I was sent a link to a post on Lance Mindheim’s blog about the importance of the model railroad press to the overall health of the hobby. My purpose here is not to start a flame war. I respect Lance and his contributions to the craft and, he raises important issues with this post that need further discussion. However, I read this post with mixed emotions and will simply say that we have different views.

To quickly summarize the article, Lance shared how the general interest magazines once served as a valued central clearinghouse for hobby related information. The value they provided was not only news and information but also high journalistic standards for accuracy and curation of said material. Then, as Lance continues, the Internet changed it all by cannibalizing the audience for print with an explosion of choices in free but unvetted information.

He states how magazine publishers in general were caught off guard by the coming digital wave and have been scrambling to catch up ever since. He casts some of the blame for hobby magazine’s woes toward allegedly difficult to work with writers; at readers, who are indifferent to quality material, and at any segment of the online community that engages in unwarranted criticism with impunity, stating that, and I’m quoting directly now: “non-objective written, destructive criticism online is toxic to the hobby.”

Here’s the link to the full post.

I agree with certain of Lance’s statements in the initial paragraphs. Magazine publishing as an industry has struggled to understand the impact of digital technology on their business models; with the way readers now want to consume information and what the future of publishing is going to look like. And, I agree with his assessment of the role the general interest hobby magazines played and continue to play. Further, we agree on the importance of journalistic standards for accuracy and in depth reporting, along with the value of curation in an ocean of choice. But throughout his post Lance paints a grim picture with a very broad brush. My opinion shifted as I read because in my view, the concluding paragraphs devolved into the very kind of online rant he so soundly condemned.

How do we want to learn?
The central question in my view, goes beyond print versus digital, it’s how do we intelligently utilize the strengths of each?

This is one of the questions posed by Associate Professor of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University and author Kristen Hawley Turner, PhD. and co-author Troy Hicks in their book Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers In A Digital World, where they examine this question and others in the context of an educational setting.

For the sake of disclosure, I have not read the book but how does their question apply to our purposes? Rather than condemn the march of progress and accessibility to remarkable technology, it begs us to consider how do we want to receive and use relevant hobby information? It begs us to consider what do we want to learn?

In terms of learning about our craft, what does print do supremely well that digital cannot? And the opposite: what is digital technology uniquely suited for?

Digital communities
This blog would not exist without digital technology. This blog is a community in the sense that I offer my thoughts, you folks keep me honest and we all benefit. At least I hope that is so. In addition, I benefit from the modeling perspectives of people from all parts of the globe. This would be incredibly burdensome to do without the ease of connection the Internet makes possible.

In that light, blogs, when they are at their best, have grown to supplement the role of magazines as a source of community and information. Of course, how effectively this works depends on the host and how well they form and set the tone for that community and work to keep it healthy. Like other aspects of life, if this was easy, everyone would do it. Given the fallen nature of people and given the levels of rudeness we tolerate within this hobby, it’s not easy and that’s why a thriving, healthy community is as rare online as off.

Digital video/Photography/Audio
I will be the first to agree that too many modelers have no clue how to shoot decent quality video. There is no excuse because the tools and knowledge of how to use them is readily available to anyone determined to learn. The same applies to still photography. The basic principles aren’t that hard to learn and the only limitations are those we impose on ourselves.

I did an audio version of one post and I developed a profound respect for those who are skilled in the craft of podcasting and sound editing. Like so many things there are rank amateurs (like me) and professionals. Yet the tools are there for all to explore and it is well to remember that every professional was a rank amateur at one time.

Along with their accessibility, it’s very true that these digital tools can give an illusion that quality results are easy to achieve and it’s equally true that there are people who think they are more skilled than they are but, are the tools to blame or the lazy mindset of the individual? Given this reality has the craft been as damaged as Lance seems to imply?

The ground has shifted
A great deal of generalized hobby information is now readily available on the Internet, along with niche information of every kind. As I wrote a few weeks ago, for curiosity’s sake, I searched for puffball trees and got over a million results.

This shift has impacted general interest magazines of every kind by stripping away the value proposition they once enjoyed as the sole source of such material but that’s hardly the whole story. They are also constrained by legacy business models and editorial mandates that are predicated on appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

It benefits all of us to have ready access to core knowledge such as how to build benchwork, lay track, do scenery and other techniques. Yes, the quality online will vary wildly from excellent to mediocre, which places the burden of determining its relevance where it belongs: on the person seeking the knowledge. And, for those who argue that this is the curse the Internet has inflicted on hobbyists, just go to the nearest newsstand or bookstore and look at the magazine rack. You will find print publications whose editorial quality reflects similar extremes. There is nothing new here. The Internet has just amplified the situation.

