way, but certainly not essential viewing. These days, they are certainly the most effective (generally speaking) way of finding out anything about climbing, be it news, information or entertainment. Plus, it’s free and instant. That’s a bit of an unbeatable combination don’t you think?

It must pose a very big discussion point (understatement) for anyone who runs a climbing magazine. I don’t know the numbers, but from what I hear, things are getting more and more difficult for climbing magazines. Less readers, and the problem of not being able to break news anymore. What else could go wrong? Advertisers realising that their chances of getting their message across might be easier and at the very least a lot more measurable online.

So what is there left for print climbing mags to offer? It seems to me all there is, is super high quality writing and photography. Alpinist does pretty well at this. One thing is for certain, a modest change in response to online media will not be enough to prevent extinction for print mags in a very short time. Only a pretty radical change will do.

I certainly couldn’t think of a bombproof solution. But I guess a big part of it must be ditching legacies of the past, like esoteric news (for instance leave BMC news to the BMC website!) and columns by commentators who are obviously struggling to find something to say. The biggest thing I don’t get about the British mags is the aversion to interviews. I love someone to explain why they don’t run them so much now! You only need to look at the mag racks in WH Smiths to see that interviews with interesting folk shift magazines.

In the summer I spent a wet day in Pete’s Eats in Llanberis. If you’ve been there you’ll know upstairs they have a monster archive of climbing magazines right back to the 60’s. Most of it was pretty uninteresting stuff that held my attention for nothing more than seconds. Right at the end I came across a copy of Rock & Ice from the early nineties. In one issue, they had in depth interviews with Ben Moon, Wolfgang Gullich and Patrick Edlinger. That one kept me going for about half an hour – about 2000% of average time I spent flicking through the others!

The only chance the climbing mags have got right now is that the websites still aren’t perfect either. There’s a big opening for someone to do a decent climbing news website. UK Climbing is the daddy right now, but until they start making their news more in depth and use a better site layout there is an opportunity for someone to step in and provide the service. I guess the problem is that publishers of major websites are still figuring out how to make their sites work financially. There’s no getting round the fact that running a major site that is high enough quality to be a ‘must visit’ has got to be a job for someone (but a job I’m sure lots of net savvy climbers wouldn’t mind!). The money to make it work is definitely there for the person who has the time, motivation and imagination. I certainly know that some of my sponsors are planning more and more to spend their advertising budget online. Get there quick though, before UKC take the bull by the horns and launch a new version (I suspect this will be sooner rather than later). The problem will be that it will be down to the site to make it painfully obvious to the advertisers exactly how much they will benefit and to secure the contributions from the climbers to generate the stuff that people want to read about.

Interesting times.


  1. Interesting topic Dave....i am reminded of a new mag that sprung up in Oz called Crux mag:

    it was put together by a bunch of climbers operating out of their bedrooms and offered something different to the existing mag. Sales and contributions were generated online. So i think, as you say, established media will continue to suffer.

  2. Times are a-changing, but it's a media shift that goes beyond climbing and climbing magazines though doesn't it?

    People were predicting the end of paper books a few years ago, but there's something about the "artefactuality" of paper print that will always appeal.

    It's about place too: I love reading old climbing mags, on the bog, or with my pre-wall cuppa and flapjack for that all important pysche!

    But you're right, the mags will have to adapt to survive.

  3. Ciao Dave,
    I’m italian writing from Italy :-)
    Nice to meet You here in the climbing blogosphere.
    And nice to read Your intelligent post.
    I have nothing intelligent to write.
    I just note we climbers always did and do the news, climbing the rocks.
    Today, all we climbers have the chance to edit on the web our own climbing news, little or big.
    Even when we put our routes on we just do a kind of microblogging …
    We are becoming climbers journalists and I agree with You: interesting times.
    Ciao !

  4. Definitely a relevant topic. I live in the States and subscribe to four magazines (Climbing, R&I, UC Mag and Canada’s Gripped). I also troll about online looking for engaging climbing news.

    Since kicking back on the couch with a magazine in hand still beats balancing the laptop on one’s knees, it would seem the climbing mags do have a chance to adjust to the changing times. But as you indicate, they’re going to need to work at it. Over the past year or so, I thought Rock & Ice was making moves –the writing in a couple of issues (the one featuring a piece on Sharma’s arch project, written by Jeff Jackson, comes to mind) approached the kind of quality of writing of an Alpinist, or perhaps an older issue of Outside. But such issues have been erratic and most of the time the content of Climbing and Rock & Ice is indistinguishable.

    Another approach is to make the magazine edgy, creative. UC Magazine did this when they first appeared. They weren’t polished, but they had some energy and a unique eye. Sadly, over the past 18 months, they seem to have fallen in line with the other two U.S. magazines, covering the same old weary topics with the same abbreviated word counts. In contrast, I enjoy Gripped because the articles tend to be longer. There’ve also done some great profiles: one on Dreamtime and another on La Rambla. These have been historical and informative and are refreshingly void of the “travel and climb in paradise” fluff.

    As for me, the Internet site that all others should model is Desnivel’s. They have very fresh content, frequent interviews, in-depth reports containing more than parroted press releases, and a pretty good selection of recent videos. Granted, in order to read it I have to fire up Google’s translator. But as a result, my Spanish is improving –a bonus for the mono-languaged American that I am.

  5. Climbing mags should have a strong internet presence .. if done properly one feeds the other.

    It's open to debate whether the climbing mags as a business model will actually work in the future but to give it a fighting chance they need to embrace the internet and the change in the relationship between climbers and the magazine.

    Personnaly I don't get these magazines .. if I was a journalist/owner I'd be pushing like mad to make this happen .. we're living in such exciting times you've just got to want to try mixing it all up.