There’s a lot of angst about the current health and future of general interest hobby magazines now. One doesn’t have to look long or hard to see a decline in page counts or the number of titles that have fallen away in the last twenty years.

The significant problem for general interest magazines doesn’t center on the paper versus pixels debate or so-called antiquated business models. It’s commoditization. The information they were once the sole providers of is now commonplace due to the rise of the Internet as a publishing platform. The explosion of personal blogs, historical society and special interest group magazines, along with forums and other online venues like YouTube has stripped away the monetary value of information scarcity. Hobby publishing is bloated with the resulting pressures of commodity pricing now firmly in place.

In any commoditized market, the value propositions have to be reframed. Competing on price is a fool’s game and a certain road to insolvency. How do you undercut free for example?

If the supply of information is abundant from many sources, then one has to ask: what’s scarce now?

Answer: attention.

If reader’s attention is the scarce resource everyone is chasing, what’s required of a publication now? More of the same old stuff isn’t the answer. I submit it now takes a different voice.

Different voices. Broader perspective.
I believe this craft truly benefits and will flourish from the fresh thinking and perspectives coming from the blogosphere and other new digital voices. Free of the baggage of old school convention, independent writers can open doors and, one can only hope, people’s minds to new possibilities and ways of thinking about the craft.

Using the power of a consistent voice, blogs like Trevor Marshall’s Port Rowan in 1:64 or Riley Trigg’s Model Railroad Design present a deeper more thoughtful perspective on what this craft could be. Writers like Gerard J. Fitzgerald bring an articulate historian’s understanding that gives one pause to contemplate not only where we’ve come from but how we got here and where we might go. There is no mass market fluff here. In bringing the fundamental principles of history, philosophy, psychology, the fine and applied arts, design, and numerous other pursuits, indie voices like these expand the scope of what the craft can become. They’re an important force in overcoming the inertia of the status quo.

From such disciplines we learn that a static mindset erodes innovation. We relearn that growth has always come from ideas and people out on the fringes who ask: why does it have to be this way? In an activity shaped and dominated by only one or two primary voices, a perspective that looks outside the mainstream is needed to see around the blinders of convention.

Developing a writing voice means adopting the long view. A writer’s perspective needs time to grow. New ideas won’t spread until they’re embraced by people and an audience isn’t built overnight. One needs to put in the time, face the realities of the craft and pay the dues required. Perhaps most important, one needs to have something worth saying.

Yes it’s chaotic now because it’s still early days. Yes the challenges of breaking through the noise are greater than ever but time and perseverance is an ally because the dilettantes will leave when they get bored with the work required. Yes those invested in the preservation of the old forms will still bemoan our presence but it’s worth the effort to forge ahead with new visions because the future of the craft is waiting to be written.



  1. Trevor

    Thanks for the kind words, Mike.
    You’re right – developing a writing voice means adopting the long view. It demands discipline to maintain a blog – regardless of whether it’s broadly read. It also demands a comfort with writing and then presenting that work to the public for review, comment and – ofttimes – criticism.
    In my experience, these are skills that are developed through working with editors at magazines with Deadlines That Must Be Met. One of my worries when I see traditional hobby magazines* struggling is that as these have served as training grounds for the next generation of the hobby’s Big Thinkers – not only to craft their ideas but to learn how to express them effectively. As they whither, the other forms of expression are not filling that role of “editor”. Blogs are self-published: there is no editor unless the author also assumes that role. That’s difficult for most people to do unless they’ve worked with an editor (or been one themselves) at some point.
    Great thoughts, as always – keep them coming!
    – Trevor
    (*or magazines about other subjects: I’ve written for a number of those as well, and watched several of them fold their tents and disappear into the night)

    Port Rowan in 1:64
    An S scale study of a Canadian National Railways branch line in its twilight years

  2. Trevor

    See? I could’ve used an editor on that comment – I see several grammatical errors.

    I do this all the time on my own blog, by the way. I see the errors after posts are published. But then I go back and correct them. Part of the learning from working with editors is to go back and review one’s work with fresh eyes – preferably not one’s own.

    – T

  3. mike

    You’re welcome Trevor and thank you as well.

