Monday, February 9, 2015

It was the best of times...

and the worst of times, or so goes the quote from Tale of Two Cities.  In many ways this describes the fortunes of Blade Magazine perfectly.  The Blade Show is growing every year.  Thanks to folks like Nutnfancy, Cutlery Lover, and Chris Weinstein, the tent that is the knife community has never been larger.  But the logistics of print are bonkers, especially for enthusiast press magazines.  If your Time or The Economist, there is a large enough subscription base that general interest advertisers can make it profitable to stay in business.  If, however, you are a niche publication--well, let's just say the math is not working for you.  

Here is that math.  

I get between 160,000-180,000 readers a month.  My total output for the site, other than review samples (which is BY FAR the biggest cost), is $15 a year for a domain registration.  I wish the podcast was as cheap, but that is another story for another day.  For simple math, let's say Blade is running a similar monthly readership (and yes I know that page views and readers aren't equal). Now let's say that every magazine costs 1 cent to make.  That's 1 cent for writer's time, editor's time, printing and distribution. 1 cent.  Blade's monthly costs are $2,000 a month under this scenario.  Some of that is off set by ads, of course (just as Google's ads offset the cost of this site), but even then we are looking at a daunting proposition.  $2,000 a month versus $15 a year for same theoretical readership.  I don't know what Blade's numbers are, either their readership or their costs, but I think it would be hard to imagine a scenario where they had costs less than a penny and more than a million readers (and note the second problem--more readers equals more costs, something I don't have to contend with).  I chose a penny to make the example as favorable to Blade as possible, but even under those circumstances the comparison is stark for print. 

All of this is a simple way of illustrating the problem, or perhaps the source of the problem.  My ability to pick up Blade in person, which I do whenever I can, has diminished to nothing.  Barnes and Noble, my local bookstore, and my local grocery stores, all of which used to stock Blade, no longer do.  And when I asked they told me they weren't willing to do so in the future.  Sure there are special issues and Knives Illustrated, but Blade Magazine is the standard bearer for knives.  Its the place knifemakers, knife collectors, and knife manufacturers all go. It is the lingua franca of the knife world and we'd all be worse off if it died.  But it looks, at least from my vantage point, that that is exactly what's going on.  

Its strange to have a publication dying as the topic its covering is growing, but I think this is a function more of print's impending doom than anything else. But I think Blade could turn things around.  Here  is what I would do if my name were on the mast head.

#1 Really Go Digital

I know that many folks inside and outside the magazine have proposed something like this in the past (both in the more long term past and the recent past).  The reality is that high end enthusiast information is best suited for digital.  I am not talking about pay gates to content that is identical to the print magazine.  I am talking about a fully digital experience.  A model that is an alternative to the pay gate model is something like USN.  I gladly pay dues to partake in the USN.  I rarely, if ever post, but I read a lot and it makes me a better knife reviewer.  If there was an annual subscription and true, digital-only content, people would pay.  The pay gate for access to digitized print is not enticing anyone.  

The other model is to go ad only and do something like what Polygon is for video games or Hodinkee is for watches--a high concept, high brow, long form piece of content.  Imagine how awesome it would be if Edge Observer did videos for a digitial Blade Magazine?  Imagine if he were paid to make not one or two a month, but four or five?  I'd drop cash to see that.  And there was enough content like that they could sell more and more profitable advertisement (opting to supplement the obligatory Jantz ads with stuff from premium outdoor brands like Filson and LL Bean).  What if you took the slick look and great photos of Pivot and Tang and made it Blade Magazine?  Again, the Polygon/Hodinkee model holds a lot of promise.

#2 Broaden the Audience

Lots of people like knives, especially today.  Ex-military and the Butterscotch Club are not the sole constituents of the knife buying public anymore (I doubt they ever were).  There are folks that get stoked about something other than ANOTHER Bowie knife (I think Blade used up their lifetime quota of Bowie photos some time in 1973, they used up the rest of the world's by is hoping there is life beyond Earth, otherwise they are really in the hole).  Guess what Blade and Steve Shackleford?  Women buy gear.  And it doesn't have to be pink to attract their attention (Kitri McGuire of Leatherman has a BlackOxide  custom Wave...distinctly not pink).  It would be interesting to have topics about knives in the workplace, the history of knives (told by historians not knife collectors), and making ofs, like those seen on Frank Howarth's YouTube channel (he does woodworking, but you get the idea).  Like other institutions, Blade Magazine needs to expand its audience if it wants to survive.  

