By Ken Stone
Like a javelin through the gut, the news came out of the blue: Track & Field News, the 70-year-old monthly magazine, was “ceasing our print version.”
Tuesday’s announcement rocked hard-core fans.
“I feel as though I have lost a loved one,” said Mike Fanelli of Healdsburg, a 40-year subscriber who completed a dream in 2017 by acquiring every issue.
“T&FN was the most important magazine in my life when I was young and competing,” said former UCLA star and Olympian Willie Banks.
“It’s a blow,” said charter subscriber Al Franken of Westwood, who ran the indoor Los Angeles Invitational (later Sunkist meet) for 43 years starting in 1960 as well as major meets at UCLA, San Francisco and San Diego. “I always looked forward to it every month.”
Launched in 1948 by San Diego-born brothers Cordner and Bert Nelson, the publication called itself “the Bible of the Sport” and was read religiously for generations, reaching a peak circulation of 30,000 in the early 1980s.
How was it decided to fold it?
Ed Fox, its publisher until Jan. 1, laughed over the phone Wednesday. “That’s pretty easy,” he said, “since the magazine’s been losing money for 10 years.”
Down to 7,000 paid subscribers (average age: 65), the magazine famed for its annual world and U.S. rankings, Olympic and NCAA previews and injury reports could no longer be kept afloat by the associated track tour agency, said Fox, 84.
“And with poor tour seasons ahead — for example the World Championships in Doha — we’ll be struggling the next couple of years until (2020 Olympic-host) Tokyo and Eugene,” site of the 2021 IAAF world championships in Oregon.
In a 133-word “Dawning Of A New Era” posting on trackandfieldnews.com and later a 924-word email to subscribers, track fans learned: “Ink & paper is an economic model that is no longer working. … We’re not immune. For too many years now, steadily decreasing T&FN subscriber numbers and the flight of advertising revenue to the electronic world have combined to forge a scenario of our running significant deficits.”
The last print issue was December 2017 — the annual ranking edition with Qatari high jumper Mutaz Barshim its cover boy as 2017 Man of the Year.
But the leap to an online-only presence for what fans call “T&FN” was delayed for months.
“We had made the decision early in 2017,” Fox told Times of San Diego. “We thought we might sell the magazine. … Out of the blue, this guy said he wanted to buy the magazine, and we were in negotiations for a long time. And it seemed pretty definite until it all collapsed.”
The would-be buyer wanted to keep the print edition, but learned he’d have to sink $500,000 into the product to keep it going.
“I think that kind of scared him away — if he was legitimate at all,” said Fox, succeeded as publisher by Janet Vitu, the former executive publisher.
The six-member staff — including half-century employee (and fourth editor) Garry Hill — will be retained, said Fox, who joined the magazine in 1965 and has no plans to retire “as long as I am compos mentis (of sound mind).”
Across the Atlantic, the leader of Britain’s Athletics Weekly said he’s sad “but not entirely surprised” by the news of T&FN going digital-only.
“At Athletics Weekly,” said editor Jason Henderson, “we’ve never regarded T&FN as a rival magazine but simply a fellow athletics publication on the other side of the world with a great history and reputation.”
The British track weekly, founded in 1945, has The Great Run Co. as its corporate parent, and “we’re in no imminent danger of going digital only,” Henderson said. “I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me in the last 20 years: How long will AW survive? But we’re still here.”
Some aren’t giving up on a print T&FN either.
Don Franken, the 62-year-old son of meet director Al Franken, urged the owners to seek a deep-pocket sponsor, such as a clothing or shoe company, or even USA Track & Field or that governing body’s foundation.
“I think it’s a gamble I wouldn’t make,” he said of the switch to digital-only. “I’d do anything,” including a crowdfunding appeal. “That would be better. Shutting down the print edition could really mean its demise.”
The operator of a sports-celebrity talent agency, Don Franken asked from his Westchester office: “Who knows if they’re going to find that online advertising?” and recalled how he canceled Variety when it quit being a daily entertainment trade journal.
“Same with The Hollywood Reporter,” he said. “When they both switched eventually to once a week publications in print, I dropped my subscriptions. For me, it’s just not enough.”
But editor Hill and Fox vow to make up for the print edition loss by expanding online offerings, which have included a weekly results-only newsletter called eTrack and the digital version of the magazine.
For the first couple months, print subscribers will get an electronic edition that looks like T&FN, “but then there will be a whole new version,” Fox says. “You might get part of it on Monday and two more pages on Wednesday, two more pages on Friday — we will email them as they come out.”
Besides getting the news and features faster, the type size will be “a lot bigger,” he said. “Track & Field News has been known for its tiny type. That will be an improvement.”
But in his delayed letter to subscribers (noted by angry and confused fans on the magazine’s online message board), Hill wrote: “There’s no way to sugar-coat this: starting now the price for a 1-year subscription becomes $79 per year — our first increase in subscription price in 18 years.”
Hill called it a “cold hard fact” that the magazine had “no option but to hit you with a double whammy if we are to stay in business.”
He asked subscribers to be charitable: “A year’s subscription is cheaper than a ticket to a Broadway show or a concert. Or if you prefer to think of us as one of your pet charities, like NPR or the Red Cross, we won’t mind.”
Fox — who shares ownership of T&FN with Hill and four limited partners of the Nelson family — said they’re hoping to retain 75 percent of current subscribers.“If you think about it, and it’s that valuable to you, then you’re not going to hesitate,” he said from his Bay Area office in Mountain View. “But there are a lot of people who are not computer literate, among our old-timers.”
Agreeing, Don Franken noted that his father was not active online.
“Without their print edition, they’re not going to be reading it. It’s gone,” he said. “It’s like taking ’60 Minutes’ and putting it on the Internet.”
