6 Tips for Cycling Journalism Success!

Listicle ahoy! Yes, in the spirit of modern cycling journalism, here are six guaranteed ways of making a successful career in cycling journalism.

1 Change your name

In order to be a successful cycling journalist you must not have a surname. If you are cursed with such a thing, change it to a Christian name immediately. Cycling journalism is full of people with two first names: Timothy John (Rouleur), David Arthur (road.cc), Matthew Allen (C+), Daniel Thomas (CA), Peter Stuart (Cyclist), Dan Joyce (Cycle), Guy Andrews (ex Rouleur), Tom Marvin (BikeRadar), Lionel Birnie (author). If absolutely necessary, change your Christian name to a surname: Warren Rossiter (C+), Wesley Doyle (ex NutsEtc), Ellis Bacon (Cycling Anthology), Carlton Reid (BikeBiz), or go for something properly comedic such as Will Findlater (BikeRadar).

2 Apply for a job

Hmmm…this isn’t quite so easy. Being a cycling journalist is second only to being a motoring journalist in terms of cushy numbers, so jobs don’t come up all that often. When they do, you need to get a letter off to the Editor outlining your credentials. Don’t worry if you’ve never done any journalism before…that will probably act in your favour and the Ed will see you as someone he can mould into an efficient and inexpensive content provider. If you do have some journalism experience, don’t over-sell yourself. The Editor doesn’t want to be looking over his shoulder in case you’re after his job after six months, nor does he want to get shown up as the indolent slacker he is.

3 Ace the interview

If you’re fortunate enough to get an interview, make sure you cycle there. And pray for rain…it will underline your deep commitment to cycling and prove that you are prepared to ride in all weathers (something the Editor absolutely never does). Don’t worry about being sweaty/smelly/wet…cycling magazine offices are full of stinky young men who have been doing intervals on their way in to work. During the interview don’t express strong views about disc brakes/electronic gears/Strava/tubular tyres/Rapha. Preconceptions and prejudices are the Editor’s domain…you’re expected to be impartial and professional, even if that never actually happens. If you can, show some in-depth knowledge about something cycling related (hubs is a good one, because Editors don’t really know much about these), but don’t over-do it. A knowing mention of bracing angles on Zipp 188 hubs will probably do the trick. Also, make sure you tell the Editor that you are “commercially savvy”, that way he knows you’re not going to upset the advertisers.

4 Settling in

Should you be fortunate enough to get the job, the settling in process is very important. From day one you need to underline your cycling credentials, even if thus far they amount to riding to the pub on your girlfriend’s commuter. If you have a bit more experience than that, be self-effacing and down-play your achievements (“yes I did some Cat 2 racing, but it was just a bit of fun really”, and “the Zoncolan? Yeah, ridden it a couple of times”). Under no circumstances allow any of your new colleagues to follow you on Strava or any social media…you really don’t want them knowing you’re a fraud, unless you create an entirely bogus on-line presence (using one of those Strava-manipulation sites, Photoshopped pics of you up mountains and in races, and so on).

5 Writing stuff

This is the easy bit. With one or two notable exceptions, cycling magazines are not written by writers, or even journalists…they’re written by cycling enthusiasts. And mostly the mags are written for people who have little cycling experience. So, KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is your watch-word (or acronym).

For news and new products, ctrl C, ctrl V is the way to go. Top and tail the press release, adapt to House Style, and you’re good to go.

For riding-event pieces, check out the formula here.

For bike tests you just ride it around for a few days (good excuse not to be in the office), throw in a few standard clichés (laterally stiff, vertically compliant, etc), gloss over crap design features (underslung rear brakes, etc) and find something innocuous to criticise (bar tape, cheap wheels, etc), and then give it 7 out of 10 if it was shit, and 8 out of 10 if it was OK.

For general features the mag will have a list of go-to people for quotes. If they accidentally say something contentious and interesting, don’t feel you have to write it down. No one will thank you. Actually, you won’t have written it down anyway, because everyone has a voice recorder on their phone and no one has used shorthand (a series of squiggles and dots that were impossible to transcribe afterwards) since 1983.

