Fly shops and manufacturers aren’t the only segments of the fly fishing universe experiencing unwelcome economic pressures.

Is online competition hurting fly fishing's magazines?

In fact, fly fishing’s traditional media outlets are facing growing competition from online media and a painful recession – and several may not survive the experience.

After all, new ezines are popping up like dandelions, and other online channels (like blogs, video sites, etc) are growing.

And don’t forget the handful of fly fishing-focused social media sites (think Facebook with fins) that are appearing (as well as Facebook itself).

Couple that kind of competition for readers with a zero-growth fly fishing industry, and you’ve got the makings of The Great Fly Fishing Magazine Shakeout.

Which may be starting now.

Trouble in Magazine Land

Last year, American Angler editor Phil Monahan lost his job to budget cuts. At the time, the cuts were blamed on the umbrella media company’s poorly performing newspaper properties, but those claims always seemed suspect – especially in light of recent news.

First, Fly Rod & Reel magazine – whose ad page counts have been looking thin for a couple years – announced it was going upscale with thicker issues, better paper and a reduced publishing schedule.

In other words, Fly Rod & Reel is pushing the hyperspace button. (It’s also interesting to note they announced it via press release a couple weeks before they managed to get it posted on their site.)

Now, Fly Fisherman magazine – the 800 pound gorilla in the mainstream fly fishing world – just announced staffing cuts. (Humorous aside: the headline in the press release said they were announcing “Changes to Staff” – a euphemism if we’ve ever heard one.)

The Caveats

It’s entirely possible to attribute all the above effects to the recession – and the magazines might be happy if you did exactly that – but I’d suggest multiple forces are at work here.

First, let’s be clear; I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or more of fly fishing’s print magazines fold in the next 18 months, but I’m certainly not expecting the whole crop to simply disappear.

It’s interesting to note that magazine subscription rates (among all magazines) were growing until the recession hit, so despite the struggles faced by newspapers, it’s not as if magazines are dead.

They’re still very much alive.

The problem isn’t one of readership as much as advertising revenue – a symptom of both the economy and increasing competition from the online world..

In other words, the constant flow of online content isn’t dragging readers away from magazines, but the growth in online spending does seem to be draining dollars away from hard-to-quantify print ad spends.

“Wait a minute” you say. “Don’t the success of The Drake and the launch of the Fly Fish Journal offer proof of print’s viability?”

If they do succeed, I’d suggest they represent more a fragmentation of the market than the salvation of it.

The Drake is clearly aimed at a different group of anglers – and it’s also not a big publication.

In a pair of emails, Tom Bie didn’t want to discuss circulation figures, but another magazine editor guessed its circulation at <strike>7.500</strike> [Ed: Tom Bie of the Drake now says his circulation is “between 21,000 and 23,000″] – which still largely amounts to a vanity publication, at least compared to the other mags.

Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but it’s still true The Drake’s appeal doesn’t lie primarily with the over-45 angling crowd, who represent the core of the market (e.g. the folks with disposable income) for fly fishing’s advertisers.

I don’t want to argue the merits of one generation over another, but let’s just say the impact of the “extreme generation” on fly fishing may be far greater online than it is in the marketplace.

The shiny new Fly Fish Journal (one issue only) remains an unknown quantity, but it’s suddenly facing competition from a going-upscale Fly Rod & Reel. Is there room for two in that space? And are advertisers – already facing a chaotic marketplace – really ready to support another magazine?

No matter who’s left standing once the economy improves and the dollars start flowing again, I think print magazines lacking a robust online presence will founder when trying to attract new subscribers – and won’t be able to offer online ad placements as a bonus.

That’s an important distinction to any ad salesperson trying to make their quota; if a competing publication serves a similar audience (and the fly fishing world just isn’t that big), but also offers an advertiser access to loads of online impressions, who gets the ad budget?

It’s the Internet, Stupid

It’s estimated that 74.2% of North America’s population accesses the Internet – a figure that represents 134% growth between 2000 and 2009.

In 2008, a Pew study said 40% of people received their national and international news from the Internet – up from 24% in 2007 (only 35% identified newspapers as their primary source of news).

In other words, the Internet is on its way to becoming the dominant distribution system for information.

Even in the somewhat moribund fly fishing media world, that seems to be the case.

Several of fly fishing’s print magazines are clearly trying to make up for lost ground on the online front, but several are also clearly failing at it.

Meanwhile, online mags like the newly minted Catch offer an attractive alternative for advertising dollars – and will offer an even higher profile in the future. Why?

First, it’s possible we’re at the tail end of The Golden Age of Pointless Two-Page Brand Ads in magazines, and good riddance.

