Dearth of Leadership

Cast around the web and you will find numerous postings about the decline of the hobby and its impending demise. A particularly frequent remark is about declining magazine readership figures, and how they are “dumbing down” and not interested in “finescale”, to which someone with connections with the printed hobby media responds by saying that finescale is too small a market, etc. (On which basis, how is it that Model Railay Journal is approaching its thirtieth birthday?) This is the marketing tail wagging the editorial dog. There has been an interesting discussion on Iain Robinson’s blog, in amongst the excellent modelling he displays.

Here’s a contrary thought, based on the concept of action rather than reaction.

Forty years ago the Railway Modeller – about as mainstream and middle of the road as they come – had an audited circulation of 100,000. It was the first hobby magazine which I took on a regular basis, from the age of ten, and much as I now dislike the appalling strap line they used at the time (“For the Average Modeller” – who wants to be average, when average is an alternative word for mediocre?) they struck a good balance. Some featured layouts were frankly somewhat lacking in finesse (unballasted track with missing sleepers at the rail joiners) but others were leading edge. Indeed, the P4 layout “Heckmondwyke” came about when the then editor of the magazine, the late Cyril Freezer, stated the criteria for proving the concept of P4, sufficient to get a layout featured as “Railway of the Month”. Given the links with the parent company, Peco, it is perhaps not surprising that I cannot recall articles on how to make one’s own track, but it was not a requirement that all layouts used Streamline in order to feature in the magazine. My first issue contained articles on a variety of subjects, including EM gauge and a drawing of a prototype goods wagon. On balance I think they got things right. I also improved my standard of grammar and my vocabulary. I am told that CJF did not amend articles as such but he did discuss the writing style with authors and helped them to improve via suggested alternatives and positive feedback.

I believe that the circulation is 40% of that figure now. Quite a decline!

I know that hobby interests have changed, but we now have more free time, more spare cash, and we also offer a hobby which we all agree has more to offer than most (except by way of instant gratification – you still need to build a layout on which to run the trains which came out of the boxes; even if you pay someone to build it, it will take time). If the hobby is declining, then I suggest it’s more to do with how we present ourselves than anything, and I think magazines do have an important part to play here: how to get the best out of modern RTR (including putting new sides onto existing bodies). How to complement the “out of the box” models with a bit of variety via modification, kit-building and scratchbuilding to create more interesting trains. How to create a believable setting – which means we need articles on making buildings from scratch), how to operate it properly – and how to put signals on a layout to aid this. And ultimately, how to develop a trained, critical eye for things – and how to go about getting things right. There is plenty of potential material for this: just look at the blogosphere.

My wife buys “crafting” magazines. These are full of useful ideas which she regularly puts into practice. They also seem to be flourishing, and no one bemoans declining numbers nor do they say that they are simply interested in buying things – unless they be tools or raw materials, and ideas from the magazines. Why can’t we be more like that?

There is a massive opportunity here. Not necessarily for the mainstream magazines to grow, at least not immediately, but an opportunity for them to stabilise their circulation prior to leading the hobby to new growth, with the obvious ultimate benefit to all.

2 thoughts on “Dearth of Leadership

  1. teigl

    You make some excellent points, as always. I would be very happy if the mainstream press could consolidate and allow me to be more confident about their survival. I do still buy a couple of magazines every month, more in hope than out of enthusiasm, while I subscribe to the MRJ without question. Your point about the magazine being successful for 30 years is a compelling one. Similarly, Narrow Gauge and Industrial Review. I visited Roy Link a while ago and he showed me his production suite…an elderly Mac, a desk and a comfy chair. He managed to produce a superbly designed magazine full of fascinating content pretty much on his own, and of course with the help of some highly respected contributors. Many of my friends have every issue. I’m working on it. The merger with Greystar and another hugely respected figure promises much.
    Cyril took me to task about my use of apostrophes and many other points about grammar, which were helpful. The “Modeller” tought me a great deal, and I will always have a soft spot for the mag. CJF was also very encouraging as you point out, although he had a wicked streak – he was always threatening me with Allan Downes…telling me to raise my game as Allan had an article on the stocks etc. Little did he know that Allan and I knew what he was up to!
    Thanks for the mention of my blog, that was very kind of you.

    1. Dunks Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, Iain.

      I agree that there may be too many mainstream magazines and that some consolidation might be an idea, but presumably the magazines are making enough of a return for their publishers for the status quo to continue? Which ones would go, if they are meeting their owners’ objectives?

      These are more questions, rather than answers, I realise, but I like asking questions – if the story of the emperor’s new clothes were real, I would probably be the boy asking why he was naked…

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