Sea Change: Things Keep Flowing In The Boating Market

A few months ago, I got a phone call from my friend Carolyn Crouch. She told me about a new boating magazine that was coming into being, and asked me if I’d like to write an article for the debut issue about my former boss, Ira Black. It would be the cover story, I was told, and the magazine would be unveiled during the U.S. Powerboat Show in Annapolis in October. I readily agreed, wrote the piece and recently received my copies of the first issue in the mail. As soon as I saw the cover, I had flashbacks. The list of names there was a veritable who’s who of people I’d worked with earlier with The Mariner, Nor’easter Magazine or both. There was the cover photo of Ira as he looks today (like he just stepped out of a ZZ Top video), Gary Diamond, Dick Greenwood, Whitey Schmidt, Bob and Pam Appleton, Paul Esterle and Carolyn herself. It was odd, to be honest, but somewhat gratifying to see that some of the things I helped set in motion a decade or so ago were still chugging along, albeit in a different way and under a new banner.

Mid-Atlantic Boating is the name of this new entrant into the boating market. As most people know at this point, the free-distribution portion of the boating publication market has fallen on hard times of late. Page counts, and the ad dollars that go along with it, have plummeted. Some publications, notably Nor’easter itself, have fallen to the wayside, finding Davey Jones’ locker earlier this season. For a new magazine to start up in this environment could be called crazy (honestly, that was my first thought). Or it could be perfect timing. Only time will tell on that score.

The new publication is a tab size, something in the neighborhood of 10 ” x 12″, and it sports a nice glossy cover. The interior is newsprint, but a little heavier and brighter than the standard variety, giving the publication a nice look, and a not-too-flimsy feel. The debut issue came out to 36 pages, with a reasonable array of advertisers. Not bad at all given that this is the first effort of a brand new magazine, opening at the end of a season in an historically down market. It will be available through bulk deliveries, as all publications in this region of that type are. My understanding is that, provided things go well, Mid Atlantic Boating will be a monthly magazine beginning in 2011. There is a reference to the January issue in the masthead of issue number one, so I take that as a good sign of continued publication.

Which brings me to a point about the wisdom of taking a chance in this market at this particular time. There are generally two ways to look at it. The first is that, because of the current fiscal problems, and significantly slower economic recovery than many people need or expect, it could be better to sit back and let things improve before taking the risk of jumping in. There may be merit to that point. Playing it safe in this day and age has become the mantra of many companies, understandably so. However, as Ira himself used to say, a down market is the perfect time to advertise and build your business because everyone else is sitting on their hands waiting for things to get better. I can attest to the “hurry up and wait” mentality in some of my recent experiences. And being that I’ve never really been one to sit by and not take a chance when the opportunity presents, it is pretty frustrating.

The second way to look at this is just that; this market, depressed as it currently is at this time, provides the perfect opportunity to make a splash and grow from the ground up as things improve, positioning yourself in a stronger place than the Johnny-come-lately guys who are afraid to take the risks today but try to snatch up the rewards when things are a bit safer. So let’s take a quick look at how things stack up competitively.

As I’ve mentioned before, Nor’easter Magazine is no more, ceasing publication in early July of this year. The Mariner is still in the field (I think–more on that later) but it’s in a severely weakened condition. And Prop Talk, the power boating sister publication to the long running sailing journal Spin Sheet, seems to be doing just fine. That leaves a potential opening for someone to step in, given an actual recovery in the boating market sooner than later. As for The Mariner, their case is a perplexing one. (Full disclosure: I was let go as the Editor of The Mariner in march of this year.) Since my involvement with them ended after the March issue, their publication schedule has been a bit erratic. The October issue, which is the final one of 2010, came out to 32 pages. Not exactly gang busters, but that’s not the really confusing part. For some reason, the U.S. Powerboat Show wasn’t exploited.

