Friday, October 16, 2009

Media Matters

Tonight from 11-12, I will be talking with Mike Brooks on KVCU, 1190 AM in Boulder. I hope to discuss a number of topics including the Flagstaff tours project as well as the role that digital media is playing in climbing. There is little doubt that traditional print media is evolving to respond to the challenge that more flexible, immediate, and cost-free formats present but there is also the challenge that those qualities present to new media itself.

As an indication of one possible trend, and not a particularly encouraging one, Dead Point Magazine, a recently launched and free publication that operates both in print and online, posted a picture on Facebook which consists of a young woman in a bikin (with the DPM logo in a prominent location) pasted over a picture of a boulder problem with the text "challenge" "It's OK to Look." I responded saying it was cheesy and that it made DPM look "not so good," a polite way of saying sexist and pandering to the lowest category of "reader." Later I received a message which I hope the editors at DPM will not mind my sharing:

"Thanks for the input about the photo. Imagery like it was a debate for over a year. Climbing is becoming more and more image based and we feel the market will follow the lead of surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding, wakeboarding, motocross and all the other extreme sports. As much as we may hate the evolution, it is happening, and the effectiveness of an add like this for generating traffic is undeniable. DPM has taken several risks along the way. We have pulled back in some respects and pushed on through others. Ultimately we will find a medium that we hope we all can live with. On a personal level, I agree about the ad being "cheeeezeee". I tend to respond best to rad photos of climbers in remote areas putting their ass on the line, but I'm not Dead Point's audience. Anyway, for what it's worth, we appreciate the feedback.
Matt "

On the one hand I am amused by Matt's use of the phrase "ass on the line" as clearly someone already had that angle covered (barely to be sure) and I am relieved to know that DPM would rather show pictures of climbing instead of young ladies' posteriors. However the thought that climbing is going the direction of kiteboarding (kiteboarding!!!???) and focusing on simplistic sexualized images of women to move product is depressing to say the least. I have always assumed at some point that climbing was a bit more, well, mature and reflective. Certainly as the father of a girl, I have a vested interest in a culture that sees women as equal particpators in all aspects of life and not as sexual objects.

In this vein, DPM and John Sherman have truly jumped the shark in his "blog". Not really a blog, more of column really but whatever. In the latest installment, Sherman asks the following question:

"how is it some cad nicknamed "The Verm" can solo 40 feet of 5.9 and hours later be rocking his van's leaf springs with a smoking hot gal but you solo Half Dome's Northwest Face and come back to an empty van? "

Sherman proposes it's the van that the ladies love. We see a picture of a faceless woman with no shirt and a strategically placed scarf standing in said van . Sherman notes the van is for sale, and I think he is serious here; maybe once you get past 50, the nomadic life begins to get a little weary. He lists, in true Smoove B/Hugh Hefner fashion, the features that women apparently find irresistable. Now setting aside the ick factors of buying that van, which are too many to describe, what is the point here? An aging Lothario captures the audience, hopefully, by posting a picture of an adolescent fantasy (classy, keeping those chewed on strawberries in the photo and the Eiger Sanction on the TV). Kinda sad really.

Not to pick on DPM or Sherman but can't we do better not just by women but by ourselves?


bluegrassbouldering said...

excellent work peter. thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely. Appealing to the lowest common denominator will only bring climbing down with it.

Anonymous said...


alex said...

DPM feels that it's simply reflecting the tastes of its audience; from a business standpoint, this is exactly what it should be doing. However, media outlets are not simply mirrors; they also affect the image that they portray by choosing which tastes to reflect and which ones to exclude. My question is this: what is the line between highbrow and lowbrow, and will staying exclusively highbrow pay the bills? The Alpinist's demise suggests that highbrow climbing porn won't do it, regardless of quality.

Perhaps, then, that's where the blogosphere comes in: to offer the thoughtful alternative that addresses the more subtle and esoteric aspects of the sport. And since those who blog about climbing as well as those who follow those blogs are passionate about the sport without having their livelihoods attached directly to it, it’s not a risky venture. After all, most of us climb for free; we will, then, probably continue to think, write, and read about it for free as well. And given those conditions, blogs are the medium that offers the "purest" opportunity for "highbrow" thought.

OBdizzy said...

