Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Farewell to Print, Farewell to Climbing

 How we went from this:
This is a transformational day for our company and our customers,” Robin Thurston, CEO of Outside Inc., said in a written statement when the acquisition closed. “Everything we do is driven by a belief that a hike, run, ride, or yoga practice can change your life, and these new brands will help us fulfill our mission to build the world’s best consumer experience across a wide range of activities. With these moves, we can now deliver world-class content 24/7 to almost every home in America across every platform, screen, and device.”

Outside didn’t stop there, either. In July, it acquired a trio of cycling brands — video-centric website Pinkbike, road biking and racing site Cycling Tips and GPS trail database Trailforks.

With all of that in its portfolio, Outside launched Outside+, an annual subscription service that gives customers access to all its content, training plans, adventure sports experiences, videos and events on a single platform.

“Our vision was transforming these from print companies to digital platforms,” Thurston told BizWest in an interview in May. “We want to bundle everything so we give you all you can eat of active interest media and activity. Whether it’s active lifestyle or home and cooking — these verticals will attract audiences back. All publishers have to get into the first-party data business and better understand their users to get people to sign in, to use all the services.”

To this in less than a year

"In addition to traditional print media offerings, the Boulder-based company bought a wide-ranging list of active-lifestyle brands, the complete Warren Miller film catalog, mapping services, and even a company that takes finish-line photos at race events. Thurston’s plan was to have those brands become part of the Outside+ subscription model, which targets individual reader’s interests and anticipates future pursuits. The goal: to directly sell content, goods and services to subscribers for an annual fee. In the process, Outside Inc. would de-emphasize the advertising revenue model that has become so challenging for print media. Perhaps most impressively, Thurston told 5280, he’d transformed his company from a few dozen employees to one that had more than 500—and he’d made all the acquisitions without laying off a single person.

That changed last week when the company told its staff in a video conference meeting that it would eliminate roughly 15 percent of its workforce, shutter some of its print publications, and reduce the frequency of most magazines to one or two print runs per year. The change came as a shock to Outside Inc. employees who had hoped Thurston’s ambitions would result in a rejuvenated era for the company’s publications.

“This is demoralizing,” one Outside Inc. employee told 5280 on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the cuts. “You do the work because of the people around you, all these brilliant minds. Now, people are wondering how long they want to stay in this industry.”

The layoffs were spread across the company, according to a slide presented to Outside Inc. employees and obtained by 5280. Of those listed as “exits,” 31 were from “content”—or 18 percent of that sector—among them, three editors at Outside magazine, the company’s flagship brand. Sixteen employees were laid off from the sales and marketing departments; 13 positions were eliminated from “commerce,” 12 positions were eliminated from “product engineering and mapping;” another seven were “general and administrative” employees. The company’s “events and experiences” and “customer support” staffs were untouched.

should be a story reverberating around the climbing world as it implies the end, not merely of the print edition, but the actual end of the magazine of record in North America chronicling the sport of climbing. Yes there are journals such as Alpinist or ClimbingZine or Gripped still continuing print editions (for now) but none of these have the reach or the mission that Climbing had. And I emphasize "had" because the warning bells should have gone off as soon as folks read Thurston's public statements about platforms and data business.

As in, "It’s about personalization,” Thurston says. “It’s about having data to be able to understand and hopefully predict what you’re going to do next.” As the company aims for profitability within the year, it has plans to break into documentary films, offer more podcasts, and develop short videos for TikTok and Snapchat."

Any non-Thurston-koolaid-drinking entities would have surely recognized that there is zero possibility within the outside industry for media-linked revenues sufficient to support a reported 150mil investment (among other unreported amounts) in this venture:

"The acquisitions resulted from the closing of the Pocket’s series B financing, which enabled investments in audience, technology, and product development, according to information supplied by the company in announcing the additions. The company’s series B financing was led by Seqouia (sic)Capital Operations LLC, which invested $150 million in the company and gained a position on the company’s board of directors."

I will state/predict for the record that there is a next to zero chance for Climbing to still be operating under the Outside Plus umbrella in anything like the form it had say in April of 2022 when 5280 published this pie-in-the-sky pronouncement in a profile.

“Do I think I’m doing something revolutionary?” the 49-year-old Outside Inc. CEO and Colorado native says.  “You know, it’s not like I’m building a rocket going to the moon.”

