Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Climbing Media Survey 2011

Periodically, over the past four years I have been writing this blog, I have surveyed the state of climbing media, especially in the digital realm. In 2011, the story is an unsurprising one, revolving primarily around conformity and consolidation, trends that have been building over the past few years, especially in the US.

Looking over the media landscape in the US, it is striking to see that there is maybe one stand-alone web-based general climbing media outfit that is producing its own content and creating a distinctive brand. This is of course Deadpoint Magazine but its primary focus on sport climbing and bouldering means that a significant chunk (some would argue THE significant chunk) of the climbing scene is non-existent as far as that company is concerned. Compare this to the numerous European and English sites producing top-quality articles, news items, and other interactive features across the entire range of the climbing experience. Planet Mountain and UKClimbing are only two that work in this vein. Kairn, a French website,Klettern and Pareti, an Italian example, are some other significant sites, some web-only, some in partnership with print titles.

American print journals such as Climbing, Urban Climber, and Rock and Ice are far behind the Europeans in providing a significant and satisfying web presence. Without interviewing the actual editors, I can't say for sure why this is, but the main reasons can't be too hard to diagnose. The view appears to be that value is perceived primarily by consumers in the print edition and that efforts to have a significant independent web presence are throwing real money away to provide free content.

But turning to the web itself, what is happening? Well the landscape is increasingly stratified into several distinct layers. There are sites linked with manufacturers such as Black Diamond and Patagonia that consistently produce high-quality media, most of it with the explicit aim of promoting the brand. Then there are climber sites and blogs, the vast majority of which are infrequently updated and rarely worth reading, except for some occasional news value. There are the climber forums such as Super Topo. There is of course the Climbing Narc, whose mastery of the art of aggregation has garnered an enthusiastic following. And what else? Well not much really.

An endless diet of increasingly trivial news updates, training tips, equipment reviews and video clips make up the landscape of climbing media now. Perhaps it was ever thus but my feeling is that in the increasingly bland and consumerist landscape of the web in particular, something of great value is being lost. I am thinking primarily of individuality, real passion for the intrinsic values of the sport and the desire to ask hard questions about the assumptions and values we bring to it. Currently I see a celebration of surface, a pursuit of meaningless abstractions that climbers fantasize about capitalizing on, especially in terms of becoming a "pro" climber.

Real journalism asks real questions of the system, even aggravating ones, questions that affect people and the world we live in. I am wondering how many of these questions are being swept under the rug at this point in favor of a consumerist consensus that emphasizes a constant news cycle propelled by numbers, names and company brands. Are we afraid of what answers these questions might produce?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

At least you and Jamie are asking questions.

Julian said...

So, I think you're right about the state of climbing media, but I'm trying resolve some questions about what we want/need/are asking for from our media purveyors. And what we "should" want/need/ask for.

Since I'm struggling to put two consecutive related thoughts together I doubt I'll come up with any solutions, but we'll see.

splitter choss said...

I agree it's odd the mags haven't stepped it up online, when I worked at Climbing years ago we would argue for a bigger online campaign, but it never happened. I think it's probably a combination of not seeing the full value of a robust web presence along with a staff that is already overworked on producing the content for the print mag, which leaves very few resources for online. For now this is a niche waiting to be filled by someone with the right motivation.

Peter Beal said...

Anon, thanks for the mention. At this point there are very few other blogs besides Jamie's that I would mention as seriously talking about anything worthwhile.

Julian, good to see some posts recently! It seems to me that what people want primarily is a vicarious buzz which they can get through reading about celebrity climbers. This seems very boring to me, both to read and write about.

BJ, thanks for the inside perspective. I don't think the niche will be filled anytime soon since the niche that needs to be filled might not be advertiser-friendly which is the primary mission of the print environment. DPM has shown some daring in this regard as with the "crampon ad."

There have certainly been times recently when I have said to myself, "Why bother?" The momentum is toward everyone trying to do basically the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Hello Peter,
A thought provoking post. Could you clarify by giving a few examples of the types of hard questions that aren't being addressed adequately by the climbing media?

AB said...

This is exactly the reason why blogs are never going to replace actual content created by legitimate media sources. Your post is uninformed, poorly researched, completely made up off the top of your head, and makes sweeping generalizations that largely aren't true (and none of which are substantiated by any facts) just in order to make yourself sound as if you know what you're talking about.

Peter, do you even read any of the print journals that you're talking about? Do you follow any of these sites' online presence beyond an obviously cursory perusal of content? Are you fluent enough in French, German and Italian to comment about the content of the European sites? What content, exactly, is Deadpoint creating that in your opinion is so far exceeds the quality of what other websites are writing and creating?

