Several years ago a fall hurricane dumped six inches of water in my basement. After ripping off a sequence of expletives that would rival those spoken by a stevedore, I attempted to save more than four decades worth of materials threatened by the rising indoor tide.
In one box I found the last catalog produced by the H.L. Leonard Rod Company (Johnson Wax owned them at the time), and there was also a receipt for a Hardy Featherweight that I bought after a summer of bailing hay (retail price $88.00). I found an early Thomas & Thomas catalog along with a lost pack of moose mane that cost 90 cents. Included, too, were very early issues of a new magazine called Fly Fisherman as well as the first copy of a magazine called Rod and Reel that was later renamed Fly Rod & Reel. There were a number of versions of Fly Tyer magazine from when they moved the magazine from a typed newsletter format to a glossy publication. And tucked within the early Gray’s Sporting Journals were vintage tackle newsletters offering Seamasters and Fin nor Wedding Cakes for $250. The magazines and catalogs made me smile as I remembered my early fly fishing days, and also lament the fact that they were longer ago than I cared to remember.
At the bottom of the box was a copy of The American Sportsman. Depending on one’s mood, the three-ringed red, white and blue O in the word “sportsman” may have resembled a perfectly aligned peep sight or a Patriotic Vietnam-era Bull’s Eye, take your pick. I remembered watching episodes of that show on a black and white television with tubes that required several minutes to warm up so as to properly display the picture. Sometimes I would head across the street to my friend’s house to watch the show because theirs was a family of sportsmen and they had a color TV.
The American Sportsman was the most interesting to me because it was a hardback magazine. It was published by The Ridge Press, Inc. and the American Broadcasting Company Merchandising, Inc. division to accompany the Curt Gowdy-hosted television show of the same name. The American Sportsman was wonderful to hold and to read, and its production quality meant it was not disposable; like a book its quality would stand the test of time.
Our generation bears witness to the newcomer that is vastly different from traditional print media. Joining fly fishing books and magazines is a brave new world of digitally published blogs and ezines. In the past few years, many businesses have retooled their sales and marketing expenditures by reducing print advertising. In many circles, print is perceived as costly with no ROI while digital has gained favor because of its perception as “free.” In January, 2012, Business Insider reported that CEO Robert McDonald of powerhouse Procter & Gamble laid off 1600 marketing personnel and staff after finding out that Facebook and Google were either free or relatively free. There is a tremendous cost savings to the $10 billion annual ad budget, but are customers turning to social media for information on Old Spice or Tide laundry detergent? Mark Twain once said “common sense ain’t that common,” and with marketing budget-cuts occurring in such an expedient fashion, I beg the question: has digital replaced print in the fly fishing and sporting sectors?
With the increasing crop of fly fishing and sporting ezines, blogs, and social media threads it would seem so. The similarities are that print and digital are both for-profit business models that respond to a particular customer base. Historically, and as evidenced by the print Big Three sporting magazines (Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield), sportsmen were sportsmen. The lion’s share of the angling demographic favored conventional tackle and then gravitated towards spin tackle. FIy fishing was perceived as an elitist sport until Shakespeare’s Wonderrod, Pfleuger’s Medalist series, andCortland’s 333 reduced the financial entry point. Fishermen also were highly likely to be hunters and their diverse fishing methods were mirrored in their pursuit of big game, upland birds, and waterfowl. Fly fishing coverage was a small percentage of total editorial but that was destined to change.
The first customer change occurred somewhere between the Summer of Love and Watergate, and it came with a quest for more and specific information. In certain sporting sectors there was a customer base that began to focus on specific sporting disciplines. The all-purposes sportsman gave way to narrowly aligned user groups who thirsted for greater coverage and more information about their favorite activities. The pattern is reflected across many sporting categories. With regards to fly fishing, Don Zahner lead the pack with the l969 launch of the niche publication he called Fly Fisherman. A number of start-up niche publications sprouted through the mid 1970’s and established a velocity of new magazines that continued to launch throughout the next few decades. Each new magazine had a particular focus, with some keying in on sporting art and literature, others with destination and how-to’s, and still others with techniques and products. Fly Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel, and American Angler focused on all facets of fly fishing, while Wild Salmon and Steelhead or Warmwater Fly Fishing addressed a specific species or two. Saltwater Fly Fishing and later Fly Fishing in Saltwaters addressed an environment while others, like Eastern Fly Fishing, Northwest Fly Fishing and Southwest Fly Fishing provided a regional approach.
Fly fishing market retraction and the struggling domestic and world economies have caused many magazines to lose subscribers and advertisers. A number of publications have not survived. A new hurdle for print magazines to overcome comes back around to the emergence of digital publishing and social media. When I finished bailing water in my basement and returned to my office I was likely to find one of the newest fly fishing publications ready for my perusal.