Outside Inc. would not confirm how many people have already subscribed to Outside+, the service that charges users $99 per year and includes two magazine subscriptions, mapping services, books, reduced entry fees to events, the entire Warren Miller film collection, and discounts on things such as travel, lodging, and gear. But Thurston says he hopes to grow Outside Inc.’s digital subscriber count to 20 million in the next five years.

The web of information and offerings is based on a data model that can anticipate a user’s future activities based on their current interests—and other users’ past interests. Outside+, Thurston says, could detect a customer’s shift from mountain biking to trail running, for example, then deliver everything from news stories, running shoe reviews, yoga and food recommendations, and event sign-ups—plus travel and lodging resources—to a computer or smartphone screen."

20 million? Uh huh. "Outside Inc. would not confirm how many people have already subscribed" says it all. And that "data model"? The vaporware feels are strong with this one.

A coincidental union drive in editorial in January that got quashed/was withdrawn had nothing to do with any of this I am sure.

In the end (and this will end and end badly IMO) the reality that underlay the whole scheme was financial speculation, pure and simple.

In another 5280 piece, Thurston was described as saying to (what was left) of Outside's employees "that current economic conditions made it more difficult in the short-term to move the company from private ownership to a publicly traded company (my emphasis) and forced the cutbacks. The savings, Thurston said, would give the company more operating “runway” in the meantime."

And there (5280 burying the lede nicely) is what was going on the whole time. Blue-sky/fever-dream "visionaries" imagining that the outdoor industry media "space" could generate sufficient buzz (forget about actual revenues, are you kidding) to justify VC capital investment and eventual IPO scenarios. That 20 million paying subscribers would materialize in five years (the classic timeline) and make everyone rich. Except the ink-stained (okay pixel-stained) writers, photogs and editors of course.

Not so long ago Outside was the Everest of outdoor publishing. Writers knew they had made it when their byline appeared in its pages. Significant issues were explored there, careers were made by some writers, and classic articles were published that reshaped the nature of people's relationship with the outdoors. And now what? Thurston predicted in April the arrival of "Outerverse" (NFTs and all) but my guess is what will happen next is more along the lines of Jon Krakauer's classic Outside article and book, that chronicle of hubris, mismanagement, and disaster, Into Thin Air. Because that's where Sequoia Capital's money is going unless something drastically changes at the top.

And in the meantime if there are any responsible socially-conscious investors who want to bring Climbing back from the brink and keep it sustainable for decades to come for a much more modest outlay, get in touch.

Thanks to 5280's Robert Sanchez for his excellent reporting on this subject. Also check out Adventure Journal for their thoughts

Good summary of the whole debacle

Full Disclosure: I have been published in Climbing and the (recently) let-go editor Matt Samet is a good friend. Also I am a subscriber (though not renewing) who has yet to hear anything from Outside Plus about the implications of any of this for my subscription.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Post-Olympic Climbing: Where Next

 The post-Olympic climbing landscape is now officially with us. It's a topic I wrote about extensively in the past and maybe some posts aged better than others

This post was probably the one that aged best

In it I argued that comp climbing still has no idea what it stands for in terms of testing athletes. I wrote in 2013:

"My personal feelings are mixed at best. I think bouldering especially has real possibilities for a great display of athleticism and sportsmanship, though some recent setting in the World Cup comps has me wondering. But I also agree with those concerned about a split between "real" climbing  and competition climbing growing ever wider. The continued persistence of speed climbing as an event lingers mostly as an embarrassment for both camps, if comments are to be believed. I will say that the bigger issue for mainstreaming competition indoor climbing is sorting out what the sport actually stands for. The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" meaning higher faster stronger and while faster could be dropped for climbing, the other two are very apropos for the world of climbing."

Nothing I saw in Tokyo indicated anything has changed. Indeed, the scoring controversies (too numerous to recount here) underlined the problem. Separating speed is a welcome move for Paris 2024 though I would argue that speed will ultimately disappear unless it's changed significantly and soon. But more importantly the fact that some very strong outdoor climbers didn't make finals despite a dedicated period of Olympic training indicates, among other things, that whatever comp climbing is becoming, it's so radically different that a climber who flashed 5.15a outside was out of contention for the podium.

I saw a number of attempts by announcers to convey how climbing difficulty works, attempts that had limited success and were rightly lampooned here in perhaps the best commentary I saw.