To me, having been through about a dozen seasons in the boating market market through the years, the October issue has generally been the most important issue of the year, not to mention traditionally the largest page count wise, and the biggest money maker, all because of its association with the Annapolis powerboat show. In fact, the decision to even print an October issue without using the show as a platform, both for coverage and ad sales, is a bit lost on me. The coverage of the show in the October Mariner amounted to a vague mention on the cover, one paragraph at the end of the editor’s column and a short listing in the upcoming events section. That’s it. In contrast, Prop Talk gets it, sporting their corresponding issue as the U.S. Powerboat Show Issue, and cranking out a nice 108-page effort. Mid Atlantic Boating gets it, as well, using the show as the springboard for launching their entire enterprise. And according to various reports, The Mariner didn’t even have a presence at the show. How does that bode for the future of the publication? I’m not sure.

To be fair, there is a starburst on the cover that touts the next issue being January 6. But not taking advantage of the most obvious sales tactic of the season, and not going to the show at all, makes me wonder. There are currently no salespeople listed in the Mariner staff, and a good friend of mine who was handling all of the ad design for the publication was given the, “we don’t need you anymore,” speech immediately following the October issue’s completion, much as I was given after wrapping up the March issue. There may, in fact, be a January Mariner, but if I’m looking at this from a competitive standpoint, I’m encouraged. With Nor’easter already gone, The Mariner possibly following suit, or at least needing a significant  change in effort to become a player again, someone like Mid Atlantic Boating could sneak in and give Prop Talk a run for its money. After all, they’ve only produced one issue and they are already in a better position than The Mariner heading into 2011.  Maybe the idea isn’t so crazy, after all.

As it stands now, no one really knows what kind of market the boating industry will see next year.  There are a lot of hopes, and the only thing that is certain is that all of those won’t be fulfilled.  But it is nice to see someone taking a chance on something for a change.  If nothing else, that alone may be a harbinger of positive things to come for all of us.  If one company is willing to take a risk and put its money where its mouth is, can others possibly be far behind?  That’s how recoveries get started.

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The Watershed Chronicle’s Greatest Hits

It’s been a little over a year since I began posting things to this site, and I thought now would be a good time to look back.  Using the handy little stat counter built into wordpress, I’ve made a list of the ten most read posts from the past year.  One thing you’ll notice is that they’re almost all about local publishing companies, with only one exception.  So, here they are, in reverse order, the top ten posts in the history of this blog:

10.  End of an Era-  May 2, 2010

One of the more recent posts on this list, End of an Era was about the closing of the Chesapeake Publishing printing facility in Elkton.  In this piece, I lament the loss of the only local printing plant in Cecil County and what that could mean for the future of our local paper, the Cecil Whig.  Even though this was four months ago and virtually all of the announced changes by Chesapeake have been made, it still stings a bit to see our more-than-century-and-a-half-year-old newspaper lose its local production.  Times change, I suppose, but not always for the better.

9.  Remembering My Friend Bob- Nov.19, 2009

This one inspired a handful of comments, and even a few photos emailed to me.  I wrote this the day I got the shocking news that my friend and former colleague Bob Liddell had passed away.  After sharing a few of my memories of Bob, I received several phone calls from mutual friends, good conversations about Bob and the time we knew him.  It even inspired a second piece, More Recollections of Bob, which included some comments sent to me about him.  All in all, it ended up as a pretty nice way to deal with the untimely death of a friend.

8.  A Bad Joke-  June 21, 2010

This is the most recent post on this list and one that I’ve referenced several times already.  It’s also climbing the list little by little everyday, even though it’s three months old at this point.  As anyone who reads this site regularly knows, this was my wrap-up rant about the company of the year award going to an unquestionably undeserving recipient.  I won’t rehash the details here, suffice it to say that this was an exceptionally popular subject.  So much so that another post on this topic checks in at number two on this list.

7.  He Rode In On a Pale Horse and His Name Was Death.  And He Carried an iSlate-  Jan. 5, 2010

This is the only post on this list that isn’t directly related to local publishing.  It’s a fairly non-descript review of the possible effects of the release of the then-unnamed Apple iPad.  At the time, I liked the name iSlate better, hence its use in the title.  It’s not even one of my better efforts.  So why so many hits, you ask?  It’s the name.  I’ve had more traffic come to this article with searches for “death” and “he rode in on a pale horse” than anything else.  People are apparently obsessed with death and, in particular, biblical references to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  In honor this piece being the most searched for of all my work, I watched the Clint Eastwood western Pale Rider the other day.  Now that’s what I call riding in on a pale horse.

