Are car magazines dead?
For every kind of car enthusiast out there, it seems there used to be a magazine to suit them. But not any more. We've gone from having countless titles on the shelves to, for some car scenes, no print representation at all: so what happened?
Ultimately, society changed from when magazines first kicked off. Today, modified car magazines aren't dead, but they need to change to stay relevant.
Magazines about modified cars go all the way back 75 years to 1948. This was when Robert E Petersen founded Hot Rod Magazine, which still publishes monthly magazines today.
Roadkill's David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan both worked on car magazines for years before their awesome show took off, and previous Editors of Hot Rod have helped found the NHRA (the first governing body of drag racing), help establish muscle cars, and more.
From this one newsletter designed to round up happenings in the burgeoning American hot rod scene, dozens of titles sprung up covering everything from racing classes, specific brands of cars (Super Chevy, High Performance Pontiac, etc), styles of modifying (Lowrider Magazine, Mini Truckin'), regional publications (Perth Street Car) and more.
Magazine wars sprang up when you had competing titles in one scene, like Fast Fours & Rotaries, Hot4s, Auto Salon Magazine and SPEED all covering late model "tuner" cars in the early 2000s.
Before the Internet was in our pocket these magazines curated all the coolest stuff we were interested in and distilled why we should care about it. They found awesome cars we didn't know existed and told us about new tech to make our cars cooler, faster, or better-looking.
People loved to read magazines and the closer to your particular niche (we'll get to that later) the better. They're hugely expensive to staff and produce every month thanks to buying the paper, paying for the printing, paying for the writers and photographers every month, paying for staff to proof-read and design the magazine, as well as having someone steer the ship (ie: an Editor), but from the 1960s-2000s there was huge money to be made through advertising and promotions.
Magazines aren't dead today, but they do have some epic challenges ahead and need to change to offer buyers something new. The biggest problem is they have so much competition which is cheaper (or free) and easier to access. Today we're fed magazine-type content directly into our phones and this doesn't really cost us much thanks to data plans.
To buy a magazine you need to find a book store or newsagent who stocks it, or have it delivered on a subscription. All of this is time-consuming (especially when Aussie logistics companies prefer to card recipients rather than delivering the packages). Realistically, subscriptions are the way magazines will survive into the future.
Another challenge is profitability.
Most magazines are owned by large publishing houses and they're saddled with overheads like expensive commercial rent, paying for staff in their PR, Marketing, Legal, HR, and Circulation departments. This cuts into profits and so most large publishing houses will close magazines down to try and save money.
It's all too easy for big firms to cut editorial and art staff, hack budgets to the bone, and generally affect the thing which makes them money. Fewer staff makes a magazine harder to put together, but it also keeps the business lean and nimble.
Some magazines, like Street Machine, take a wider view and run events, sell merch and use their online presence to bolster revenue, as they use their healthy brandname to help sell ad space and raise sponsors for projects.
As the impending recession looms then the next challenge for magazines is the fact they're a luxury item (ie: you don't need them to survive). When you're watching every dollar you spend as the price of fuel and rent explodes things like new mods for your car, magazines, and event entries/spectator tickets will be tougher to purchase.
Magazines always have a big crunch in recessions as people put their dollars into more important things, though this is where general interest vs niche content comes into play.
Most general interest car mags (for instance) will have 180pg of which most people would be interested in 30% of. Niche, you may be 90% interested in. Where will a cash strapped person spend their last $10-$12?
This is why magazine teams need to know and understand their audiences. Because if you know why people won't be able to resist purchasing your latest issue then you have a lifeline - relevant content, told in an authentic way, with a care for the reader AND the subject matter, will all combine to be irresistable.
The care, passion, dedication and love for the process required to put out a banging issue every four weeks of the years is immense, and it takes a toll. So i understand why some people give it away. It will also never make you rich like the magazine industry once did for the owners of some legendary titles.
But I reckon magazines DO have a future.
I'm probably a bit more emotionally invested in this whole bunfight given my 22 year career in automotive print media. I started reading car magazines when i was still in primary school, more than 10 years before I was legally allowed to get my licence, and the stories captivated me: 400km/h twin-turbo V8 Corvettes, the latest supercars from Europe, wild racing events, and more seemed a world away from my upbringing!
I reckoned working on one of those magazines must be better than any "real job" and when I was 19 I was lucky enough to land a spot as a work experience kid at my favourite magazine (Street Machine) which has led to a career in print media spanning over 20 years now.
That's me, back in 2004, at 21 years of age being paid to drive a 700hp R34 GT-R. Living. The. Bloody. Dream.
I worked on SPEED Magazine from issue 3 until it was folded in July 2005 with Issue 22. From there I moved to Auto Salon Magazine as it had undergone a change, evolving from a purely sex-spec title into something wtih much more focus on Japanese and European tuning, and high-performance builds.
I miss my time on those magazines almost every day, but I have kept writing and experiencing awesome things thanks to magazines (like getting to sit in a genuine GT500 Super GT race car way back in 2005... and yes, I did manage to squeeze my tubby butt in, thank you very much!) - Photo credit MARK PAKULA
Magazines can educate and entertain us, transport us to places we might never get a chance to go to and, today thanks to the amazing photographic hardware available, magazines stand a great chance of surviving as an art form.
Photobooks (like the one MCM did for Turbos & Temples III), annuals, and the like are how magazines can survive into the new digital era. Against 15 second videos of celebrities dancing, or alongside your favourite digital creators magazines can be something to give you a fresh look at your hobby. But, they will need support.
Is it time to bring back some of these legendary titles?