Shot at Verm, or a serious critique of climbing media standards? Verm trades in satire, but he's so coy with his crass routine, sifting through his BS for meaning is like drinking cheap beer for the vitamin content, probably a negative net gain and completely beside the point(and sometimes I like cheap beer). You seem like a literary guy Peter, is there a term for a style/someone who tries to pass off their sincere lowbrow taste as a jest?
As for the serious critique part, yikes, thats too big a discussion for a coffee break.

Anonymous said...

Poor bugger's just trying to ingratiate himself back into the community after selling us all out to the copper mining company in return for Queen Creek. Wonder if DPM even knows about that...

Michael said...

Not just DPM, they are following the lead of Climbing mag, Rock and Ice, Vertical and Outside.

Thoughtful as ever Peter.


Peter Beal said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. The last from Mick reminded me that his articles, a particularly well-written and well-researched series called "Climb like a Girl" really laid out the problems with this kind of imagery.

I don't think it's a highbrow/lowbrow issue as Alex proposes, instead it's a question of ethics and raising the bar. Would we enjoy reading a magazine if we knew it supported chipping, gluing,and chopping down trees in order to get the best pictures? Why can't we draw a similar line with the depiction of people?
Yes blogs can enjoy the position of not earning revenue and staying "pure" but I don't see why for-profit publications and advertisers can't agree that some messages are not acceptable. Business is never just "business."

Is John Sherman being satirical? I was a big fan of John Sherman's articles in climbing and enthusiastically reviewed his book Stone Crusade for Rock and Ice when it came out. His article on removing fixed rugs, a parody of Field and Stream, though now sadly outdated, was a masterpiece of climbing comedy. John was always about the climbing no matter what else. However the DPM material seems to me off-base and a bit sleazy and if there is sense of self-parody, it is coming through in the wrong sense. However my main issue is the use of women's bodies to sell an image of climbing and women themselves that is at its roots, bogus. I would be much more interested in seeing women shown and written about as real people but since that hardly happens even with men (another blog topic itself), I won't hold my breath.

Kendal Jackson Bags said...

I am glad someone addressed that DPM ad.. Sexism should not be used to profit from, no matter what demographic a business is targeting. I would like to think that the climbing world might level out above the ethical maladies in our society to depict women as people.. not objectified business capital..

Thanks again for the post!

Olsen said...

Well played Peter. Keep up the good work.

Jeff said...

This is precisely why I find myself culling back issues of Climbing & Rock & Ice, circa 1990 or so...lycra was bad, sure, but not as bad as this...

coffmann said...

If climbing goes the way of the 'cool' sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, etc. I think I may lose all motivation to wake in the morning.
The Times could probably sell more copies per day with a centerfold, yet they dont. Why? Pure discretion. Whether or not the folks at DPM feel the market is trending in that direction, I feel that they (and all other climbing publications) should moderate their capitalist tendencies and keep climbing more about the sport rather than what the sport looks like.
(Yes, I am making a qualitative judgement against image-based activities, and, yes, I'm fine with that.)

Barbara said...

Why did no one raise a stink about Cris Sharma’s photo in Rolling Stone, oiled up while looking in an apartment window like Spider Man? Is the shirtless male form viewed differently in our eyes? As a woman, I feel the ad did lack some taste, but DPM is bringing a fresh youthful flavor to climbing media. They are trying to offer something different to the younger generation. It sounds like you are disappointed DPM isn't the climbing magazine you read in the “hay day” of climbing circa 1992. I can tell you this, it is the only magazine that actually flies off the shelf at our gym. We might sell two of twenty copies of Rock and Ice or Climbing and we haven't sold a copy of UC in months. I think DPM might be doing something right, but it just isn't right for you. I do agree with some of your comments but we need to face it, we are getting old.-Barb

Peter Beal said...

Age has nothing to do with it, as the Sherman piece shows. I never saw the Sharma photo but it seems pretty feeble from your description. In any case it is the norm that women are portrayed sexually, not men which raises plenty of questions.

I have no hankering for 1992 as you propose. There was virtually no mention of women at all in that era.

Re: Flying off the shelves, here's an experiment to try. Put a 5 dollar price sticker on the free DPM magazine and see how it competes against Climbing, R&I, and Urban Climber, especially if you give away the latter three periodicals.

Actually I like DPM a lot, just not when it tries out cheesy ads on its readers.