Rich Perelman, a longtime track fan and one-time T&FN correspondent, ran press operations at the 1984 LA Olympics and now covers the Olympic scene with The Sports Examiner, an online and emailed newsletter.
He called T&FN’s online concept the right one, but is wary of its digital strategy.
“There is going to be an experimentation phase … before they settle in,” said the 40-year subscriber. “Having T&FN as a digital entity is MUCH BETTER than not having it at all. It’s a valuable part of the sport, especially here in the U.S. and hopefully it will continue.”
Twin brothers Weldon and Robert Johnson (“Wejo and “Rojo”) — the Nelsons for a new generation — founded LetsRun.com in 2000 and cover much of the same ground.
Weldon called the print shutdown news “pretty shocking,” but said he’s not worried about what it means for the sport.
“I LOVED Track & Field News once I discovered it,” he said via email, “but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I haven’t subscribed in ages.”
He already follows track 24/7 and goes online to see yearly lists.
“If we were worried about what this [folding] meant for the sport, someone would have texted me about it — and I hadn’t heard anything,” he said.
But he hailed T&FN as an inspiration: “Without [it], I don’t think there would be a LetsRun.com. The magazine not only helped me become passionate about the sport, it showed you can analyze in depth our wonderful sport.”
Brother Robert added: “I guess I should have seen this coming. In a staff meeting about two weeks ago, I asked our roughly 25-year-old staffer if he subscribed to TFN, he said no.”
The response “kind of blew my mind,” Robert said. “But then I thought about it and for the 10-plus years he’s been a big track fan, the Internet has always existed, so he couldn’t comprehend waiting around a month for TFN to show up.”
Robert Johnson doesn’t think T&FN is dead and calls LetsRun.com proof that an audience exists for passionate track commentary.
“In the year 2018, however, it needs to be fairly timely,” he said. “I even personally think there is an audience for paid track and field analysis and have contemplated starting a digital magazine of sorts myself.”
He urged T&FN to continue as a digital magazine — not just a website.
“What few people seem to talk about is the beauty of a magazine,” Robert said. “The thing I love the most is there is a beginning and end. It’s so easy to get on the Internet and get sucked into wasting an entire day.”
Fox, the longtime publisher, said the website will remain free for now.
“But it will gradually change and add some features, plus all of the archives of Track & Field News, which you’ll be able to access any issue that you want from 1948 on,” he said.
Like other major news sites T&FN will allow visitors to read some articles before a paywall pops up.
“And if you want to read more, you can pay this or that or subscribe,” Fox said. “That’s still being worked out.”
On Thursday, editor Hill clarified: “The website will not change. Everything that’s free now will remain free. The ‘creative content’ that goes into the magazine side is what will operate behind a paywall.”
Other U.S. sources of track news online include Flotrack.org, known for its video coverage of meets and interviews — but costing $12.49 a month on a yearly basis. Larry Eder of Wisconsin, who blogs at RunBlogRun.com, also covers the sport via American Track & Field, geared mainly to track coaches.
National Masters News, founded in 1977, continues as a monthly print publication but covers only adult age-group track and field — 35 years to 100-plus. Its circulation has declined as well.
One T&FN post said: “There is little allure to a electronic version of the magazine. While I would gladly give good money to a glossy printed magazine that looks great on the coffee table and reads as it should, there is no way I would do the same for an electronic copy. This is a terrible decision.”
But Bill Wright, who posts as lonewolf, wrote: “On reflection, maybe it is not the end of the literate world. I read my print version of TFN religiously, but just realized that I have already seen most of the meet results and news squibs on T&FN website that I visit most days.”
Tracy Sundlun of Santee, a former track coach and head manager of the 2016 U.S. Olympic track team, said he had virtually every issue.
The former Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series executive asked via email: “Am I going to have to print each issue myself?!?! I’d better have a lot of colored ink! I realize the time was coming, and it makes sense on a whole lot of levels, but it is still a sad day.”
Dwight Stones, the two-time Olympic medalist and former high jump world record-holder, said T&FN made, and continues to make, a large impact on his career.
“It was important validation when I was competing and has continued being important throughout my 41 years in broadcasting,” he said. “This is not great news to me.”
Also not good news: the prospect of having to print out each monthly issue, “so I can have that research with me for my television broadcasts.”
Jason Henderson, the Athletic Weekly editor in UK, said he’s always felt that if AW vanished as a print publication, it would simply carry on in a new format.
“It seems like T&FN has reached that point first and, who knows,” he said, “it could carry on and prosper digitally for many more years to come.”
Longtime reader Fanelli, who packed all his copies of Track & Field News in a car trunk ready for evacuation from the Northern California wildfires, couldn’t say which was the best issue.
“Favorite issues? All of them — like your children, each has its special attributes,” said the still-competing track runner at 61. “That being said, Olympic issues have a high priority as do ‘AOYs’ (Athlete of the Year).
“I love March 1968’s cover of a 600 yards battle between the original ‘Chairman of the Boards’ Martin McGrady, Lee Evans and Jim Kemp. Any cover with Pre [Steve Prefontaine] on it made me swoon. March 1970 is a favorite because it depicted George Young setting the world record indoors for 3 miles — the first such record that I ever witnessed in person (I was age 12).
Fanelli, who also has written “a piece or two” for T&FN, said he’d “ante up” and subscribe to the online version.
“I guess the only upside that I can see is that the cabinetry that holds my 70 years’ worth of track and field print materials is very nearly full and I’d not yet figured out where 2019 and years thereafter might fit going forward,” he said.
“That dilemma has apparently solved itself — and my bride is quite relieved.”
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