So where next? Good question! I imagine the current NBC equivalent of Jack Donaghy looking at speed climbing and saying "Nuh-uh" and the TV appeal of people sliding off boulders barely a foot off the ground has to be tenuous at best, once the novelty wears off. 

In my opinion, the future direction of comp climbing needs to focus on a more relatable athleticism in all the events with a trend towards standardization in what skills and strengths get tested. Bouldering in particular needs to get its act together to avoid looking like a lottery while speed has to get away from the race format and build a bigger better wall and route, focusing on time only.

The larger question is the degree to which climbing's appearance on an international stage will increase its popularity, especially in an already stressed and crowded outdoor environment. That's a hard one to forecast since gym climbing really is so different from outdoor climbing and the appetite for its peculiar problems of terrain protection etc may not carry over as easily as some may think. We will see.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Better Stop Exploring

Like everyone else, well almost everyone, I have a fair amount of time that I once spent climbing that I can now dedicate to browsing the interweb/social medias. Few companies spend as much money shipping their "athletes" to far-flung destinations (which are a thing under discussion in analyzing the pandemic) as The North Face and for no particular reason, I thought about the company motto "Never Stop Exploring." TNF was so worried about exploring they posted this last year:

Well climate change is still a thing as everybody knows, but what is actually helping slow down climate change thanks to COVID-19 is (ironically enough) people staying put. CO2 emissions have been down drastically in areas under lockdown and of course everyone has seen this fun photo or something like it from Llandudno in North Wales. The goats (a non-native species) typically live on the Great Orme, a limestone headland (and climbing area) near town. Sadly the dolphins swimming in the Grand Canal in Venice turned out to be fake.
Goats Move Into Welsh Town Empty Due To Coronavirus

The natural world, it seems, is exploring us in some interesting ways. Which is cool. Except when its a potentially lethal virus. Which humans are in a way too, so there's that. But anyway, what is more interesting is a consideration of whether climbing in "exotic" locales is, or has been, contributing in some small way to the release of dangerous organisms into wider human populations. The bats that carried COVID-19 lived deep in limestone caves in China. As it happens, climbers like limestone caves too. It doesn't take a genius to consider how easily something might transfer to a broader population from a climber hiking into an area and "cleaning" (i.e. disrupting an active biome and releasing heaven knows what into the air) a route in such a place, climbing it, then flying out with their gear (covered in heaven knows what) back to "civilization" to make a video about it and encouraging others to visit too. Those others bring yet more people encouraging further disruption and encroachment on wild habitats. These zoonotic transmissions are more and more likely as globalism continues to extend its economic and cultural influence.

I just read in 8a.nu about the establishment of climbing in Suriname, a country on the Atlantic coast in South America. It has extensive natural rainforest areas and apparently some potential for climbing. Yet is climbing good for the wildlife there? And maybe as importantly is climbing there good for us? A New York Times Travel section article blandly describes the market in the capital city of Parimaribo as follows: "Maroons and Arawaks, one of the country’s indigenous tribes, sell nearly everything under the sun from the country’s interior at the Freedom Market — from bush meat to live monkeys and bottles of casiri, a brew made from cassava." Street markets selling "bush meat" sounded so, well, exotic, in 2011. Today, we know that its equivalent in the "wet markets" of Wuhan and elsewhere launched the global pandemic that everything and everyone afterwards will remember 2020 for.

In other words is there a point at which we really would be better off not exploring? When do we finally say enough is enough? Disturbing sensitive ecological areas for fun and profit needs to be looked at quite a bit more carefully going forward, especially in profoundly biologically diverse regions where the human/biological interface is especially porous and potentially hazardous. Climbers like to consider themselves somehow exempt from the laws of nature as they "adventure" around the world in climates and environments that would be better left untouched. When you consider the possibility that one pried-off flake or the disturbed bat nesting area behind it could unleash a pandemic that could kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people and bring the global economy to its knees, maybe, just maybe, it's not worth it?

Note: for a compelling account of the ideological origins of this pandemic, please read "COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital" in which I saw the phrase "the frontiers of capital production," a phrase which perfectly echoes both the terrain and theoretical premise of the outdoor industry and which helped inspire this post.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

8a.nu (and Mountain Project), Why Are You Still Allowing Climbers to Publicly Post Climbs?

