This June will see CMG celebrate 15 years online – no mean feat. But it’s not easy being a web-only magazine and for the last 15 years I have devoted my working life to CMG. And despite having to make it all work with scant resources, I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my virtual life.
But all this is under threat with a new round of print-only magazine funding from the federal government that could see the decimation of the current stock of web-only magazines in Canada. CMG included.
Making much out of little started early when at the meagre age of 17 I dropped out of school, home and my expected path of life to go hitchhiking around Australia. It was six months of adventure on a shoestring but it also ixnayed any hope of an easy re-entering into the mainstream on my return.
Although I tried, I couldn’t revive my path in higher education, so I explored sex, drugs and rock & roll, and I discovered motorcycles. But I didn’t just discover two wheels, I discovered a life passion.
So I decided to go back to school to explore this passion some more and found myself enrolled in a course to be a motorcycle mechanic. But it wasn’t just a study of the nuts and bolts; I found a course that taught me engineering principles too.
That gave me a thirst to know more, and after a very unsatisfying stint as a actual motorcycle mechanic in the pitiful mining town of Clay Cross in the English Midlands, I decided to really study engineering and signed up to pursue a degree in Automotive Engineering at Coventry University.
Although the degree was challenging, it wasn’t exactly what I had expected, and I was surprised to find that I was losing some of that passion that so focused my life in the first place.
The degree was duly completed but I soon left the shores of England for a new passion, Canada. It was here (after another stint of wrenching at T.O. Cycle in Toronto) that I decided to flex my brain muscles and start a fanzine about motorcycles.
The Toronto Motorcycle Guide was born.
I had no business plan, no long-term aspirations – just a craving to do what pushed my limits, explored my creative self and satisfied my drive to do something … fulfilling. I really had no idea what I was doing other than I knew it was something I really wanted to do.
Six years of drift and student life had set me up with the ability to do so much with so little, and a life of second jobs, cheap apartments and a frugal lifestyle gave me all I wanted – or indeed really needed. After all, what twenty-something gets to ride brand new bikes for a living, albeit a meagre one?
My print magazine grew and with it we jumped on a new fangled medium called the Internet back in June 1996 … fortunately just before the print magazine crashed. It was back to hard times, but it wasn’t unfamiliar territory. I had learned to be lean, but above all I had learned to be creative.
Old university friends who were pulling in high five-figure salaries couldn’t understand why I had shunned all that to be earning a fifth of what they were getting, just to live a life of poverty with flashes of excitement. But I never envied them or wanted more.
After all, I was young, rode lots of very interesting motorcycles, had no boss, didn’t have to worry whether I had something to eat that day or have a roof over my head, and was slowly but surely growing a business that I loved.
ONE HANDED BOXING
Over the five years of the Toronto/Ontario Motorcycle Guides and the following 15 of Canadian Motorcycle Guide Online, I have never borrowed any money, always paid what was owed, cut cheques for my (albeit small) tax bills, produced a magazine of integrity and (I think) did a pretty good job in the process.
I have done this without government support or compromising my journalistic standards and that is something that I am immensely proud of.
Now flash back to the year 2000 and with an onslaught of U.S. magazines into Canada, the federal government decides to help Canadian publications to compete on a more level playing field by providing print-magazines with a couple of annual grants.
One was to promote Canadian content (the Canada Magazine Fund) and the other was to help with associated printing and mailing costs (the Publication Assistance Fund).
Granted, I wasn’t happy to know that my print competition were getting bucket loads of taxpayers’ money (a little of it my own), especially when I was also producing Canadian content and in the same business.
But as long as the funds were being used for print-only purposes then at least I could still fight, even if it meant that I had to do so at a competitive disadvantage. After all, CMG was as lean and as creative as they come, which I figured was enough to keep us in the game.
CMG not only survived but it grew as well. But nothing in life stays still for long and in January 2010, the federal government merged the two funds to create the new Canada Periodical Fund, which included the fund’s cornerstone component; the Aid to Publishers, with a massive $70 million up for grabs.
Hoping that the funding was going to be modernized by including web media I got in touch with the government. But I was told to call back in six months as they were still working out where exactly web-only magazines would fit in. I did call back, but never had my calls returned.
It wasn’t until recently that I caught wind of some of the details of the new government funding. It wasn’t pretty. Rumour was that it now included an allowance to use the money to develop a print magazine’s web presence as well …
Was this the same fund? I started investigating and sure enough, in black and white on the screen before me, listed under eligible activities on which any of the money form the new Aid to Publishers Fund could be spent, was “Web site development and enhancement”.
