Friday 22 March 2013

Trail Of Woe

Every so often in blogland, you get thinking about something and someone goes and beats you to it. Such was the case recently when this post appeared on Alan Sloman’s blog:

For a week or two now I’ve been mulling over the current state of the printed word and the quality (or otherwise) of the recent crop of outdoor publications. Put bluntly, I’ve been scanning the covers of the major outdoor publications for a few months now in the mood for an impulse purchase, and found nothing worth shelling out my hard earned cash for.

The stats that Alan has provided back up what I imagine we all know deep down: magazine circulation is dropping. And the comments that followed the post show that there are a number of opinions as to why this is the case.

Without doubt, one of the major impacts has be due to the advent and growth of social media sites. So prevalent is this growth that even online forums (not so long ago the new kid on the block) are struggling to maintain a healthy and vibrant community in the face of young upstarts such as Facebook and Twitter, a situation exacerbated in many cases by a lack of proper pro-active moderation that has seen the trolls moving in and claiming squatters’ rights.

Nowadays, it seems more and more outdoor enthusiasts are shunning the traditional magazine in favour of the blog. For the reader, blogs can act as both as a source of reference and information, whilst for the blogger they provide a way of sharing experiences with others. There are an increasing number of such sites, and obviously the quality and content can vary massively across the spectrum. But the huge diversity of interests and approaches, and the speed at which they can be delivered simply cannot be covered in the same way by a magazine.

Critics claim that it’s all a bit self-congratulatory, but that rather misses the point: blogs and bloggers can deal with things in a different way to the more traditional outlets. And however good or bad the quality might be, individually they are all honest endeavours untainted by the need to pander to advertisers or appeal to the populist, and therein lies their strength.

Of course all of this has left the magazine in a bit of a dilemma: what to do now the Internet has made outdoor journalists of us all? (I exaggerate, but you get the idea!). Well, one of the obvious things would be to concentrate on the sorts of things most of us can’t: longer trips, large group comparative product tests, new materials, fabrics and technologies, and maybe add in a bit of news and campaigning so as to galvanize the walking community against those who would seek to desecrate what we love. What seems to have happened, though, is the dumbing-down of content and a race to look more like the competition that readers have noticed and commented on.

But there is another reason, I think, why magazine circulation is on the wane, that has nothing to do with competition from blogs or Facebook, advertising revenues or circulation numbers, gear reviews, laddish content or otherwise. It’s not even that they haven’t yet worked out what they can offer in the Internet age. No, it’s none of those, it’s that they’ve become a little bit …… well …. er …. dull.

It’s not that there is a lack of ambition exactly, but that they are all a bit too happy to play it safe. Nothing controversial (to keep the advertisers on side) and relying on the same old trips in the same old destinations: The Lakes, Snowdonia, Glen Coe. All good destinations, no doubt, but over exposure has blunted their attraction.

As anyone can see from this blog, I am happy to walk anywhere: fell or mountain, dale or riverside, winter or summer, home or abroad. I’m also happy to read about campaigns, new technologies, gear reviews, news and events. I even enjoy the photography too. So, between Trail, Country Walking and TGO, you’d think there’d be something that was bound to appeal in one or the other over the space of three or four months, wouldn’t you? But no, it was not to be.

In truth, I’ve read or subscribed to all of them over the space of fifteen years or so, enjoyed much and learnt a lot. I’m currently subscribing to Trek & Mountain, and find it’s worldwide scope, diversity of content and chunkier articles more to my taste – at least we get a good view of what “abroad” looks like! But, eventually, that may run its course, too.

Whatever the future for the outdoor press, I think they need to focus on what they can offer that other media can’t, and be a little bit bolder, a bit more challenging, prepared to take a few more risks and be a bit different – you know, get the adrenaline going a bit.

Because the danger is we just end up with the printed equivalent of muzak, and that would be a crying shame.


  1. I read 'Outside' a lot online. It's USA based but the articles dare to run over a few pages and they seem to allow writers the time to research a story.

    I tend to buy TGO, Trail and CW, mainly as something to read on a nightshift. I read few a few blogs too for new ideas.

  2. Back in the mists of time, I've picked up copies of US and Canadian publications when over there, including Outside. And I'd agree, there seems to be much more opportunity for longer, more well researched articles with enough room to breathe.

    As I understand it, guys like Jon Krakauer and Ed Viesturs cut their journalistic teeth on such publications, and books like "Into The Wild" originally started as articles for them. No bad recommendation, really.

  3. I tend to agree with you Jules. Mags have become boring with the same old stuff time and again. However, i did have high hopes of TGO when it changed format but to be honest i don’t find it much, if any better now. Funnily enough if you check out my "About Me” you will see that lots of my walking was done abroad. This was thanks to TGO writers pointing us in that direction. We would get 12 copies, go to the lakes for a weekend and at the end of it we would have decided where we would spend our 2 weeks annual holidays from work. We did some great hiking routes over the years. But we would never have found out about them without the magazine. Now info is at our finger tips and we need mags less and less.