6 Stay put and write books

No matter how lazy your Editor is, no matter how inept, no matter how much more than you he earns, YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE THE EDITOR! Seriously, you don’t. Yes, the money’s nice, but the grief and hassle are just not worth it. A strata of middle-management (Publishers, Marketing Drones, Circulation managers, etc) will attempt to justify their existence by constantly demanding reports, meetings, budget cuts, HR issues, and all the other bollocks that has nothing to do with producing a magazine or website. So sit tight, maybe aim for the Deputy Editorship if you have a modicum of ambition, keep your eyeballs white and your needle clean. With luck you will establish a huge contacts book that will be invaluable when you leave and become the Press Officer for a cycling company/team. In the meantime, start writing books about cycling in your spare time (I’m just finishing off one called Cannibalising The Badger, in which the Vulture of Toledo swoops down from the Col de Jeux sans Frontiers and carries Bernard off to its mountain eyrie and makes him into a soufflé for Roger de Vlaeminck). Books are your passport to better, more respectable things and free you from the yoke of vertical compliance and search-engine optimisation.

 

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14 thoughts on “6 Tips for Cycling Journalism Success!

  1. I do enjoy your lambasting of the cycling journo world, makes me laugh – many truisms! What motivates you though? Can you pinpoint the exact time when the industry spurned you and left you feeling bitter?

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  2. Truisms? Spurned? Bitter? Some emotive language there, John.

    Motivation? Hmmm…not sure, really. This is no different to reviewing books, really…people are spending their money on this stuff, they might want to read a review first.

    I came to journalism at a time when we were expected to do our absolute best on behalf of our readers. The Editor knew that the quality of the magazine would ensure plenty of advertising and decent circulation figures, so that was what we aimed for. I’m old school and believe that journalists should provide a service to the readership first and foremost. Over the years this has been eroded to the point where the readers are almost an inconvenience.

    I think the global financial melt-down of 2008 was probably the final nail in the coffin for publishing. After that the pressure on journalists and Editors to make money, not waves, became almost intolerable.

    The exact moment I felt sad (rather than bitter) was when someone offered me £40 per 1000 words for a feature that would take three days to adequately research and write. To have 25 years experience, be published in things like the Guardian, GQ etc, and end up working for £20 a day made me pretty sad. But I still write a bit of stuff for various magazines that are prepared to pay sensible money for something that took more than 10 minutes to put together.

    So now I rage against the dying of the light. It’s good therapy for me and I like to think that I’m fair and give praise where it’s due. It’s the young journalists I feel sorry for. I’m in the twilight of my career, so for me it doesn’t matter, but the kids coming out of journalism school these days have to look forward to churning out shite for a pittance, or working behind a bar somewhere.

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    1. Rage, dying, intolerable? (Intolerable dying rage?) Some emotive words there, errr, sorry I don’t know your name… in fact I guess that’s what perplexes me here. I buy mags, bikes, ride a bit and always appreciate knowledgeable, guiding hands through a sea of marketing guff. However, I like to know the name and provenance of my trusted reviewer before I fully, well, trust my reviewer. Does it feel to you like your anonymity undermines your position as a reviewer? Like it intimates you have a reason to hide?

      It’s a shame, as yet again you make salient points in your reply above, points which likely apply across a range of industries and affect a large number of people. Yours seem like good ideals to hold onto and promote, so stand up and be counted I say!

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  3. Some very valid points raised there. I prefer to remain anonymous for a couple of reasons — I still earn some of my living in this industry, people are less likely to gossip if they think they’ll end up in print (well, on a blog), and I’m not sure that knowing who I am actually helps anyone. I hope that it’s obvious from my blog that I know what I’m talking about, even if my ideals and values are from a different era. No one knew who Clive James was when he started doing TV reviews for The Observer, but they liked his writing, agreed/disagreed with his opinions, and read him accordingly. There is no going back to the values I learned as a cub reporter, but I hope that poking my fellow journos with a sharp stick will encourage them to do better. Clearly their editors are (mostly) not doing this. I know budgets and manpower are tight, but the magazines are charging people £5 per month, and I don’t think all of them are giving value for money. Cycling has boomed in recent years, but magazine circulations are piss-poor by comparison. Why? Because the readers feel like they’re being taken for mugs. The trust is gone.

