ZAP’S COLUMN: IN DEFENSE OF JOURNALISM
It didn’t help that in the same week some guy in a bike shop was going on about how all the mainstream cycling media was bought off by advertisers that three journalists were killed while reporting from the war in Ukraine. In fact, their deaths, and all the courageous reporting done by their war-torn colleagues, reminded me of the precise reason why I historically refer to myself as a “small j” journalist. To me, the difference is what we do—talking about carbon frames and helmet venting versus what real journalists do is like the difference between getting your news from the National Enquirer versus the New York Times.
And, as if the very real threats that too many journalists face just to do their job isn’t hard enough, they also have the opaque threats from those too cynical to appreciate the important role that journalism can play in in keeping people safe and educated. While our biggest threat remains the cars on the road and the occasional broken wheel, our job is still easy, fun, and I hope for you, entertaining and informative.
BUT ABOUT THAT GUY
Although I didn’t know the guy in the shop, I couldn’t help but approach him to challenge his assertion. When I asked what proof he had, without a hint of pause he simply replied that “all the coverage was bought off by the advertisers.” It was as clueless and inaccurate of a statement as any of the fashionable yet baseless accusations so often made about “journalism.”
Knowing that I had some issues of RBA in my car, I asked the guy to wait while I ran out to fetch them. As I laid out the March and April issues in front of him, I pointed out that of the five different brands—Pinarello, Giant, Cannondale, Pinarello and Stein & Fenton—featured on the two covers, not one of them advertised with us.
“While our biggest threat remains the cars on the road and the occasional broken wheel, our job is still easy, fun and, I hope for you, entertaining and informative.”
As for the words found inside, yes, we offered praise for the things we liked about each of the three gravel bikes—Cannondale, Giant and Specialized—but in our round-up review, we wrote, “Our testers all agreed that they wouldn’t choose any of these bikes as their Unbound 200 bike and would be remiss to even use one for the shorter 100-mile version.” That’s the stuff of being bought off?!
Even though these bike brands think well enough to have us tell you what we think about their bikes while choosing not to advertise in our pages, we still test them fairly—and even put them on the cover! That’s what all the magazines under the Hi-Torque Publications roof have been doing since 1973.
As I have related here previously, we’ve been under a lot of pressure to reorient our editorial to a “sponsored content” format. After all, I’ve been told time and again that’s where the money and clicks are! That may be true, but out of a mixture of ignorance and obstinance, I’m still a hold-out because I detest the very notion of it. I especially love it when we’re asked to create sponsored content, but the sponsor doesn’t want us to highlight the fact that it’s sponsored. Um, sorry, but to me that’s not sponsored content, that’s deception.
Look, I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty here (even though I sound all high and mighty), but even though we’re not ducking mortars, the basis of even “small j” journalism is to be honest and informative.
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but shake my head when I saw a sponsored content post on Bicycling’s website where, in addition to a small “presented by Aventon” tag, it also had a bigger byline from Bicycling. In the post we’re introduced to a cast of unknown characters (none whose faces are shown), all of whom are cooing in delight over their Aventon e-bikes. How bad did it get? How about this outtake: “I know this will sound cliche, but the [Aventon] Sinch was one of the best investments I ever made for my mind, body and soul,” says Fry.
Now I’m not saying this person isn’t actually real, or that the bike didn’t actually make them feel that good. I’m just saying that while I’ve ridden thousands of bikes over the years, and I have indeed liked many and even loved a few, none have ever affected me like it did this person.
Oh, by the way, if you clicked on the Sinch hyperlink, it took you to a page where—surprise!—you could add the bike to your cart! Voila!
THE OTHER SIDE
I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes here. We do; they can be plentiful and embarrassing. But, I’d rather face the wrath for misspelling a name, getting a bike weight wrong or even misunderstanding new technology than for passing off that bought- off pablum.
And, if it’s not the sponsored content that grinds me, it’s the endless trail of PR firms who simply want us to carry their water by “sharing the story” of their clients. Last I looked around, editors did not resemble buckets merely to be used to carry the water for these industry middlemen!
No, we are by no means perfect. But, month after month it’s the RBA staff that tests the bikes, not some anonymous schlub with no basis of comparison or history to call on to formulate a reliable review. Still, while we do our best to create content that is honest, entertaining and informative, dodging deadlines is nothing like dodging bullets.
This column is dedicated to journalists Brent Renaud, Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, each whose penchant for storytelling cost them their lives.