So while the world continues to turn toward digital technology for their information, I wonder if sportsmen in general and fly fishermen in specific prefer print or digital as the way they’d like to receive their information. Digital publishing and social media have emerged as mainstays in our everyday world. But does that trend hold true for sporting activities in general and specifically fly fishing?
To answer that question I turned to publishers and editors who represent more than a century of experience. It goes without saying that each began their careers in print, but every one has significant experience in print and in digital and are able to provide an unbiased opinion on the values and limitations of each.
I first spoke with Ed Gray, the founder of Gray’s Sporting Journal. In recognition of the changing audience which led to ABC shuttering The American Sportsman in 1974, Gray launched a perfect-bound magazine of no less than 96 pages that was printed on 50-pound stock, and featured a 70/30 editorial-to-advertising ratio. His preliminary issue was launched on Halloween Night 1975, and nearly four decades later Gray’s Sporting Journal (now owned by Morris Communications) is thriving. Why? Gray focused on a special interest audience.
As businesses grow and expand, niche models increase,” said Gray. “A very specific audience of sportsmen exists and they favor print. Many will read digital, but the primary customer base who spends money on products and trips read print. The last century showed us a similar pattern in live theater, film and then television. As film and television emerged as new markets, live theater suffered a slight retraction. In our time, small movies have been replaced by those with tremendously large budgets. That said, live theater is still vibrant, and in many instances, actors are not considered “real actors” unless they have been on Broadway. It is a quality versus quantity issue, and customer buy quality magazines. Talented writers and photographers combined with quality print magazines properly address the sporting customer demographic. It might not hit the youthful sector, but it addresses the largest percentage of the total market, and that is what is important.”
Jim Butler, the former editor of Fly Rod & Reel, began working on Down East Enterprise’s fly fishing magazine in 1986, seven years after it was founded. “Historically, there was a tremendous spike in the sporting customer base after World War II,” he said. “Magazines expanded to cater to the growing niche-consumer demand, with Fly Fisherman being one of the front-runners to offer expanded fly fishing coverage. Fly Tyer came aboard in the 1970’s and regional magazines in the 1980’s through the 1990’s.”
“With all of the technological enhancements, digital has become more popular. An online magazine with a staff of one or tow and desktop publishing can produce a magazine that will service one niche of the niche market. To stay in business during this difficult climate, publishers need to study changes in how readers want to receive information as well as what type of information they want to receive. Fly rod 7 Reel has print and soon-to-be-launched digital platforms (and our sister publication, Shooting Sportsman, already boasts a digital-only pub called Sporting Shot). When we monitor successes and failures we find many clear examples of what works. Pure information like knot tying and the latest fishing conditions are great for the digital market. Videos explain knot-tying far better than print, and fishing reports reach more anglers more quickly on the web. But if a customer is looking to experience the sporting lifestyle then they are likely to find that level of quality in a magazine they can hold as opposed to view on a screen.”
Digital publishing guru Marshall Cutchin from MidCurrent doesn’t attach any perceived magazine subscription declines to digital. “Many magazines started to decline before Google appeared on the scene,” said Cutchin. “From an expense-side, magazines have always been big-budget projects that are content, subscription and advertising models. While I’ve seen consumers moving away from magazines that supply mass-market information they continue to find room for those that provide content for specialty subjects. Still, the challenges of the future for print are well known and scary. For digital? Their successes are becoming more apparent. Digital has the chance to embrace change in a way that print never did because it doesn’t rely on expensive production and distribution models.
“With digital comes an appealing low-entry cost which partly explains the dramatic increase in digital sporting publications. And with that low-entry cost comes a second issue, which is the vetting process. In the 1990s, bulletin boards were a tremendous vehicle for disseminating information, though much of it was suspect. Blogging software enabled publishers to produce and distribute content very inexpensively and it changed everything. But it also didn’t guarantee quality. The Internet has proven that the loudest people are often the least knowledgeable.”
Cutchin doesn’t think a shift to digital means the death of magazines, and he doesn’t think the “flipbook” concept answers an important need. “In some ways, a medium that allows anyone to assemble content works against information quality. Print gets more expensive all the time, so smart publishers are focusing on what print does best, which in my opinion is delivering a tactile experience—high-resolution photography and art on nice thick paper, for example. The look and feel of a magazine is distinct, and ‘flipbooks’ can’t replicate that electronically. On the other hand, subscription-based magazines can’t achieve the audience reach they once had, both because of competing channels and because consumer behavior is changing at an accelerating pace. Digital is learning to survive without print, I think, but print can’t survive without digital.”
