It’s a new year. It’s a new decade. And suddenly we are 19 car magazines lighter. Bam! Just like that. They say it’s a new era.
Rod & Custom was already in its grave (again). This recent slaughter got Street Rodder, Car Craft, Hot Rod DeLuxe, Popular Hot Rodding, Truckin’, Super Chevy, and Lowrider. Hot Rod was one of three spared, but at this point I can’t say I expect to see my 3-year subscription fulfilled. These were all magazines I either rebirthed, parented and nurtured, or at least contributed to during my long career as a writer, editor, and photographer. Plus there were many other titles that I worked for, both here and in Europe, that have come and gone. And now a lot of people want to know what I think of this.First off, there are hundreds of rod and custom publications that have come and gone over the last 9-plus decades, many of which you will see here, because not only does my archive include photos, but also a huge library of print on paper: magazines, books, programs, and newspapers, all dating back to the ’30s. The “little mags” above are just a very small sample, including many Vol. 1, No. 1’s. Most are stacked on shelves, either loose or in binders, in my office and in the garage, because I’ve collected them primarily as reference material, and I want them handy and organized. But more are stacked in cupboards, closets, or even boxes (that I used to take to swap meets to sell, but even that has died off).
So I have seen plenty of magazines come and go. More pertinently, I have been acutely aware of the death of print, which really started with the 2008 recession, as well as the overwhelming growth of the internet and social media.
Not only have I watched magazine circulations drop 50% or more, but so have my book sales…like off a cliff. Writing more isn’t economically feasible. I never intended to retire as a writer. But I didn’t have to be a genius to see that continuing to write books or magazine articles was dumb. Social Security actually pays better, and I don’t have deadlines.
So I consider myself lucky, if not smart, to have quit when I did. Surprisingly, I was also quite lucky to have spent my 45-year career working for privately owned publishers, starting (quite by chance and fluke) with McMullen, continuing to family-owned Sunset Magazine, then 13 years for R.E. Petersen, and finally 20-some with Steve Coonan’s Rodder’s Journal. Even my two major book publishers have been individually or family owned. The kicker is that three of those magazine publishers merged with or sold out to big-money conglomerates shortly after I left. That was the lucky part (for me). Still, it was both shocking and painful to see those 19 very familiar magazines killed on that bloody Friday a couple of weeks ago.
In fact, this is very difficult to write about now. No one can begin to summarize–or even reflect on–a 45-year career in a blog. I’d love to recall the amazing people I’ve met, experiences I’ve had, and people I’ve worked with. But no. Maybe in later columns, one by one. Here I’m going to wing it, with a couple of related topics.
The first I’ve addressed before, but here’s a second go. For whatever reasons–clueless conglomerate ownership to social media takeover–these magazines died because significantly fewer people were buying them. And when circulation drops, ad revenue drops, which is what keeps corporate-owned magazines alive.
So here’s the pitch. We’ve still got a number of rod, custom, and even lowrider magazines going. New ones are being started as we speak. These aren’t big corporate-conglomerate titles. You won’t find most on newsstands. They don’t make their primary profit from selling ads. Because I live in movie-centric L.A., I call these magazines Indies, because that’s what they are: independently owned and published. Nearly always on a shoestring, and usually more out of passion than profit-seeking. But if you want a magazine that you can hold in your hands and store on a shelf, you’ve got to support it. You’ve got to buy it. Paper, printing, and postage cost a lot. Publishing is a cash-flow-intensive business. That’s why so many come and go.
The biggest, longest-lived, and best of these (in my opinion) is The Rodder’s Journal. I certainly want to see it survive. But I know full well, especially given the amount of work and quality that he has put into it all these years, that neither Steve Coonan, nor any of his staff, have made anything close to a fortune from it. What I really hope is that the disappearance of all these other magazines will result in increased subscriptions for TRJ.
Other Indie titles that need your support just as much, if not more, include Kustoms Illustrated and Lowrider Bombs, just to name a couple. I understand the “new” Hop Up nearly died, but has been resuscitated…but only if you give it more support. I’d mention other titles, but they’ve been coming and going too quickly to be specific. The point is, use it or lose it. And if your favorite magazines go away, and you’re not a subscriber, don’t complain. Because it’s your fault.
Second thing: I started on a Smith-Corona portable manual typewriter. I think McMullen had an IBM Selectric, but we wrote our stories on “pica paper,” which had to be typeset on “sticky back” columns of paper, which the art director then pasted onto thin cardboard “flats” to make page layouts. These were sent to the printer along with cropped B&W photo prints or color slides. This continued for several years into my stint at Petersen.
Meanwhile I had to learn everything I could about film photography, starting with a 2-1/4 twin-lens camera. Since I was doing a lot of freelancing back then, and nearly everything was black and white, I learned to develop my own film and made a temporary darkroom in the bathroom to make prints. I still have all those negatives and proof sheets in binders on a shelf in the darkroom I finally built onto my garage years ago.
Then a crew came into Petersen one day, took all our typewriters, and plopped PC computers on our desks, giving us floppy discs. “This is what you write on, from now on,” they said. I think we got a 1-hour training session for the whole office. Of course the art department got new Macs at the same time. The learning curve for me was twisted, steep, and frustrating. Computers and I still don’t get along well together. But it’s what I had to do, along with continual upgrades and new formats.
Then I had to switch from film to digital cameras. A whole new learning curve. Very little translates. But I did it, and continue to. Do I sound like I’m complaining? I complained a lot more at the time. Ask Anna.
But here’s the surprise, which leads to the punchline. One thing I pride myself on was being able to increase the circulation of every magazine I worked on. But when I left Petersen 25 years ago, things were changing rapidly in the audio/visual world. In audio, we’d already gone from vinyl, to tape, to CDs. In TV, new channels and networks were multiplying. As were VCRs. Suddenly, it seemed every family was replacing Instamatics and Polaroids with hand-held video cameras. The future of the whole entertainment industry–including print magazines–was unsure, to say the least. Maybe that’s one reason Pete surprisingly sold his company at that time.
But I, thinking I was being visionary and progressive, figured the next new thing in media was going to be the video magazine. And what better medium for a hot rod magazine than one showing cars in action, complete with sound? So I hooked up with Art Center-trained, fellow hot rodder Robert Kittila, who understood the technical side of shooting and editing, and we launched Pat Ganahl’s Hot Video #1 (figuring there would be plenty more to follow). Everybody loved it. There were tons of positive reviews. We even bought ads in print mags. But we sold exactly 2500 tapes. Print mags were then selling 20 to 300 times more copies than that per month. We didn’t make a penny. I even converted it to DVD, and it still wouldn’t sell.
Most of you quit reading several paragraphs ago. But for those still with us, here’s the punchline. Yes, I retired from books and print magazines a couple of years ago. But now here I am on the Internet. Son Bill and his wife Sabina strongly convinced me this is where I need to be; to give it a try. I do still have a whole lot of photographs that haven’t been seen and stories that haven’t been told. And I want to share them with you, the audience. You’ve hopefully noticed that there are no ads along the sides of this column, or popping up anywhere. I’m not looking to grow this audience so that I can “monetize” my archives like my business-minded friends tell me I should do. No, there’s no money involved here. But–punchline BUT–we do need to grow this audience. It’s pitifully small. I’m not sure how to do it, but you notice I said “we.” I’ll leave it at that for now. But the bottom line here is the same as that for all the magazines that have gone away. If I can’t generate any more readers than we have–get more people subscribed–then I find it hard to be motivated to continue doing the work it takes. You don’t even have to buy it. It’s free. But if more don’t use it, you’re going to lose it.