You have no shortage of ways of contacting any of the editors at any of the publications that you bring up in this post, but you decide that your powers of deduction ought to be good enough to dissect online media landscape. Looking at numbers, presenting facts, asking This is the difference between journalist and a writer who has ethics to this field, and a blogger who spouts of hyper-intellectualized, ego-stroking fiction. I hope you realize that.

If you want to look at simple numbers, an easy search on www.alexa.com will show you that RockandIce.com is most popular, highest ranked website of any of the sites that you mention in the U.S., so it's completely erroneous for you to say that we have no significant web presence.

Of course, everything could be better--and I agree that we have a ways to go before our website meets the quality of our publication. It's something we're constantly working on, but good journalism is expensive. Opinions are cheap.


--Andrew Bisharat
abisharat@bigstonepub.com
Senior editor, Rock and Ice

AB said...

Oh, I just remembered: Rock and Ice was mentioned in the top list of the 32 Most Important magazines in this article by Matador Network, coming in with titans like Surfer's Journal and The Economist. We were acknowledged specfically for our web presence.

http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/notes-on-writing/the-32-most-important-magazines-to-matador/2/

Peter Beal said...

Andrew,
Your spittle-flecked tirade, though prolix and tendentious (whoops, too hyper-intellectualized!), has at least the virtue of being perhaps the funniest thing I have read by you in a long time. Nice!

More later.

AB said...

I'm glad you are entertained by my post, Peter. The funniest thing that I've read about you was, ironically, on Deadpoint, written by the Suburban Wankster. Is that the kind of content that you were referring to in your "Climbing Media Survey 2011"????

Also, not sure if my last post made it through, but I wanted to mention how Rock and Ice (here comes some more tendentious "spittle"--used in the metaphorical sense, I'm sure) was listed as one of the 32 most important magazines in this post, coming in with Surfer's Journal and The Economist. We were credited specifically for our online presence.

http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/notes-on-writing/the-32-most-important-magazines-to-matador/2/

Matt Stark said...

AB,

Please keep basing your success on Alexa.com and come back to the NRG. We need to make a trip to Southern X-posure.

Peter,
Thanks so much for the feedback. We will continue to do our best to improve and make our platform better and better. We have a long way to go, but we will get there.

Matt Stark
DPM Climbing

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the "ironic" Suburban Wankster ref, Andrew. Classy. You have made Matt very proud.

Anyway congratulations on making it into the top 32 of... what was that exactly? Way to be "kind of leading the charge into the future"

Enough of this tedious flame war, sir. I surrender.

postmaster said...

Peter, thank you for posting this thoughtful piece. It addresses something that I struggle with on a daily basis. When I really break down what we are trying to do at DPM I come to two points: inform and entertain. The basis of what I post and how I post it revolves around this.

While struggling to find an identity in the climbing media world I find myself torn between two ends of the spectrum. One is to produce super-high quality content like say, Alpinst for example, and the other end, to be edgy and fun like Thrasher (skate mag). I find myself in a constant ebb and flow between these two ideals based on the reactions of our readers. And more and more often I find myself constantly pushed away from the brink of being edgy by the lowest common denominator of readers.

What I'm referring to is the backlash we receive from posting anything other than "climber X sends V14". For example: the most current issue's article on marijuana in climbing. It's worth checking out our forum on the subject and you'll see that most of the feedback we got was negative. The intent was to publish a piece that would 'entertain' and create conversation. Unfortunately, many viewed it as an 'informative' piece that stated DPM's anti-marijuana stance. I thought the weed-in-climbing subject was worth a glance. Isn't it odd that some of the top pro-climbers in the world spend their days smoking weed? But many of our readers thought it never should have been published, though my guess is that it's one of the first things they read in the mag. In fact, one gym owner threw away every mag they received and refused to distribute it! Tragic for us...

What it boils down to is this: drama creates hits on the site. Ask anyone's opinion of the tabloid Star and they will likely tell you that it's 'garbage'. So why is it one of the top-selling magazines in the country? Why do we get 70 comments on a grainy video of Chris Redmond sending a 'probably not' V11 in Florida and 0 comments on an HD video of Paul Robinson sending V14? A while back we posted a blurb about Daniel Woods getting engaged and a shit-ton of people read it before commenting "since when did DPM become tabloid garbage"? or "How is this news?" Do you see where I'm going with this?

Sometimes I sense that the best way to expand and give people what they truly want is to stoop to the level of constantly stirring the pot. Then I find myself disregarding that thought and striving to post more thoughtful and informative news pieces.

There doesn't seem to be a correct answer on which direction to take our identity. Obviously, the direction would be clear if our reader base was made up of thousands of Peter Beals. You're a pretty intellectual guy and I can make a pretty accurate guess what you're looking for from climbing media. But our reader base is much more diverse than that and so what we publish has to be more diverse as well.

