Northern Wilds Magazine
Shawn Perich
Points North

Points North: Outdoor writing evolves to meet new market demands

At the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, you can see one of the nation’s largest collections of dinosaur bones. Last week, dinosaurs were walking upright in the city of Billings at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America. While I don’t have demographic statistics on the average age of the organization’s members, senior citizens were prominently in attendance. A cynic might say this was evidence that outdoor writing and even traditional outdoor activities like hunting and fishing are slowly fading into the sunset. But outdoor-related gatherings and banquets have long been dominated by old white people.

I am not a cynic. OWAA has always had significant component of seniors, largely because it is a close-knit group of like-minded souls who make this annual gathering part of their lives. They are there simply because outdoor writers make lasting friendships with fellow scribes from across the U.S. and Canada. The OWAA conference is a place where old friends meet.

Outdoor writing has changed significantly in the digital age. Two decades ago, the outdoor experience was primarily communicated with print magazines and television. Since then, the readership of many outdoor magazines has tumbled off a cliff. It is fair to say even the biggest national magazines no longer represent the cutting edge of fishing and hunting. Outdoor television programs have proliferated, but the quality of programming has deteriorated.

Many of the OWAA dinosaurs are relics of the print-dominated past. Some were the outdoor editors of major daily newspapers. Others were freelance magazine writers and photographers. Since the turn of the century, the media outlets where their work appeared have withered away.

At the OWAA conference, it was a clear as the Montana sky that the field of outdoor writing is alive and kicking. While print hasn’t died, it has changed. Successful magazines have smaller circulation and are tightly focused on specific outdoor activities. Print products are intertwined with digital components that include websites, apps, videos, blogs and photographs. No longer can an outdoor communicator get by with just good writing and photography. Now to be successful, they must understand and produce content for multiple communication platforms.

Dodging among the dinosaurs at the conference were dozens of younger (and not-so-young), highly evolved communicators. I attended a number of conference presentations that left my head swimming with new ideas. Some of what I learned was obvious once an expert explained it. Other lessons were counter-intuitive.

For instance, I attended a session on book publishing where I learned print books have experienced a strong resurgence since the recession. Sales of digital e-books have been flat and publishers expect them to remain so. Today’s readers, regardless of age, prefer to hold a real book in their hands.

In another session, I listened to the editor of a state fish and wildlife agency’s magazine explain how reader surveys taken every five years have found the average age of readers increases at a comparable five-year rate. Worried the readership would eventually die off, the magazine developed a sophisticated website and apps for tablets and smart phones in an effort to attract new, digitally minded readers. The effort was successful. Surprisingly, the magazine’s staff discovered many of the new digital readers soon subscribed to the print magazine. They wanted something they could hold in their hands.

Another relatively new outdoor genre is food writing. However, today’s writers must know more about food and cooking than how to fry up a batch of beer-battered crappie fillets and canned sliced potatoes. They need to know the language of cooking and be able to describe how food looks and tastes. Most importantly, they need to master color food photography. Today’s readers, immersed in the new food culture, have high expectations.

The future of outdoor writing is encapsulated in a new genre known as brand writing. This is “content” commissioned by companies and organizations for their blogs, websites, catalogs and other digital communications with their customers. However, this isn’t the kind of outdoor writing where Bubba goes fishing and then liberally sprinkles the brand names of everything from his fishing rod to his underwear into the story. Instead, these are well-written stories that share personal, localized outdoor experiences with the reader. The company’s products and brand may not be mentioned at all. Readers instead associate good reading, photography and video with the company’s communications platform and thus return for more of the same. Patagonia’s catalogs are excellent examples of the brand writing genre.

It seems odd to associate the best outdoor writing with product promotion. But really, it’s always been that way. In the past, magazines used good writing and photography to attract readers to their advertisers. Now the new media landscape allows companies to skip the middleman, such as a magazine, and supply their customers with outdoor stories. For readers, the end result is the largely the same. And the outdoor writing and photography we all enjoy survives and thrives.

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