#3 Focus on Good Writing

Lots of folks that currently write for Blade are very experienced with edged tools, but that doesn't, necessarily, make them good writers.  Many are, but there is no correlation between experience with knives and writing skill. Experience counts, of course, but voice and writing ability matter more.  As a magazine Blade's first and primary job is to communicate.  It happens to be a magazine communicating about knives, but the emphasis should be on writing first.  Good writers and researchers can learn about a topic, but the opposite is not always true. And its not the typos and grammar errors that bother me (God, I know I make enough of those).  Its the fact that some pieces lack voice, a narrative arc, and good structure.  Write good articles and the readers will come. The topic is almost irrelevant.  Good writing sells itself

#4 Do some REAL Investigative Journalism

We all know the pattern--picture, three paragraphs of backstory/description, quotes from maker, final "assessment" of the knife. That's like 90% of Blade's stories.  Why not leverage the power of Blade to investigate things like the "problems" with Elmax or the Tim Britton/Kizer controversy?  Why not look into things like the efficacy of the CATRA tests (they did run a CATRA test in the past, but there was precious little about what the results meant)?  People are and would be interested. We need the "pattern pieces" too but some real journalism would help.  Also, try to stick to established journalistic standards.  They will lend the pieces some credibility.

#5 Be Critical

I could never write for Blade Magazine.  One review like the Topo Daypack review and the manufacturer would pull ad dollars and that would be it.  I get that.  But the "reviews" that Blade currently does are so bland its hard to tell if they are reviews or manufacturer written product literature. Dan once worried that he was the Nickelback of reviews, and he not even close to that.  Dan isn't Nickelback, but Blade's reviews ARE the Pat Boone or Lawrence Welk of reviews.  There is a fine line to walk here, but if you aren't critical of some things then people will not take your opinions seriously.  Some gear (GERBER) is just junk.  Calling it like it is will make your good reviews more meaningful.  You might lose a couple of advertisers, but you will gain readers (and if you have converted over to digital, it won't hurt as much to lose a few advertisers).

Losing Blade Magazine would make the knife community a less interesting place, but if my vantage is even slightly representative, the magazine is ailing.  Fixing it would be great.  No one, especially me, wants to lose the New York Times of the knife world. 


  1. #1 is probably the hardest for a fuddy duddy media giant like a Blade Magazine. They don't seem to *really* understand how to make natively digital content. The Verge/SB Nation/Polygon/Vox Media seem to be the best in that, IMO.

    I'd like to add my own sixth point and have them actually focus on "real" knives. Production knives that are affordable. ZT's are great (I own a few) but I'm tired of seeing damascous this and titanium that and "custom" everything. As tired of The Butterscotch Club as you are I'm tired of all that pocket frosting aesthetic being thrown around. That isn't Blade's problem, it's the whole knife media's issue.

    1. I try not to give in to the pressure, but it is hard. My last two reviews were of distinctly blue collar blades--a Fallkniven F1z and a CRKT No Time Off.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly but I don't think blade magazine can do it. What I think we need is a new generation of knife journalism. Looking at Polygon is a good example and I would give the same for a site like The Verge. They don't just pump out specs of new devices, they focus on what the tech means to use it and how that effects our lives and future. That's really lofty but I would like to see that same lens applied to the gear world. Real journalism and stories that are written well and entertaining to read

  3. Speaking as a prospective historian, how would you want knives treated? Knife design is probably best relegated to folks like Jim Nowka or Mike Stewart who have heard or experienced it directly - though it'd be great to get more interviews from Emerson, Strider, Marfione, Reeve, etc. If you didn't have folks looking for direct links, though, you might involve the folks that work with material culture or maybe art historians. I suppose architectural historians could tackle design.

    Another interesting take would be looking at historical knife legislation. I've heard some Chicano historians are looking at knife legislation as a racial issue.

    Any other ideas?

  4. Great ideas, T. I particularly like the suggestions for historical and investigative pieces.
    Recently I was looking for a bio of Al Mar after reading a comment by Sal Glesser crediting Mar for helping him get started. Couldn't find much beyond Wikipedia.