This one is going to be short. Virtually every climbing area in Europe or North America is located in a jurisdiction under "shelter-in-place" at this point. There are various interpretations of this but the emphasis on staying local and avoiding crowds is universal. Rural communities where most climbing sectors are found are pleading for visitors to stay away from them. Climbing organizations are echoing the same theme. Yet every day I see fresh ascents logged in these days and posted on the 8a website and elsewhere for all to see. This is not appropriate for too many reasons to count.

So I am asking these websites to look again at their actions and make changes. It's very easy to put the message out there that public posting of climbs is not helpful at this time. It's also easy to change the settings on the website to make such posting impossible for the time being. For guidance on this, check out UKC's proactive attitude. They locked down their logbooks March 18.

Here are the two primary sources for such posts.

REI owns Mountain Project. No more publicly available ticks of routes please.
8a.nu please just stop. We get that Sweden, for now, is more relaxed about restrictions. How much longer?

Climbers, if you really think that going climbing is okay right now, I can't alter that attitude but I will ask you to stop posting about your sick sends on social media and elsewhere and I can guarantee that if you are sponsored, others are taking note of your lack of awareness, including athlete and brand managers. Times for climbing brands are going to be very tough going forward and failure to grasp the need for everyone to get on board with true social distancing will have consequences.

Thank you.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Climbing Hits the Wall

The world is reeling from the pandemic Covid-19 and fortunately it's no longer still being debated whether it's appropriate to go outside climbing. Ugh. My answer is, right now, definitely not, unless (maybe)  you are free soloing, where, in the event of a mishap, you will likely not strain local medical resources. The thought of bouldering has me on edge (hold-sharing with Broseph and his buds ewww) but pictures of dozens of climbers in close proximity lapping up the Front Range's crowded cragging scene makes me a little freaked out. Meanwhile locals in places such as Moab are pleading with would-be visitors to stay away. (Update: Moab, like Hueco, Yosemite Red Rock Smith Rock, etc. closed) They aren't pleading In Europe, since the authorities are simply quarantining EVERYTHING. Will Instagram will develop a conscience about this issue of #vanlife and outdoor recreation in the time of coronavirus? We’ll see.

But speaking of free solo, the bigger picture (see what I did there), setting to one side the extraordinary catastrophe this is handing to the world's physical and economic health (and hopefully very swiftly setting aside in November the catastrophe's enabler here in the States), this pandemic came along just as climbing was hitting the big time and will be dealing a very hard blow to that surge in popularity.

This is for a number of reasons:

1. Climbing gyms are closing down and it could be a while. This really sucks and not just because I work part-time at one locally. In Boulder and many other locales climbing gyms are an integral part of the climbing scene. They are the place where beginners often get started and where veterans (myself included haha) are able to stay on top of new developments. They support strong climbers through employment as setters and coaches. They host competitions and other community-building events. Though there are downsides to gyms, they remain real anchors for local climbers and sources of community and communication. But their vulnerability to communicable diseases (nobody quite knows how long Covid-19 will stick around) is certainly going to cause both investors and the public to rethink the business model and a few months (very likely scenario) with minimal revenue is going to wipe out more than a few of them. New gyms (and we were maybe hitting peak gym as it was) are going to be facing strong headwinds since the investing climate just tanked. And of course many members or would-be members may find themselves unable to afford paying gym memberships. And you don't want to be a hold manufacturer right now. Nossirr. NO. Which sucks because they provide the cool stuff we climb on.

Pro tip: If you can afford it, PLEASE do not freeze or cancel your gym membership. Nobody else will be open anyway and if you don't support your gym now, it won't be there when you can come back.

2. Goodbye Olympics. Everybody (well maybe not everybody- thanks a lot, speed climbing) thought the arrival of climbing at the Olympics meant its future was assured. And now the chances of the Olympics happening in Tokyo are slim to none, as numerous news stories are predicting. In Italy, a person is dying roughly every 5 minutes. France, Spain, and Germany are locked down as is the EU generally speaking. The UK just woke up to the seriousness of the situation. We’re next. The Olympics are not happening and that's a fact. Only a lunatic would convene tens, probably hundreds of thousands of people in a tightly crowded city hot on the heels, let alone in the middle of, a global pandemic. Repeat. OLYMPICS. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. (OK that just got confirmed)  And worse, climbing is not going to get a second chance at them because...