I couldn’t believe it. I looked further for inclusion of web-only magazines, and found one fund (Business Innovation) that does allow print and web media to apply, but it’s smaller and geared toward helping new media, not really established ones.
Sadly the $70M 2010/11 Aid to Publishers fund was just like the old; it was limited to print publications only and it made for bitter reading.
Canadian motorcycle magazines got a substantial chunk of cash this year; Canadian Biker: $58,894, Cycle Canada: $111,741, Inside Motorcycles: $51,365, Moto Journal: $63,548, Motorcycle Mojo: $19,835. There was a total of $305,383 being handed out to my print-only competition and any or all of it now eligible to be used to develop their web presence.
Effectively, web-only magazines — that put in all the hard work, creativity and toil to make them what they are today — will now have to compete directly with government subsidised print magazines’ revenue-generating websites.
The very same magazines that ignored the Internet and embraced dying technology (with the help of government funds too I may add).
Competing with one hand tied is tough, but two hands is frankly impossible.
Thankfully, the new clause that allows for these funds to be used for online ‘development’ does not come into effect until April 1st of this year (a sad irony there).
Infuriatingly the amounts awarded are actually higher than previous years with Cycle Canada getting a mind numbing $111,741, which may go someway to explaining how they found the money to hire away Steve Thornton from CMG at the end of last year.
But the pain doesn’t stop there. I hear of another magazine that is looking to hire away another CMG staff member, which I expect will likely go down on April 1st …
But April 1st hasn’t happened yet, and unless the government readjusts its funding structure, it won’t be just CMG who will be given a pummelling. The Internet is now full of thriving web-only magazines and for each of these there is a portly print magazine that is ready to roll over it.
The government’s Aid to Publishers fund that professes to enable Canadian magazines to “overcome market disadvantages and continue to provide Canadian readers with the content they chose to read” is threatening to kill innovation and quality on the Internet.
And it’s going down in April.
THE NEXT STEP
I’m all for competition, but would rather compete on a level playing field where survival and prosperity are the upshot of one’s ability to do a good job and not on one’s ability to attain government handouts.
And though I’d like to think that operating a lean machine, with a great staff and a loyal readership will be enough, it’s hard to even remain standing on a playing field that is tilting far from level.
But if the government does insist on giving handouts then be fair about it. Promote magazines that provide Canadian readers what they want, regardless of the medium that they are presented upon.
Oh what we could have achieved with a fraction of what any of the motorcycle print magazines have received over the years ($2,247,602 to be precise). Just imagine what CMG would be like with a full-time staff of more than one!
So what can be done? Well, I have been in touch with my MP, the Hon. Dominic Leblanc, who was very attentive to this issue. He has already written to the Hon. James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages and promised to take it up with him in person when parliament resumes this month.
I am pursuing any and every channel that I can think of and am sending an open letter to the Heritage Minister (attached). But I ask for your help too. This needs to be made into an issue.
You can help by contacting your Member of Parliament and demand a level playing field and a fairer use of your tax dollars. A list of MPs with addresses can be found here or you can search for your MP by postal code here .
Ideally, a letter is best as it demands more attention, and you can use the letter (links to PDF file) to the Heritage Minister to either send that on or use the text to formulate your own response.
I realize that we’re all busy and this is an issue that seems to be affecting others, but if this doesn’t change soon then your choice of what you can read online will be adversely affected, and using your tax dollars to boot.
Thanks in advance for your support and for your time to hear me out.
ADDENDUM – 15 February 2011
First off, I am taken aback by the level of support that you have shown us. Thank you.
Also, I do appreciate the offers of people to dig into their own pockets to contribute personally, though I did not intend for this to be a request for money (but obviously it all helps). We’ll look into maybe setting something up to accept donations but as Rob Mac pointed out in the comments below, there is always the CMG Riders Club in the meantime.
Secondly, it dawned on me that there is a little bit of a doom and gloom sense in the piece and although this funding does pose a very serious threat to independent web-only media it will not result in the demise of CMG.
It will result in extra work, some lost sleep and maybe even a change of focus on what we cover, but CMG isn’t going anywhere – rest assured of that. We’ve had a long hard fight to get to where we are today and a bunch of lardy print mags isn’t going to take us down now.
P.S. Check out our new Facebook page (button below) with a clip of my interview with CBC national radio and a link to our online petition