John Frazier, editor of the niche of a niche Fly Fishing in Salt Waters represents an interesting twist. Before converting to digital, Frazier got his start in print. “Digital is a highly profitable endeavor, and the advertising revenues versus the cost centers are favorable to the publisher. Digital isn’t a fad, it’s here to stay.
“That said, the most important question is not what will the P&L look like or what will the accounting department say. The question is how do your readers want their content delivered? Web is great as it was intended, and that is to provide short, quick hits. But print has more longevity and quality attached to it. Fly fishing consumers favor quality over quantity, and while the younger market enjoys the social component delivered relatively immediately in a conversational tone, print is the dominant business driver.
“No one has cracked the digital code yet, so it’s wise to offer both versions to customers and to let them decide. But now that I’m involved in print magazine I’m in it to stay. And so are my readers.”
Kirk Deeter has an interesting 360-view of the fly fishing industry. Like Jim Butler before him, Deeter edits both a consumer trade magazine (TROUT and Angling Trade, respectively). Deeter also is a book author, a Field & Stream editor-at-large, a blogger for Field & Stream (“FlyTalk”) and for the RBFF’s Take Me Fishing program.
“The question of print versus digital reminds me of film,” he said. “I’ll watch some movies on an iPad, and others on a television. But them there are just some that I have to see on the big screen. And so it goes with digital and print applications.
“Simply put, good content sells. With that question answered, the real issue is what vehicle best matches the words and images? It’s a match-the-hatch of content, and the content is dictated by your audience. To simply take content that is best suited for a print publication and offer it in digital form doesn’t solve the issue.
“I think of blogs and social media like open-mic night. The quality of blogs and posts range from excellent to beyond the pale of acceptable. To think that a customer who spends $5,000 on a 5-night/4-day fishing trip or $750 on a fly rod is posting on Facebook or reading flipbooks is not likely. He’s probably working hard to be able to afford a quality trip or quality tackle. That demographic is likely to favor print. Products that appeal to a younger audience or are price-point driven may do well with digital. But each group must know their audience. TROUT magazine, for instance, consists of a 50+year old demographic. To shift from print to digital for a cost savings would be great for the P&L, but disastrous to all other facets. So by adding a digital application, I can disseminate information to a younger audience so as to increase their participation in Trout Unlimited while maintaining my core constituency. Again, it’s match-the-hatch for your customers.”
Ross Purnell, the editor of Fly Fisherman, the largest circulation fly-fishing print magazine for 40 years, actually began his publishing career in the digital world. Purnell was the first employee of the revolutionary website, The Virtual Flyshop (1996). Fly Fisherman magazine acquired The Virtual Flyshop in a strategic move designed to capitalize on the digital platform and to offer readers and advertisers a state-of-the-art publishing arm that was additional to the industry-leading print publication. Purnell joined the editorial staff of the print magazine in 2001.
“The reality is that nobody has to choose. Almost everybody I know takes advantage of both. You prefer digital if you need a fly recipe quick—you Google it. If you want to banter with fellow fly fishers on bulletin boards you know where to find it. Up-to-date industry news? The Internet wins. But sometimes you want to sit in a big easy chair and read a good magazine with quality editorial you can depend on. Some people keep their stack of magazines in the bathroom. Or they pick up a magazine before they get on a plane. There will always be a place for print magazines.
“We don’t expect consumers to have to choose. Fly Fisherman began publishing a website back in 1996, we’ve got the best fly-tying app in the iTunes store, we’re developing relationships with our readers through social media, and we’re working on the iPad version of Fly Fisherman right now. We listen to consumers and plan to provide the best fly fishing information however they choose to consume it. And right now, they want it all.
“Print publications have many advantages that ensure their longevity. I think the backbone of any good printed magazine is credibility. Readers trust what they read in Fly Fisherman because the information comes from a very select list of experts, the information has been vetted, and you don’t have to wad through millions of pages of garbage to find what you’re looking for. Trust is a big issue when you’re asking people to take out their wallet and buy something. According to a 2011 Southwick and Associates study, print advertising is still number one in terms of influencing purchasing decisions and that’s something smart advertisers are already aware of. Our readers paid money for the magazine which identifies them as not just serious fly fishers, but as serious consumers. And the way you consume a printed magazine—from front to back with no goal other than absorbing each page—assures advertisers that the ad has much great value. It’s being carefully read by the right people. It’s not just flashing by on a computer screen.”
Sporting businesses in general and fly fishing businesses in specific do well to include a balanced marketing approach, loaded mostly for print and secondarily for digital. Oh, yeah, back to the basement. As I finished bailing water and set about to packing up my box I found several floppy discs from an old Mac 128, and it made me think. I sure wish I had printed the contents of those discs back in, how shall I say, 1984.