3. This pandemic is getting scary. I read things every day that scare me the way watching Free Solo on IMAX never did. Only lunatics enjoy scaring themselves for fun climbing rocks in an already scary world. We used to call such people climbers before sport climbing and gyms made climbing welcoming to more balanced people. Now the world is ultra crazy-real scary and the thought of picking up or even spectating one more risky activity has most of the population reaching for a cozy evening of Netflix and chill. Normalizing death and dismemberment has long been an Achilles' heel of this sport especially given the past year or so's casualty list. Even the North Face "Team" has hired a therapist to deal with managing the trauma that is caused by risking one's life in the mountains with the goal of "testing" gear that mostly ends up traversing college campuses and pub crawls. Also people won't have much money, see above.

4. Governments are going to close down public lands for a while, maybe quite a while. The "dirtbag" #vanlifer roadtrippers are going to be considered as potential disease vectors and invited to quarantine themselves for a couple of weeks in their vans at locations all around the world which won’t be much fun for anyone and a wake-up call to more than a few. The rest of us are going to buy a sh*t ton of hangboards which will wind up on Craigslist next year as everyone realizes how boring and difficult using a hangboard actually is. Watch one of the 5000 videos that have popped up on Youtube recently and see for yourself. And I love hangboarding! Some of us will build home walls but most of them will suck and, well, see hangboard comments above. Long story short, soon there will be an abundance of opportunities for climbers to pick up amazing deals on "intro" level shoes, harnesses, ropes "no falls, only used a few times" and cheap ATC-style belay devices. Climbing gear manufacturers might be having an excess inventory problem very very soon. Also people won't have much money, see above.

So climbing is in a bad way right now. Big time. Along with a lot of things.

If you have any idea how climbing is going to hit the big time now, I would love to hear it. I'll be at Summer OR (seriously, that probably will not be held this summer) or maybe CWA (are you KIDDING ME? UPDATE CWA was cancelled) or more likely glued to social media and the news watching as the world burns and hoping to somewhat save my skin and that of my family. The sick sends will have to take a back seat for quite some time.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Misogyny in the Rocks

Posted this up on Facebook today regarding this piece on Medium:


"Great essay, thoughtful and thorough. Route names in areas that have associations with native culture and traditions, especially spiritual ones, and most especially obnoxious names like the one under discussion, reek of old-school imperialism and colonialism, just under a modern adventure sport guise. The least that climbers can do is honor both the natural setting and native culture in creating and naming them. This goes triple for visiting climbers.
Here in the USA, the most egregious example I can think of are the numerous obscene names for boulder problems at Hueco Tanks, most of which have strong misogynistic contexts, and have no place in a sacred area for Native Americans, not to mention a place with its own natural beauty. Thanks to Fred Nicole for beginning to turn around that tendency with both his amazing FAs and their evocative names. I wonder if/how the new edition of the guidebook will handle this problematic legacy."

Jeff Achey at Wolverine Publishing was quick to follow up with this comment:
We all discussed it back and forth quite a bit, and none of us had exactly the same opinion on what to do... In the first edition of the Wolverine book, Matt and Dave retained all of those names. At this point they are part of the historical record, in a way, maybe best serving modern and future climbers as an example. Jason Kehl in particular was against "censorship," and I'm sympathetic to that point of view. Also, the sophomoric misogyny seems a bit pathetic at this point, with women boulderers absolutely crushing in Hueco. Females are so well established in the elite bouldering community there that sexist putdowns lose much of their punch. It makes the misogynist simply look like a fool. But still. It's an unfortunate, weird situation. We did put a note in the intro about obscene names, and did a bit of judicious new abbreviation, but maybe not enough. I'd love to hear more people's comments on this issue and how we guidebook scribes should deal with it! Fortunately most books we deal with don't have this problem in anywhere near the degree as Hueco!"

Thanks Jeff!

My view on this is that certain aspects of "climbing history" and their preservation are very open to debate, especially route names that later climbers find offensive, and that the "rights" of first ascensionists to preserve those names are basically non-existent. The whole FA culture that has developed in climbing (rooted in a quasi-colonialist worldview) itself is a topic for review in another and much lengthier post.

I remain amazed that TPWD has not moved to modify or eliminate its use of any of the route and area names from the 80s and 90s when such names were much more common. I guess we'll see how that works out.