While the onus really is upon the reader, we give modelers far less credit than they deserve for knowing crap when they see it. The Internet has been around for twenty years now and most of us have developed a healthy BS filter. And we are talking hobby information here, not world domination conspiracy theories.

Print excels at curation, longevity and archival quality
Where print shines is its archival nature. I’ve often written of my enjoyment of a Paul Larson article series from the 1960s. A book or magazine’s longevity is a direct result of the quality of the materials used to create it. Furthermore, because of its physical nature and production costs it’s limited in the amount of information it contains. By default, those aspects demand a more thorough editing process and more consideration in the choice of material. The belief is that once something is online, it’ll be there forever. Will anything written online today still be available in fifty years like my favorite series of articles are? Technology fails or people give up their sites, stop paying hosting fees and poof, the content is gone. How much of this stuff will really survive in the manner printed material historically has? Would we be better served if hobby material with greater longevity found a home in print, while more transient information migrated to digital sources?

What do we want to learn?
The answer to that question starts with understanding one’s information needs. A trap I repeatedly see is approaching the subject from a one-size-fits all perspective. It’s human nature to think that our skill level reflects the norm for everyone. The audience for this craft is not the uniform monolith that many want to believe it is. There are modelers of every skill level from rank beginners who soak up info like sponges to world-class craftsman whose needs are far more sophisticated. I no longer purchase Model Railroader because I’ve outgrown the skill level they choose to serve. Their editorial content is not relevant to my needs or interests anymore and therefore I have no compelling reason to read it. To expect any general interest magazine, print or digital, to serve every level of need is unrealistic.

Additionally, some people learn visually, others prefer reading, or by listening. Craft skills like ours are best taught in one-to-one formats where an instructor can demonstrate the proper technique, and provide correction as the learner tries it for himself. Of course that isn’t always possible for everyone. Well done video can be a quality substitute that no magazine article can hope to achieve but even video has limitations compared to personal instruction.

There are no simple answers to the changes we’re seeing in our craft. Lance closed his post by saying: “The model railroad press is too basic to our own self-interest to let it become a marginalized bit player.” Do general interest magazines still have a role to play? Yes, I believe they do. I also believe that going forward their role will change in ways we’ve yet to fully understand.

Does our future as a craft hinge on their survival? I’m not that kind of alarmist. If things are not as they should be it’s because we’ve allowed them to reach this point. I believe our future as a craft depends far more on how we frame the conversation and view the work than on the presence of any media outlet.

I’d like to close by asking why do we have to frame these conversations as an either/or choice between legacy players and new resources? What’s so bad about working harder to understand the unique role each can play?



  1. Simon

    Very interesting post, Mike.

    General interest magazines will always have a place, and that is in supporting the majority in the hobby, whether they buy the magazine or not. I do find them somewhat patronising, but then again I felt that by the time I was 14, as far as the leading mainstream magazine of the day stood (I started reading it when I was 10) when the then editor moved on, to another magazine as it happens. I started taking that once I found out, and when he got the push, that magazine petered out, too. It wasn’t the editorial content, it was the editorial style. I learned better grammar, and some useful phrases, because of the quality of the journalism: it was not the content so much as how it was written, polished and presented. And the polish was really important. The style was not patronising: it spoke to the audience as if they were adults with reasonable intelligence and not a little discernment. At the age of 10 there was an awful lot I didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter as I was reading words written and edited for what I wanted to become: an intelligent adult interested in model railways.

    Model Railway Journal picked up on this tone, particularly under Bob Barlow and I am sure this is a large part of its success, and also the biggest concern I have had over some of its subsequent editors, and the rotating editorship.

    You, with this blog, and others of a similar outlook, have taken this beyond even that limiting (in terms of numbers) approach to creating a platform, or more accurately a series of platforms, where adult conversation and debate on such questions as how we want to learn can be raised.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally I want to learn by example, but for that example to be presented to me as part of an intelligent, thoughtful, audience. As to the format, I don’t mind: hand-written word, magazine articles, logs, forums, video programmes, as long as I learn and feel encouraged to have a go, then I am happy. I want to learn by example, by an example that makes me want to try the experience myself.

    PS I did go and check Lance’s post. Generally he has some really interesting, thought provoking ideas, but I find his style a bit stentorian at times. I agree, though, that he started ranted: whenever I see or hear phrases like, “it’s our duty “,” I tend to worry. Not fond of moral imperatives: too close to, “Just sayin’,” and, “Telling it like it is”.

