Monday, January 6, 2014

Gunning for the Truth

We know that large circulation, general-interest magazines (think Life, Family Circle, TV Guide, Reader’s Digest, etc.) will continue to go out of business or significantly decline in value while smaller circulation, special-interest magazines, whether about boats, bikes, or cool tools, will tend to survive.  The reason for this is that the latter tend to generate proportionately more circulation revenue than their larger sisters.  Their readers tend to be very loyal.  And the magazines generally enjoy a perfect intersection of editorial and advertising content.  In many special-interest magazines, editors are critiquing their advertising base and tend to do so gingerly.  Products from advertisers are frequently reviewed and rarely given a thumbs-down.

As a long-time editor and publisher of special-interest magazines, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this.  After all, most products coming on the markets in these sectors have been vetted pretty carefully.  Often technical editors are involved in improving a product in beta before it comes to market.  I’ve done this with bikes, running shoes, fitness gadgets, cross-country skis and sports apparel.  When I was involved this way, I always made sure the readers knew.

Back in the day when I was editor and publisher of Bicycling Magazine, my naive position was that advertisers should want to be in the magazine because of our large circulation, editorial authority and reader engagement.  But there were always fires to put out.  I remember the call from the President of Campagnola in Italy telling me that he was cancelling all their advertising because I was showing favoritism towards Shimano, the Japanese maker of bicycle components.  I replied that Shimano was aggressive in product development and bringing new technologies to market.  He replied that Campagnola had invented the bicycle derailleur, quick release wheel mechanism, and so on.  I traveled to Vicenza, Italy, to change his mind, but he didn’t budge.  Cycling history hung over the meeting room like a medieval shadow.

I used to do the morning television circuit, appearing many times on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and whatever the CBS show was called at the time.  After an appearance on the Today Show where I showed some of the hot new bikes and equipment, including products from the Trek Bicycle Company in Wisconsin, I received a call from Richard Schwinn, who was presiding over a failing giant of a company.  He castigated me for showcasing foreign imports on the morning show and Trek in particular, based right up the road from Schwinn’s Chicago home.  Schwinn pulled all their advertising.  I have studied the sad Schwinn decline and detected without pleasure a large dose of vanity in that fall.

This kind of push and pull has been going on at special-interest magazines for years. Not infrequently, the threat of legal action hangs over the editorial meeting.  I recall when Bicycling was doing impact tests on bicycle helmets with the help of a university, the Bell Helmet company heard about this and threatened to sue and pull all advertising.  Our chief executive stood four-square behind the editorial decision.  That is how it is supposed to work.

I was deeply disturbed, though hardly surprised, when I learned that the Guns & Ammo journalist Dick Metcalf had been fired because he stated in an editorial that “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”  This was in October 2013.  According to a recent NYT piece, “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns,” “The backlash was swift, and fierce. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions.  Death threats poured in by email.  His television program was pulled from the air.”  Two gun manufacturers threatened to cancel their advertising if Metcalf continued to be employed by InterMedia Outdoors, the parent company. 

The NYT piece was written two months after the fact but offers a fresh perspective.  Even given the historically “close” relationships between special-interest magazine editorial departments and their advertisers, the banishment of Mr. Metcalf from the magazine and the industry for speaking the truth seems extreme.  After all, he correctly pointed out that all constitutional rights are regulated.  We still can’t cry “fire” in a crowded theater, no matter what the arsonists say.

It would be easy to point the finger at a gutless InterMedia Outdoors, a company I know and have worked with over the years.  After all, the editors are giving the readers precisely what they want.  The editors are giving advertisers precisely what they want.  From the outside, it seems like a pretty good business.  There is little or no separation of church and state and few involved seem to care.  Anyway, sponsored content is all the rage these days, the next money machine.  Or perhaps this is Duck Dynasty all over again.

In psychological terms, when I am seized by a powerful emotion, I am said to be caught in an autonomous feeling-toned complex, no less intense than if I was an ancient stammering at the altar of a nature god.  This is my personal unconscious at work.  I exaggerate, of course, but there is a kind of religious zealotry on the part of gun absolutists who seem to believe in the gospel of the gun, as if this language has divine origin and can never be abridged.  

As part of an academic project, I have read hundreds of articles, opinion pieces and blog posts about gun control, all written after the Sandy Hook murders.  On the whole I found them thorough, thoughtful, and logical, all begging for action.  A year later, I have to admit that reasoned argument will do little to change the discussion of guns in America. The primary reason for this is that the gun and the idea of the gun are so embedded in the American psyche and nature; in our history, theology, psychology and mythology.  As psychologist Carl Jung might say, guns are an inseparable part of our personal and collective unconscious.  These are the areas in which we have to probe if we want to shed some light on the debate.

I have tried to do this with an epic poem, “The Archetype of the Gun,” that I hope captures some of this complexity.  It’s an easy read, if I say so myself; and available on Amazon.