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.