  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Thanks for commenting. I also gravitated to modeling magazines as a child and reaped similar benefits from them as you did. I’m convinced the exposure to mature writing and material that was just beyond me encouraged my own ability to learn and to understand that learning could be fun and self-motivated. I readily acknowledge the role that Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman played in my development during that time.

    I have given this whole matter a lot of thought (too much perhaps) and wonder whether things have actually changed that drastically, or whether I simply feel left out of the current conversation because my interests aren’t being addressed in a manner I find truly relevant? I strongly suspect it’s both.


  3. Simon

    Hi Mike,

    Your comment has raised interesting points. I have pondered these points off andnon, too. Things have changed, maybe not drastically, and part of that may be because of the increased opportunities for “niche” publication offered by the Internet. So niche that somewhere I suspect there is a blog which only the blogger reads.

    The quality of RTR has massively improved as the hobby has become smaller but more adult-oriented, and as spare cash has increased. The focus of the mainstream magazines has become more about making best use of this excellent equipment, and less about making up for the deficiencies of mass produced models (not that they don’t still have errors and omissions). The mass H0, 00 and N scale markets now support a hobby which might be called “model railway operation” (if only because so many get upset by the phrase “playing trains”!) and in many ways, that is what the hobby has become. This does not automatically mean “Virginian and Ohio” or “Buckingham Great Central”: it applies just as much to simpler layouts like Lance’s “East River” or, for those in the UK with long enough memories, ‘”Breedon”. Using ready made track, engines and rolling stock it is much simpler to achieve a well-working layout than it used to be, and understandably there is a desire to create better scenes and also more realistic operation – something which Lance excels at. This is whe the mainstream magazines get their bread and butter, and this is where their focus must remain otherwise they will go out of business. But that just means that we can choose to buy magazines aimed at the non-mainstream market (and hence with a different business model) and make use of the Internet to provide a simple forum for the exchange of ideas. Much of the latter will inevitably be mainstream itself, but again, where’s the problem here? Apply some filters, and accept that – like the mainstream magazines – there may be articles of interest popping up on forums we wouldn’t normally visit, but that we are free to read as little as we wish.

    The hobby has changed: the better quality is not just about the changing demographics, though. There is an often unrecognised legacy from the fine scale movement in these improvements. But it is like playing in defence in any sport. Good defenders force everyone else on the field to improve their game so that they can outsmart the defenders and be better placed to exploit mistakes, but it is the home runs, the touch downs, the curving ball into the top right hand corner of the net, the double-century, etc, which gets remembered. If the defence is very poor, it will be noticed – and not Justin the scoreline – but if it is good, it will not get much notice. It has to be exceptional to get attention. And yet TV coverage may show replays, not just for entertainment but for the education of the audience, particularly with a good commentator with a love of the game, and maybe experience of playing it at a high level. The rest of the game will be shown without those replays, yet still serves to demonstrate to interested parties how to go about practicing the sport, and the quality of commentary will also determine the level of insight?

    Maybe because of all this, and because we are very visual creatures, the extended photo-shoot with actions has become the order of the day? Maybe these are the equivalent of the slow-motion action replay? If so, then maybe fine scale is about adding that extra level of depth and understanding, about the exposition of technique, and about the review and commentary at he end of the game?

    Many years ago I was doing something or other with the TV on in the background. There was a cricket match on. There was the noise of leather ball connecting with willow bat, followed by and exclamation from the commentator of, “He’s caught and bowled him!” so I looked up. Now, you do to need to know much about cricket to understand what follows. During the replay, the late and great Richie Benaud (a former player of great intelligence and a superb commentator) went through the replay in very slow motion, and explained what had happened. The batsmen had become used to the bowler’s style of delivery, and was anticipating the next ball and had raised his bat (rearwards) ready to swing and hit the ball out of the ground. The bowler had seen the bat raised slightly higher than usual, and had slowed down his delivery, so that the ball was released slightly later as well as slower. Consequently, it was more accurate to say that the ball hit the bat rather than the bat hit the ball, as the batsman realised his mistake too late: he had to stop his bat, otherwise the ball would go past him and strike the wicket, but the mechanics of the situation meant that his bat was now all but stationary and was going to do nothing more than bounce the ball straight back to the bowler, who was presented with a very simple catch. This all took place in about a quarter of a second. There was actually no thought involved, it was all down to study and practice producing a reflexive reaction. That’s what thoughtful practice does: it makes the difficult commonplace.