Instead, actionable marketing content – possibly with video or other media embedded – will likely become ascendant, and the online magazine format offers the perfect conduit.

That bodes well for the legions of videographers currently making fly fishing movies. There’s no way the market supports the video hordes via large “feature” efforts, but at least some could make a living powering out videos for destination lodges, gear manufacturers and others – most of which will be distributed online.

Then there are the “engagement” social media (like blogs and Facebook), which promise much to those willing to commit to them. So far, the fly fishing industry (and the fly fishing print magazines) have not done a stellar job leveraging things like blogs and social media, yet examples abound of successes in other industries.

Then again, the Return on Investment (ROI) of online channels like email have been well known for decades (email offers the highest ROI of any online media channel [with the possible exception of search marketing]), yet the fly fishing industry as a whole barely uses the medium.

How long can the industry keep its head firmly planted in the sand?

What’s Ahead?

At the Underground, we balk at forecasting the future, but we’re fine with guessing at it.

First, my earlier prediction for the future of print magazines (online/print hybrids – stuffing multiple media channels with content in order to drive readership and subscriptions) may yet come true.

In fact, Field & Stream is using traffic magnets (blogs, social media, etc) to drive subscriptions and offer different online advertising possibilities.

Done properly, a hybrid solution could easily prove more viable than an online-only magazine.

Of course, there’s no shortage of online magazines available for destruction testing of this hypothesis; they’re popping up like weeds.

I gather we’ll wait and see.

Keep in mind the following: the Internet tends to fracture audiences across many different media channels rather than unify them, so it’s quite possible that the future of online fly fishing media won’t see a dominant trio emerge like the Big Three print magazines.

Instead, readers will piece together their information sources via multiple media channels – a blog here, a twitter feed here, a magazine here.

That’s good for information consumers, but hard for advertisers, who will suddenly face a bazillion media channels, many of which will require their attention.

That, dear Undergrounders, will not be easy.

Then there’s the difficulty online magazines will suffer trying to maintain audiences for quarterly publications.

In a fast-moving Internet world, winning readers back on a quarterly basis represents the hard path to building a magazine’s readership, especially given that ad rates for online publications are traditionally lower than offline.

An online magazine suffers fewer costs, but lacking subscription fees, why wouldn’t want they want a steady (if smaller) source of revenue between issues – and a way to keep readers engaged?

The answer lies with other media channels, and that whole integration issue rears up once again.

The Commercial Angle

I’m at almost 1500 words, and I haven’t even addressed the rapid growth in the use of online channels (blogs, social media, video, etc) for commercial purposes.

At least one online magazine (it hasn’t yet made an appearance) appears to be published by a travel agency. I’ve also noted (with some distress) that the unsavory practice of running destination stories written by people with a financial interest in the lodge or travel agency appears to be migrating from print to the online world.

In other words, I’d expect the already-blurry line between advertorial and editorial to fuzz over pretty heavily, and despite my appreciation of online media channels in general, that’s not a prediction that fills me with joy.

In simplest terms, even if fly fishing’s media won’t stay current, some of the more progressive manufacturers, travel agencies and retailers will.

And the reader won’t always be the winner.

Illustrating this trend are the fast-increasing number of organizations contacting the Underground looking for paid reviews or advertorial placement on the site.

I’ve turned them down, but it’s likely that others won’t.

The FTC’s recent clarification of their new disclosure guidelines for bloggers and other online media seems timely given the groundswell in interest on the part of marketers.

The rules state that financial relationships with manufacturers should be disclosed if a post offers a positive review of a product, and while I applaud the idea in principle, in practice it gets a little dicey.

I already disclose the source of the product (bought it, provided by the manufacturer, etc), and the rules are really aimed at the despicable practice of stealth marketing, where bloggers are paid to post reviews, but don’t disclose that information.

Still, my reading of the rules suggests that bloggers may be forced to disclose the same financial relationships that writers in fly fishing magazines have traditionally ignored – including things like free junkets to pricey destination lodges in return for coverage (which unsurprisingly is always favorable).

We’ll see how that shakes out.

The Underground Ahead

I believe a few fly fishing organizations are waking up to the online world with something approaching panic.

Illustrating that fact is this:  I was contacted three times in 2009 about selling the Underground (or blogging as the Underground on another site), presumably because the Underground’s built-in readership and Google juice would prove attractive to someone looking to jump-start their online presence.

None of the contacts has amounted to anything, but their existence tends to support the idea that organizations are looking to quickly get ahead in a competitive online world.

Naturally, all the above is simply the speculation of a longtime writer and marketing consultant (albeit one with 24+ years in marketing), and the Undergrounders are encouraged to weigh in with their own take on the subject.

See you at the magazine rack, Tom Chandler.