    1. The TGO scenario is an odd one for me. Having totally given up (again!) on Trail and CW, I had taken 3 or 4 issues of the old-style mag and was coming to quite like it when the change occurred.

      To me, the new version instantly felt a lot more like Trail - something that I wasn't looking for at all, and which felt like a retrograde step. I tried a couple more issues, but dropped it after that.

      Funnily enough, we tend to choose our holidays a bit like you did: pull a load of info and ideas together, mull them over, then decide our outline plan for the year over a relaxing weekend. Holiday brochures help, but for some real insight into an area, magazines proved very inspirational.

      Nowadays, like you, the Internet - and blogs in particular - play a much bigger part in pulling together that shortlist of great destinations or fabulous treks. But I do think, done properly, there is scope for mags to fuel our ambitions.

  4. I think it's an age thing. I definitely find TGO boring now and could not abide Trail. If I was just starting out then TGO would seem new and fresh. Blogs seem to be the thing I find most info on now. I used to enjoy Eddie Meacham and the go lighter stuff. I might not subscribe to all of it but it was interesting.

    1. The "age thing" is an interesting consideration, as is which demographic group(s) the publication is aiming at? I think one of the biggest mistakes the mags make is trying to be all things to all people (or at least trying for too broad an appeal).

      Trail has for a while now been aiming at the younger generation. For heaven's sake, it's not that long ago they were trying to sell walking as an adrenaline sport! TGO has perhaps been the province of the more mature outlook, with a leaning towards backpacking, whilst CW has catered for the "tea & cakes brigade" - at least that's how they are percieved.

      For myself, I find these delineations a bit blunt. I'm nudging ever closer to the big 5-0, but I'm not ready for my pipe and slippers yet (CW). On the contrary, I've still got a few big trips left in me yet, but I don't want to be treated as though I have the attention span of a goldfish (Trail) or that the extent of my international ambition should stop at Scotland (TGO) whether the writing is good or not.

      Blogs are really proving the most interesting source of information at the moment, and I'm definitely spending more time with them (what time I have had, of late).

  5. I have to agree magazines are in some ways stale and boring, and I can see why Trek and Mountain appeals as the variety and diverse landscapes covered will inspire, and more importantly inform, and can lead to oversea trips.

    I also believe the interaction (we are doing that right now via comments) fast feedback, and insights, and knowledge gathered form each other offer on blogs, offer so much more than magazines currently could offer. But also the depth of content online now and a quick Google leads to anything you might wish to read up on.

    1. Hi Martin.

      Your second paragraph really sums up the appeal of blogs, blogging, forums and social media: what they can offer and why they are good. It happens quickly, and can respond and develop at a pace and in a way that printed media can't.

      I think T&M largely avoids this - possibly because it is only about 3 years old or so and was born into a world already at ease with social media and the role it plays.

  6. As a newbie to this walking lark, (3 years), I have never once bought a walking magazine of any type. I have no interest in them as I learn from the forums and blogs like yours Jules. So there you go, Power to the People! (Or the bloggers at least):-)

  7. Hi Tracey.

    Power to the People, indeed, and thanks for your kind words!

    Back in the mists of time, there was no internet. So magazines were one of the main ways of communicating and learning about walking and the outdoors. But times change, and blogging has certainly added a completely new dimension to the way we share and distribute information. I love it, and follow as many as I can. Forums are good as well, but I know I am guilty of having let that slip a bit (in recent weeks workload has rather curtailed the amount of free time I have for such things!).

  8. I've always viewed the mags by their routes
    - CW as shorter walks, more low land, usaully 6-10 miles
    - Trail as longer walks, more hills, usually 8-12 miles
    - TGO as long walks, challenging up hill bits 10-18 miles

    It's a rule of thumb that worked for me!

    As for TGO since it's update, I like it, before it was too Scottish based for me (nothing wrong with that, it's just too far for me when compared to Dales, South west or Peaks etc).

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  10. Hi Andy

    I think your summary of routes does do exactly what you infer, and those distances and expectations for each walk are pretty much where each mag falls - and there's nothing wrong with that.

    The general thrust of the discussion on here (and elsewhere) was more about how mags can maintain sales against increasing online activity, and how they can keep their interest. The categories you outline above are just as easily represented by bloggers - in larger quantities, more frequently, and with greater variety - so it makes it harder for magazines to stand out against these.

    So how can mags develop in the modern era, and still maintain viable sales? The feeling is that they need to concentrate on what bloggers can't, and try to make the content as aspirational as possible - which isn't always the case! :-)