    Three things struck me about this at the time:
    1 The batsman, in real time, looked like he had been stupid;
    2 The bowler had been incredibly good at his craft;
    3 Without the commentator, none of this would have been brought to my attention.

    Now, these thoughts strike me.
    1 All the players involved were at an exceptional peak of their game (it was an international, “Test”, match);
    2 Whilst his was due to them having a degree of natural aptitude, they had to have worked really hard at honing their skills;
    3 Just how good was that commentator? He was a genuine expert for he didn’t need the replay to low what had happened, he came to the replay knowing what to say.

    In response to your post and comments, I can add an extra thought:
    4 The commentary worked because they used an expert, and the expert was so good he did not need to patronise the audience. He spoke with the simple assumption that anyone interested enough to choose to watch was interested enough to find out more, and should be spoken to respectfully as an intelligent person.

    It goes back to a simple statement: I learn best when I am treated as an adult, but that is just how I want to learn.


  4. Rhett Graves

    How do I want to learn? By being shown how to do something. Mike, as you’ve suggested, there’s a spectrum of media by which information can be conveyed and we don’t need to think of these as dichotomies. While there is a spectrum, each media has had its “hey day”. The primary medium for instruction has shifted from club instruction (prior to the 1930s) to printed media (1940s to 1990s) to the internet (2000s-present). While I still prefer a one-on-one tutorial, the internet provides quicker, easier access to instruction from an expert than a magazine. The cost is still pretty much a matter of “you get what you pay for”, but I’d argue that the internet is a cheaper means of getting quality instruction. In order receive payment, the quality of instruction must be demonstrably better, and that’s not currently the case for most of the model railroad magazines in print. Cheaper, better, faster means that the internet is here to stay while the other mediums still have a role to play.

    As far as the quality of instruction: The instructor’s results will speak for themselves. I pretty much ignore anything (both printed media or online) that doesn’t have photos of quality results to accompany the text. From there, good writing and good photography helps. For unedited online material, I can accept that most folks aren’t adept enough at writing to convey their thoughts without unintentionally taking a patronizing or haughty tone. I cut them some slack as I assume the offensiveness is unintentional. I expect edited material (whether on-line or print) to be well-written, i.e. devoid of grammatical and spelling errors and written in a courteous tone. If the editorial staff is an all-volunteer force (even if I pay for the publication), I’ll cut them a little slack since this isn’t their day job. But really, they shouldn’t have volunteered if they don’t know how to write well and they should be more open to constructive criticism from their readership since they’re not a trained professional. I expect paid editors to produce well-written material. This expectation exists whether I pay for the material or not. If you’re an editor by profession, then you need to be competent. While these are my expectations, I think they’re representative of the majority of modelers.

    I have been disappointed with most things I’ve read in print recently, the exception being the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society publications. Reading back over older issues of my hobby magazines has only reinforced my belief that today’s material is not nearly as helpful or well-written. A recent editorial change at one of my favorite magazines has left me baffled. The old editor had a writing style that I much preferred, while the new editor has incorporated much larger photographs and drawings. I’m not sure which one I like better, but I think the latter will be more useful to me in the long run.

    Interesting conversation!!

  5. mike

    Hi Simon,
    Thinking about the last sentence in my initial reply to you: (…or whether I simply feel left out of the current conversation because my interests aren’t being addressed in a manner I find truly relevant?), it struck me as whiny. Oh poor me, can’t find anything good to read. Forgive me, I’m about to ramble.

    At what point does one accept responsibility for one’s education about the craft? As a rank beginner, it’s understandable you would turn to readily available guides and resources. Indeed, that’s why they exist. At that stage you are a sponge, soaking up any and everything you can get your hands on and you’ll take things as the gospel because you simple don’t know any better. But, if all I ever read is Kalmbach’s offerings, I will never progress beyond that level.

    There’s nothing wrong with this of course, because we are talking about a leisure time pursuit. That said, many eventually grow tired of the plateau and wonder if there is more out there. At that point, I suggest you begin to start making your own choices about what is and isn’t important to you. You start to focus, to dig deeper and the farther you go down this path, in my view, the more you move away from the general toward the specific. Here is where the hobby press begins to fail you, because as you suggested, it is built on catering to a mass (and usually non specific) audience.

    This is where many of us now find ourselves. We are not helpless, nor is our situation grim. It simply requires more effort to find the resources we desire and to acknowledge that the mass market isn’t where we find satisfaction. As mature modelers, we take responsibility for our own enjoyment of the craft and move on.