6.  Department of Reader Response-  Nov.11, 2009

This is one of my personal favorites.  I received a typo-riddled comment from an annoyed reader after some criticism I had leveled at Nor’easter Magazine in the post that is coming up at number five.  Rather than simply ignore the comment, I chose to simultaneously respond logically in defense of the criticism of my criticism as well as ridicule the writer’s typos.  Maybe not the most mature way to respond, but it was fun.  And judging by the reaction I received from readers, a large number of them enjoyed it, too.  Especially the Sean Connery school of elocution crack; people just loved that one.  This also led to another post the next day, Calling a Skink a Skink, where I went after one particular typo.
The funny thing is that in all this criticising his typos, I made some myself.  Sure, I could change them now and no one would ever know, but I’m the kind of guy who will stand by my own hypocrisy.

5.  The Changing Face of Local Publishing-  Oct. 30, 2009

This piece is the one that inspired the rather nasty comment that led to number six on this list.  Funny thing is, I hadn’t really intended to make those criticisms in the first place, they just kind of came out as I was writing.  On the whole, this post was all about how the larger publishers had begun talking about local as a buzzword that would save their profit margins.  Ironically, at the same time, they were outsourcing work away from local pubs to save money.  My entire point was that if the legacy publishers were going to abdicate their local staffs, then new startups that really are local would spring up to fill that void, and they have in increasing numbers.  One other point I made, specifically about Nor’easter, was that the magazine’s change to a smaller print size could have negative results in addition to just saving money.  Well, Nor’easter is now off the market, and two of the main complaints I heard were that customer service suffered having to deal with production staff hundreds of miles away, and that the smaller publication size was wildly unpopular.  I hate to say I told you so.  Well, actually, that’s not true.  I love saying I told you so.

4.  I Got Canned!  A Farewell To The Mariner and Chesapeake Bay Boating-  March 21, 2010

It’s not every day you get to tell someone you worked for to shove it in front of, well, everyone in the world.  Last year, I was the editor of The Mariner until I was let go.  It was a sometimes fun, mostly frustrating experience that once again found me butting heads with management about how to make a magazine successful.  To my credit, by the way, in the six months since my departure, the mag has shown no appreciable growth, and, much like Nor’easter, may be on a corporate death watch without a serious uptick in advertising or interest.  Anyway, judging by the number of people who called or emailed me after this post was published telling me how “they laughed their ass off”, there must be a large number of ass-less people wandering around out there.  I have to say, despite getting the ax, this one was pretty satisfying.

3.  A Eulogy For Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine-  Dec.11, 2009

After Bob passed away, and Nor’easter made the changes talked about in number five on this list, I picked up a copy of the magazine, and it just seemed like the publication I remembered was no longer there, so I penned this farewell to the magazine that I had helped found.  Oddly, I ended up writing two more articles for Nor’easter before they went belly up in July, but it still wasn’t the same.  It really is true what they say, all good things come to an end, whether we want to believe they will or not.

2.  Wow, The Times Must Be Tougher Than I Thought.  Lowering the Bar For Company of the Year-  May 9, 2010

So this is the one that set off the interest in what qualifies a business to win a company of the year award.  Fresh off the news that the long-standing Elkton printing plant was being shut down, and the resulting layoffs that came with that decision, I received a tip that the company in question would be honored by the Chamber of Commerce as company of the year.  Honestly, I thought it was a joke at first.  It was and still is inexplicable to me how something like this comes to pass.  I mean, really?  There’s no one else who could have won?  After discovering that no one else was even nominated, along with the close involvement of an employee from the company in question in the process, it started to make sense, distasteful as that may be.  Bad economy or not, it’s just like old times in Cecil County.

