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Staff Opinion: VeloNews, Shimano tangle over media control

Published April 4, 2016

LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. (BRAIN) — It's been quite a clash pitting the industry's most powerful company, Shimano, against what is arguably the best competitive cycling magazine and website in the U.S. market, VeloNews.

That clash stems from an article written several days ago by Dan Cavallari outlining what VeloNews readers could expect from Shimano's newest upgrades for Dura-Ace. And those upgrades are substantial.

But for those of us in the media — whether consumer or trade — dealing with Shimano is a challenge.

Shimano's most frequent comment to almost all questions or issues of substance is "no comment." Or it's a carefully crafted statement generally devoid of substantive information that would directly address a question of substance.

And so when Cavallari asked Shimano to comment about his research on the changes in Dura-Ace, he was essentially told: "Do not publish that." Not surprisingly, it escalated from there.

The velvet glove came off when John Bradley, the magazine's editor in chief, refused to block publication of the article on VeloNews' website. Shimano told Bradley that if he did not kill the article Shimano would kill its advertising schedule in all Competitor Group publications, which also includes Triathlete.

Before issuing its ultimatum, I am certain that Shimano's public relations staff tried cajoling Bradley, telling him that a premature release of the information could harm the industry; that it could impede current sales of Dura-Ace equipped models; that portions of the article were inaccurate; and that it was an unethical violation by an editor who may have gotten his information from sources who had signed nondisclosure agreements.

To be fair, Shimano, as a publicly traded company, does have some legitimate concerns about how and when information should be made public. But this, in my opinion, isn't one of them.

When I talked with Bradley, after he had endured a tedious overnight flight and multi-hour taxi ride to Ghent, Belgium, he didn't know what the dollar impact of his decision could be, but it would be substantial. And he was worried about the magazine, his staff and his job.

This episode, of course, has gone viral, especially after Bradley posted a defense of his decision on his personal Facebook page. (Note to all: There is no such thing as a personal post to a personal Facebook page.)

And the social media reaction was predictable. Shimano, the industry's 800-pound gorilla, was muscling Bradley in an attempt to censor a major publication over a legitimate effort at in-depth reporting on a popular and expensive group. And as far as I can tell, few have voiced much support for Shimano in this tug-of-war over editorial content, timing and who really runs a magazine.

After reaching out to Bradley, I picked up the phone and called Eric Doyne, founder of Dispatch, Shimano's public relations agency, in hopes of getting a clear sense of the company's thinking and philosophy when dealing with recalcitrant editors. No comment.

Shortly thereafter Dustin Brady, who handles marketing for Shimano, called. Doyne had suggested that Brady call me. Brady inquired whether I was going to write about this issue. Shimano, of course, was concerned. I said it depends, and asked him for comment on Shimano's policies regarding what they perceive to be editorial malpractice. To be fair, Brady is in a no-win situation and you could hear the concern in his voice. Nonetheless, there was no comment.

So where does that leave us? The media landscape today is littered with websites, blogs and magazines craving readership, which translates into advertising dollars. Some might call Cavallari's article nothing more than clever "clickbait"— a derogatory term generally associated with salacious editorial content that encourages the simple-minded to click on a link so that the website could boast higher numbers and hence seek higher ad rates. Clickbait this was not.

But more importantly, and the bicycle industry is no different than other industries; there is now an ongoing war over who controls content, what content is written, and when that content will be made public. We have the same issue at BRAIN. But over the past few years this notion of who controls the news has gotten out of hand.

In part, it's a reflection of the tight times the media finds itself in as digital dimes replace analog dollars. That's publisher speak for the shift from print to web where web advertising is generally much less expensive than print. Advertisers have the whip hand and more of them seek to use it and use it more often.

As for Shimano, they prefer to embargo data on a date certain so that it's released across a broad spectrum of media. We understand. But they embargo almost everything. That practice has now become endemic throughout the industry.

An embargo does several things. It can make the recipient of that information feel like an insider, but at the same time it can tie an editor's hands when covering a company. Still, the irony is that most of the time what's embargoed is pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But for the company flack it's a great way to puff themselves up and command allegiance from an editor.

In general, I am not a fan of embargoed news. Why? It puts a company in control of the editorial process and makes editors beholden to that company for information. We get too cozy with our advertisers. And then the media — without even knowing it — becomes complicit in their marketing program.

Bradley may well be the best-credentialed editor in the cycling media. He holds a graduate degree from Columbia. He spent six years in Japan working for the English-language daily Yomiuri-Shinbun. He speaks passable Japanese. He has been a senior editor at Wired and Outside magazines and has written for a host of major publications.

So for a company like Shimano to tell Bradley — with some 20-plus years of high-level editing chops — what he can or cannot publish borders on disrespect. It appears that Cavallari got his information from a variety of sources including the U.S. Patent Office. He approached the topic as a serious reporter looking for facts — no spy shots or cheap clickbait.

And despite what Shimano might say, Cavallari certainly committed no ethical offense. If, indeed, a product manager who had signed a nondiscloure agreement helped him with his article, that is Shimano's problem. Reporters can ask anybody anything, but nobody is compelled to answer.

What Shimano truly needs to be concerned about is insider information that could move the market, influencing its stock price. A decision to open a new factory might rise to that level.

Cavallari's article hardly qualifies. What it may do is prompt a few high-end, performance-oriented riders to wait out a season before upgrading to a new bike or group. But that concern would be hard to quantify.

Dealers, on the other hand, are often the last to know what Shimano or other companies are about to do to their inventory. Most dealers remember Shimano's move to 11-speed and then the trickle-down of Di2 to Ultegra — both caught some by surprise. But again, it's difficult to quantify what damage may have been done at retail.

But editors, like Bradley, know what kind of damage can be done to a publication's reputation when editors roll over and become complicit in an advertiser's latest marketing scheme. Or when they spike articles out of concern over advertising dollars. More importantly, it demoralizes those who work for the publication.

I would hope that Shimano would become more open in its communications with the media. And maybe there's a lesson here for management to ponder. But the decision to slap VeloNews with a hefty fine did one thing — everyone who cares about cycling is aware of this kerfuffle and they all went to VeloNews to read about the new Dura-Ace.

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