This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
A team of cycling’s top reporters has forged its own new media outlet, hoping its subscriber-based model can rebuild cycling media.
In its first 24 hours of selling $99-a-year memberships, the Escape Collective has enlisted thousands of subscribers, said Caley Fretz, a Durango-based cycling journalist who co-founded the new venture with editor Wade Wallace, who founded the influential Cycling Tips in 2008 and left his creation last year.
“I think there is a groundswell of support for this type of media,” said Fretz, who has enlisted eight full-time reporters in the Escape Collective, most of them Colorado-based but focused on cycling worldwide. “We saw this need and this huge trust gap in cycling media and we thought we could find a solution. This is our answer.”
Fretz also worked as an editor at Cycling Tips before he was laid off last year by the outlet’s new owner, Outside Inc.
Most of the new Escape Collective’s staff and 17 contributors are refugees of Outside Inc. The Boulder-based media company last fall let go 54 of its more than 500 employees and scaled back printed magazines as it grappled with declining advertising revenues and tightening venture capital markets that sustained its meteoric rise in 2020 and 2021.
Outside Inc. CEO Robin Thurston acquired 20 magazines, events and online media outlets in 2020 and 2021, using more than $150 million from venture capital investors keen on his idea of corralling dozens of magazine subscriptions, event discounts and access to trail apps in a single subscription called Outside Plus. A statement from the company’s public relations firm reported by 5280 magazine’s Robert Sanchez in May said Outside Plus had 800,000 subscribers.
In a recorded online meeting with hundreds of employees last fall after the layoffs — which The Sun obtained from multiple sources — Thurston said overall membership in Outside Plus was at 850,000.
Thurston said the company’s investors were demanding profitability by fall 2023 and more investment was not an option until the fledgling media empire stemmed its losses. Hence the consolidation and layoffs, which included several writers and editors from CyclingTips, VeloNews and Pinkbike.
In the meeting with employees, Thurston unveiled a plan he was calling the Red Kite Project, after the red kites at the final kilometer of major bike races that tell the cyclists it’s time to sprint to the finish.
“Because we are sprinting towards profitability,” he explained as he outlined budget cuts and operational steps for the first nine months of 2023. A high priority is to shift the company’s magazines to metered paywalls — where visitors get a certain number of free articles before they have to pay — as a way to convert more of the company’s daily online visitors into subscribers. (Thurston said the company’s conversion of about 0.03% of its daily visitors to the company’s “core content sites” into paying subscribers is well below other media outlets. The company has about 80 million unique visitors a month.)
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He also asked employees to better support the company’s ad sellers and focus on keeping Outside Plus subscribers onboard, noting that the company loses “a lot of customers” who had already signed up.
Outside Inc. stirred ire among skiers earlier this year when the company announced that for the first time in 74 years of movies, it would be compiling this year’s Warren Miller and not filming fresh content. Warren Miller executives said this year’s retrospective movie is part of a two-year run-up to the 75th anniversary of the late icon Warren Miller’s films.
The shifts at Outside Inc. fueled the creation of Escape Collective, but, Fretz said, “this is not a middle finger looking backwards.”
Thurston’s vision for Outside Plus and the need to cut costs in a shifting economy is understandable, but the company’s business model relies too much on advertisers, Fretz said. The Escape Collective will have a few advertisers and will depend largely on revenue from subscribers.
Too much reliance on advertisers and affiliates — or gear makers who pay cycling magazines for including links back to their products — “has created a kind of fraught relationship that doesn’t end up working well for readers,” Fretz said.
“The end result is the trust problem,” he said. “It looks like the media is funded by people trying to sell them stuff and that creates a vicious cycle that leads the reader to think that the content they are consuming is not fully transparent. Our answer to that is to turn straight to the audience as an effective way to drive revenues.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated on March 3, 2023 at 10:20 am to clarify that Outside Plus membership is at 850,000 and the previously reported 500,000 members is from the recently migrated and consolidated subscribers of the company’s 30 titles and businesses.