1.  Manning the Helm For Cecil County’s New Weekly Newspaper-  Nov. 7, 2009

Coming in at number one with a bullet is this piece announcing the possible editor-ship of the then-unreleased Cecil Guardian weekly newspaper to Ira Black of Mariner and Nor’easter fame.  Of course, his position turned out to be short lived, amounting to a few months of irreverent editorials kicking off each issue, but it was an entertaining ride, if brief.  As for the Guardian, or what was originally supposed to be the Cecil Observer, headed by former Whig-staffer David Healy before a dispute over a non-compete agreement cost the paper his involvement and the name, it appears to be doing just fine.  Page and ad counts seem to be improving steadily, and the emergence of extra and special sections shows even more progress.  With or without Ira’s involvement, and the currently reeling Whig to compete against, the Guardian may be around for a while yet.

So, there they are, the ten most-read posts in the history of this blog.  Eventually, I intend to do a list of ten of my favorite pieces regardless of hit counts, but that may be a while yet.  After all, I’ve got about 200 posts to choose from.  Thanks for reading.

I Got Canned! A Farewell to The Mariner and Chesapeake Bay Boating

So, after nearly a year, I will no longer be the editor of The Mariner.  On the one hand, I’m a little sad that the promise I began with last April went unfulfilled, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty big relief to be away from a situation that anyone around me knew had become mostly untenable for me quite a while ago.  One of the Mariner writers, Jean Moser, will be taking over as editor as of the next issue, and I wish her all the best.

I went back this week and looked through all the issues I had done over the past year, issues that I had actually done not just some writing, but also all of the page design and even some end-stage production for the last few, and I am very proud of what I did manage to accomplish.  Over these issues, despite scheduling problems, deadlines that were constantly shifting and a nightmare in terms of the sales effort, I completely restructured The Mariner from a dry-as-toast newspaper-type format with little or no visual design element, overly-reliant on slightly repackaged press releases into one that put the unique and original writers we had at the forefront, taking the available space and using that to present a stylish visual component to go along with the words.  Hell, I even got to write an entire crossword puzzle with clues about Clint Eastwood movies.  What does that have to do with boating, you might ask?  Well, nothing, but it was a lot of fun, and after struggling with various unnamed issues (and people) for almost a year, I felt I deserved a little self-gratification.

The Mariner will be changing again, beginning in April, and I wish them well.  I strongly recommend picking up an issue to see how they do.  I’m sure it will be great.  (more…)

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 7:56 pm  Comments (5)  
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Motivated Self-Interest: Musings on print publishing and the web

Okay, so I haven’t written about Yonder Mountain String Band yet.  I will, eventually, I have some very pertinent things to say about Yonder at some point, when I get the time.  And that’s the crux of my problems at the moment–a sheer lack of time.

Like a lot of folks these days, particularly in the publishing industry, I work two full-time jobs.  I am a Vet Tech at a local clinic and I’m the editor, webmaster, editorial page designer, writer, photographer, etc for The Chesapeake Bay boating magazine, The Mariner.  I have a pretty full schedule.

I do have every intention of getting this off the ground and running in a lot of ways, but, as yet, time has not allowed.  But I have a spare few minutes today, so here goes.  I recently started a blog-style website for The Mariner, not so much to replicate the magazine, but to supplement it.  It’s been an interesting exercise so far (it’s been live for about three and a half weeks) and I’m about to try and tie it in to everything boating related on the Chesapeake Bay.

I’ve been somewhat outspoken in the past with regards to my feelings on the future of publishing, and this is a pretty good opportunity for me to try and cross-promote a print magazine and a website, two things that many people consider to be at cross purposes in a lot of ways.  Can it be done without robbing Peter to pay Paul?  I’ll find out.  A new print issue of The Mariner is getting delivered even as I type, and in there, right on premium page 4, is my editor’s column trumpeting the new site.  I’ve read many an opinion on the net that supports the belief that the audience for print and the web are two distinctly different groups.  I’m going to be very interested to see what, if any, uptick the website gets when the magazine gets out.  I tend not to believe opinions I read, especially expert ones.  They’re good for ideas, insight and occasional guideposts, but I prefer first hand experience every time.

(more…)

Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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