Common Tread

Why motorcycle journalism isn't journalism

Dec 01, 2017

If you look through all the articles I’ve written for Common Tread, you’ll see I’ve never used the words “journalist” or “journalism” to describe myself or the work we do here.

There’s a reason for that, and I thought it might be appropriate for me to explain why.

I realize that my perspective is out of step with the majority of my colleagues working in the motorcycle media, who freely call their work journalism and refer to themselves as moto-journalists or the like. Let me state it plainly: I’m not saying they’re wrong and I’m right. It’s all just a matter of opinion, a question of semantics. Also, just because I don’t consider our work to be journalism, that doesn’t mean I think it lacks value. If I felt what I was doing for a living was a net negative in the world, I’d be looking for a new gig. I’m not.

My position is a result of my perspective, so to get my point you have to understand where I’m coming from. Literally.

photo shoot
A professional photographer whose job is to make you look good is one of the perks of the motorcycle press intros. Photo by Lance Oliver.

In the beginning…

Most people working at motorcycle web sites and magazines took a version of this path into the industry: First, he or she was a motorcyclist, maybe from an early age, maybe an amateur racer. At some point, through chance or calculation, this rider had the chance to write something about motorcycles. The rider honed writing skills (or, more recently, video skills) enough to make it a full-time job.

That’s where I’m different. I bought my first motorcycle at age 18, but I went to journalism school and worked for about 12 years at four different newspaper jobs as a reporter and editor before I ever wrote a word about motorcycling. Again, I’m not saying that makes me better — just different. It means I was taught in school and required by employers to observe certain lines and not cross them.

One was the line between advertising and editorial. People who sold the ads weren’t allowed to come tell me, the reporter, what I should say. (In fact, in years of working at daily newspapers, I never really got to know anyone on the advertising sales staff.) Then there was the line between reporting and opinion. Editorial page columnists wrote their own opinions, editorial writers wrote the publication’s official opinion and as a reporter I had to stick to the facts and keep my opinions out of my work, or else my editor rapped my knuckles.

My employers also placed other requirements on me. If I had information about a company, I could not invest in the company or share that information with others before it was published. I couldn’t accept anything of value (not even a free lunch) from anyone I was writing about. Those were the rules, and because they were the codified results of a larger discussion in the profession, to me they defined what was journalism.

Why today’s motorcycle journalism isn’t journalism

motorcycle press intro
Manufacturers provide shiny new motorcycles for us to ride. And review. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Much of what is standard procedure in the motorcycle industry today would have gotten me fired at any of my journalism jobs. For example, last December, when I rode the BMW G 310 R at the press intro, BMW paid for an airline ticket to fly me to California, provided me a room at a trendy hotel with a view of the Hollywood sign out my window, gave me a bike to ride, hired a professional photographer to take photos of me, bought me meals and gave me a ride to the airport. Accepting any one of those would have put me on the unemployment line in my news jobs.

Back when I followed those journalistic codes of ethics, I called myself a journalist. Today? I’m just a guy who writes about motorcycles.

That doesn’t mean I have no ethics or standards. In my days as a news reporter, I was required to do my best to be objective, factually accurate and fair. I still try just as hard to get my facts right and be fair (we don’t criticize the features on a $7,000 motorcycle the same way we would a $17,000 motorcycle, for example), but I’m not objective. I don’t approach anything to do with motorcycling from a neutral perspective. I love motorcycles. I’m not objective about them. And I figure if you’re reading Common Tread, you’re probably not objective about them, either.

Whether it’s written by me, Lemmy, Spurgeon, Andy or one of our contributors, what you read here on Common Tread is almost always one person’s subjective opinion. We don’t pretend to present the absolute truth carved into stone tablets and handed down from the mountain top.

motorcycle press intro ride
The photos make press intros look more glamorous than they really are, but it still beats a day of digging ditches. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

What all this means for you

Even in the pre-internet days, motorcycle magazine-reading conspiracy theorists would suggest that the winner of the latest 600 shootout article was based on which manufacturer had bought the most ads in the magazine (it was just harder to spread conspiracy theories before the internet). But at least there was the idea that “journalists” were at least supposed to maintain those separations I talked about above and followed the kinds of rules I had to follow when I worked outside the motorcycle industry.

Today, with “branded content” agreements and people working for multiple employers, perhaps with competing interests, the burden falls more on you as the consumer to apply critical thinking skills to everything you see and read. (And I encourage you to be just as critical of the content right here on Common Tread.) You have to do that because the lines I talked about above are beyond blurred.

Let me give just one example. Earlier this year, the Bonnier Motorcycle Group closed Sport Rider magazine. I liked Sport Rider and respected long-time editor Kent Kunitsugu, though given the industry trends, I think everyone was wondering how long a magazine focused on sport bikes could survive. What’s more relevant to this discussion is the statement the company issued about the reorganization that accompanied the closure of Sport Rider.

The statement said the Bonnier restructuring “empowers the editorial as well as the marketing staff to focus on one role across all BMG brands.” And near the end, the statement added this: “The new model will remove the boundaries between BMG departments by changing staff responsibilities from one specific brand property or department to a specialized task that serves the overall Group.”

Now, I read the Bonnier statement as saying that even the pretense of a separation between editorial and advertising has been dropped. There’s only “one role” and no “boundaries” between departments. This is not blurring the lines. This is deliberately erasing them as a business strategy.

This is a business trying to find a way to survive while being caught in a bad spot: the intersection of a disrupted industry (media) with a broken business model (advertising-supported) that serves a stagnant industry (motorcycles in the United States). It's not limited to just one company, either. It's increasingly the way things are done in this line of business.

You can call these new strategies a brave new world, simple recognition of reality, doing what it takes to survive or brilliant strategic thinking. Call it what you want. I just won’t call it journalism.