I think Julian nailed it in his comment. He seems confused about the difference between what he 'wants' and what he 'should want'. I think that his view is a reflection of the greater population. The average American watches VH1's latest reality show on, I don't know...transvestite models vying for the affection of a millionaire, then talks about how 'bad' the show is before tuning in again to see what happens. And yet I constantly receive feedback that suggests that the climbing community holds themselves on a pedestal above the types of people that tune in for that garbage. Are we not 'normal'?

After rereading what I just wrote, I realize that I've contradicted myself a bit. I'll let that stand as evidence of my confusion on the subject. It'd be nice to have an immediately clear idea of what people want but I think that will evolve as we do at DPM.

Mike Williams

Matt Stark said...

Peter,
Please do not confuse me with the Suburban Wankster. Although many still think the Wankster is me, he outed himself via Facebook on a page devoted to his blog. He actually was a member of The Spot Gym for a while when he first moved to Colorado from NC. Although Wankster has not updated his blog in several months, he continues to still the pot with his tasteless humor. We are happy to know that the staff of Rock and Ice gets their news from reputable sources like DPM .

Justin Roth said...

Hi Peter! Interesting post, as always. I do, however, disagree with the overall sentiment (though not with the vehemence or personal investment of AB). A few points:

"Revolving primarily around conformity and consolidation" -- Actually, it seems there are far more outlets for climbing news now than ever before. There are small digital mags dedicated soley to climbing in the Northeast and Squamish, as well as dozens of blogs of varying levels of quality that I don't feel can be rightly discounted. Conformity and consolidation are not the words I would use to describe today's climbing media, especially when one considers that not too long ago, there were only two major magazines out there.

"It is striking to see that there is maybe one stand-alone web-based general climbing media outfit that is producing its own content and creating a distinctive brand." -- This may be true. The amount of content created exclusively for the web is quite low for the US mags, especially compared to UK Climbing, but it's also important to keep in mind that UK Climbing doesn't have a print component. US climbing mags, in my biased opinion, are still on the top of the list in terms of worldwide respect and interest. And to be fair, it’s almost certainly easier today to start up a magazine from scratch with a strong web presence than it is to shift an existing strong print brand into a new (and very different) web-centric format.

Also, rather than be surprised at the shortage of web-based climbing magazines, I'd be surprised that so many climbing sites (of varying quality, I'll admit) do exist. There are currently five national climbing pubs with print and web components, and four of them talk about nearly the same people/places/things! For such a small community of climbers, there sure are a lot ways to learn about what's going on.

"American print journals … are far behind the Europeans in providing a significant and satisfying web presence." -- I definitely do not see Klettern and Pareti and Kairn as significantly superior to their American corollaries when it comes to web presence. I think this may be a grass-is-greener situation.

"Real journalism asks real questions of the system, even aggravating ones, questions that affect people and the world we live in." -- I feel that the major US mags, whether in print or on the web, have done a good job asking "real questions" and dealing with similarly real issues, with some exceptions. Maybe it is hard to see this because, as is the case in every media niche today, junk abounds. Our job as consumers of climbing media will be increasingly one of selection and curation (and even interaction, as with this blog response), rather than passive ingestion.

And regarding "real questions...that affect people and the world we live in," I think you will not find too much of this in the climbing media because climbing is not the place to go if you're interested in such things. Compared to, say, earthquakes and tsunamis, democratic revolutions and despotic dictators, our actions on the rock make but the tiniest ripples on the lives of others. (Of course, our actions on the rock DO make the all the difference for our inner lives, which is, I feel, is every bit as important important :)

David said...

Peter, it's obvious what this topic is all about. You are trying to insult the other mags to gain Matt Stark's favor, so he will allow you to fulfill your dream of co-authoring a blog post with "the suburban wankster." All you have to do is ask!

Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this post, Justin and Mike.

"Sometimes I sense that the best way to expand and give people what they truly want is to stoop to the level of constantly stirring the pot."

Exactly. The least of my intentions was to get people aggravated but online that is what passes for debate and discussion.

Justin, by conformity and consolidation, I mean a consensus about how to do the job. We may have more outlets but also a more homogeneous product, in part since everbody is all basically covering the same thing at the same time. I have heard some wierd stories about how this plays out for photographers and writers.

"And regarding "real questions...that affect people and the world we live in," I think you will not find too much of this in the climbing media because climbing is not the place to go if you're interested in such things."

I am not sure I agree with this as much as I might have done in the past, especially given the drive to make climbing more mainstream. Climbing is not the escapist, low-key activity is once was. Compared to earthquakes, sure, climbing is trivial, but I have said on many occasions that there are more serious stories to tackle as well as accounts of routes or climbing areas, etc.

No worries Matt. I know you are not SW. Frankly, as I have said before, and even as a target, I miss him.

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