    FWIW, I have 25+ years in consumer journalism, have been a Sub Editor, News Editor, Feature Writer, Deputy Editor, and the Editor of half a dozen mags in a number of industries, I’ve tested thousands of products ranging in value from £5 to £5 million, and I have tried to do it for the benefit of the readers without fear or favour. In doing so I have been (unsuccessfully) sued for libel on a couple of occasions, spent a night in jail, had more near-death experiences than I care to remember, lost a few colleagues along the way, and made myself hugely unpopular with some manufacturers and importers. But in most of those industries (the grown-up ones, at least) the people who have disliked me have at least respected my professionalism and authority. They may not like what I say, but they respect an informed opinion, and respect my right to express that opinion to my readers.

    I think the reason for this blog stemmed from a phone conversation I had with the importer of a well-known brand of bicycle. I was checking a few facts about something I was testing, and asking a few technical questions. He admitted to me that he was surprised I called him because he’d never had a call from any of the magazines requesting clarification or additional information. I was stunned. And more than a little saddened.

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  4. All fair enough, and as I thought you might say. I suppose it’s the way lots of what you write sounds as much like a peer review as it does a database of consumer usefulness.

    FWIW I think a peer review needs to be conducted by known peers to have value, otherwise it just feels a tad snidey. Also, isn’t it a double standard to effectively say ‘I am one of the few who actually challenges manufacturers in a meaningful manner, even if it upsets them’, yet you are too worried to say who you are here because you earn your living in the bike industry and don’t want to upset your employers?

    I can’t recall Clive James’s original, anonymous TV reviewing but I guess he wasn’t in TV per se, which I think makes his anonymity OK. Or to turn it on its head, I don’t think it would sit very well with me if, for example, I were an actor and I knew there was an anonymous director out there – with the public’s ear – critiquing my work, but hiding behind his typewriter. I suppose I’d want to know what gives him the right, what has he done specifically that makes his opinions of worth, director to director?

    All that aside, what you write is throughly enjoyable, seems well researched and has a healthy blend of humour and cynicism. So don’t stop, but rather have a good think about what transparency means to you, your industry and your readers.

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  5. I’ll happily put my head above the parapet and stick up for my testers and the, yes, journalists, we employ. Okay, I don’t go out riding with them – all those bloody meetings… – but they aren’t just cutting and pasting from press releases or taking bikes for cursory spins. Most of the test team have, like you, years of experience in their chosen field. I can only speak for CP obviously but we really do work bloody hard to make a magazine that looks good, reads well, delivers genuinely useful information and entertainment to our readers. On the whole, I think we deliver. I’m proud to have a genuinely talented bunch of staff and freelancers to call on. Most of all, though, as well as bicycles we really, really care about these silly little things called magazines and want to make the best one we can.

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    1. That’s what I admire about you, Rob…always prepared to stand up for your mag and your team. But the piece was very much tongue-in-cheek, and not even I was that slack as an Editor. The piece was loosely based on an article by Mike Nicks in Bike magazine back in the ’70s (*klaxon* old git alert!) which left a lasting impression. FWIW I don’t really think most cycling journos are that bad, and I do understand the constraints placed on Editors and staff. Keep up the good work.

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  6. Have to say I have always enjoyed Warren Rossiter’s musings/ reviews as very good, honest and insightful and actually evidence that units can ride bikes very, very well. He seems like a decent bloke.

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  7. As someone who receives the same press releases cycling journalists do, I know for a fact that the “cut and paste” reference has more than a grain of truth to it. Because I often see these same press releases reprinted verbatim, and presented as ‘stories’, in major cycling publications.

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