    I wish I were as mature as that scenario makes it sound. Sadly, I’m not. I’m fearful of criticism and being labeled a snob for wanting more from the craft. Yes, I know that is silly but every time I write a post like this one, I sweat buckets wondering if I’m going to get my head chopped off. I write them anyway and hope for the best because I want to express what the craft means to me.

    I’m not here to impose my views on anyone but like you and others, I want to be inspired again. To feel that excitement I felt as a rookie modeler in the thick of learning all I could. I think this is what many of us who express our disappointment with the state of affairs want. Like others, I’m frustrated. Unlike others, I write 1800 word blog posts to get it out of my system.

    To finally address your comments more directly, I’m a big fan of the Taunton Press and their publications, which includes the titles: Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, Fine Cooking and others. Each magazine features articles written by some of the leading practitioners in that field. The featured work is of excellent caliber and the writing is straightforward and intelligent. Here is the reason I’m such a fan of their products: they assume beginners want to learn and improve and take their skills as far as they desire. The writers are experts who can explain complicated subjects in accessible ways without being condescending or patronizing.

    The material is not dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, rather it is assumed that the reader has something to bring even if it’s just curiosity. Every time I purchase one of their magazines I ask myself why can’t we have intelligent, thoughtful resources as good as this?

    So sorry for rambling Simon.


  6. mike

    Hi Rhett,
    Couldn’t agree more. These days I’m a student at the University of Google and the school of Youtube. I agree that regardless of the medium basic competence is a given. As I suggested in my second response to Simon, it’s up to us to find that material and for those who can, to create it.


  7. Simon

    That is not rambling, Mike. It is you sharing your thoughts sincerely.
    And it is your blog.

    I would love to read more material that treats me as an adult. So I come here. I also visit Port Rowan and the Prince Street Terminal, and a few other blogs. Occasionally I even put something on mine, to give others the chance to react to my thoughts, rather than feeding me their own. That’s the point: with new technology, there simply isn’t a single place to go. It is distributed, and we create it ourselves. It is, in the purest sense, anarchy. We have no overriding governance, we have no rules. We simply share a common (or common enough!) interest, and apply Canadian levels of good manners to it. (My auto-correct rather wonderfully turned that into “Canadian evils of good manners” when I left out the leading “l”!) It is also perfect democracy. Want a voice? Register to make a comment, and speak up. Want to have a platform for your discussion points? Create your own blog (it can be free!) and let the rest of us know about it. Don’t like what someone else is saying? Don’t pay any attention to it. All we ask – and this is the point most people don’t understand about anarchy, liberty, freedom and freedom of expression – is that is is done with respectful civility, that the responsibility for self-control is accepted and enacted.

    I used to share your concern about being called a snob, but I just dismiss it. We each have our own preferences, and I happen to eschew mediocrity. I mean, who wants to settle for second best? We have a phrase over here, “champagne tastes and beer money”, but to my mind there are two ways to resolve that conundrum. Firstly, drink very small amounts of champagne. Secondly, set about being able to afford champagne. In our terms, this simply means setting oneself a series of targets, each one raising the bar a little bit, until we acquire the skills we need to achieve the results we desire. If it means I have less layout and fewer engines and cars, so what?

    Earlier this week I gave tribute to a very good friend in the hobby who died tragically young, just 53. I am 51 next month, and it made me realise that what he had said to me repeatedly over the past quarter century was so very true: “It’s a hobby. Who cares what anyone else thinks?” I also believe that whilst it is wrong to force one’s own standards on other people, there is nothing wrong with using those standards as a filter to help me look at things I like – likewise I don’t expect others to like what I do.

    There are plenty of places for those who simply want to run model trains out of the box, for those who are working up the courage the tackle their pride and joy and correct the errors, even for those who are simply too lazy to other doing it. Mainstream magazines and forums cater for these people. Even if pointed to this blog, most regular forum guys wouldn’t know what to make of it. It’s not their cup of tea. Other hot beverages are available, but Earl Grey with a slice of lemon, please. Almost anything except blended tea. Like blended whisky, it is an abomination. See, I can be a snob, too, but only where it really matters!

    Forums are less likely to cater for our specific interests, so blogging becomes a great outlet for this.

    The thing is, a conversation with only one person speaking is a monologue. A conversation where there are no ideas discussed is small talk and gossip. A conversation where many parties are involved but speak respectfully and thoughfully is generally somewhat lacking.

    Are we not, via your blog, having that “missing” conversation?

    And no, you are not whining.