    People grossly underestimate the amount of craft that goes into serious writing. I routinely subject my longer posts to fifteen, twenty or more rounds of revision. The final published draft usually bears little resemblance to the first one. And you’re right, editing your own work objectively is quite hard. It’s easy to become married to a word, sentence or paragraph, even when it no longer fits.

    To someone enamored with this new freedom, such discipline seems excessive. Why worry about a comma? Why break a sweat over form or verb tense? People will figure out what I mean. Will they? We’ve both seen blog posts and forum entries where the poster didn’t even bother to do a basic review for spelling, let alone grammar. If a writer doesn’t care about his readers or about expressing his thoughts clearly, why should I bother to decipher it?

    I see a strong connection between the quality of writing and the quality of the craft itself. I feel the two have been linked from day one. Simon’s recent post about the dearth of leadership from the press, along with Gerard Fitzgerald’s cogent summary of RMC’s legacy both reflect on this connection.

    This is why I enjoy the blogs I’ve mentioned and publications like the Model Railway Journal.


  4. gfitz

    Hi Mike,

    Than you for your very gracious comments and it is very nice to be included in a conversation with persons such as yourself, Riley, and Trevor among others, who are really giving model railroaders new topics and more importantly new perspectives to approach and think about the hobby.

    As I noted in a comment earlier this week on Iain Robinson’s blog, I think this is an interesting and historic point in the evolution of the hobby and believe that the voices on the blogosphere will do as much as anyone to lead the hobby into new and ever more intriguing and interesting directions. At the same time this is no doubt a stressful time to be editing a main steam print hobby magazine and I wish them all well… but content wise the days when the editor of Model Railroader (Lynn Westcott for instance) would or could set the future direction or boundaries of the hobby are long gone. Having said that I do hope the future includes both “mainstream” magazines -in whatever form- and blogs working together synergistically (somehow…) to the benefit of all involved.

    Your post is extremely insightful and I completely agree that the hobby will benefit from online voices that are strong, coherent, consistent, and most importantly independent. The Internet has changed the hobby culture in ways no one could have predicted although sometimes the constant 24/7 onslaught of information and voices can seem a bit…shall we say chaotic. One of the ways to bring some order to the situation (order may not be the correct word but whatever is needed… just a little of “it’ goes a long way) is of course to put as much as care and thought as possible into what one puts out there on the net.

    The point you make in response to Trevor about how much people underestimate and probably also no doubt undervalue the amount of time, care, and energy that goes into preparing their writing cannot be overstated. I was speaking to someone today about my RMC post and was asked how long did it take to compose. Not being exactly sure I noted it took most of a weekend through all the rewrites and editing sessions. “Wait” said my friend; “You mean you wrote it more than once?” Having helped edit a couple of very specific model railroad genre publications -including the ACL-SAL HS online modeling magazine for about two years- such a response was, sadly, not a complete surprise. That was why I concluded the RMC post with complementing the editing staff at Cartens because I am sure many readers thought (still think?) the content there just came together like instant cake mix in 5 minutes.

    I myself write rather slowly, and edit even more slowly, and as such will probably only post a thought or observation every few weeks at most. Regardless of my tortoise like approach I do hope in the future to be able to help keep contributing in my own small way to this very wonderful dialogue.

    Keep up the great work and thanks again.


  5. Simon

    If a writer doesn’t care about his readers or about expressing his thoughts clearly, why should I bother to decipher it?


    I rarely post or comment (except, maybe, for flippant humour) without several revisions, edits, re-thinkings, re-wordings and sometimes deletions. It isn’t easy! And yes, I worry about where to put commas, etc. Punctuation is a courtesy to the reader, designed to help get my point across. Too many posters don’t see this, too many don’t try. Don’t get me wrong: polished writing is not easy, and I don’t demand it, but I do appreciate an attempt at basic punctuation.

    Personally, I have no worries about the future of the hobby, and independent voices will play a major part in this, but it would be good if the mainstream magazines could lead a little, rather then follow the manufacturers. In the 1970s (in the UK, at least), a lot of the developments in RTR quality were driven by the magazine editors gently pushing the envelope. Nowadays it is hard to distinguish a review from the manufacturer’s promotional blurb.

    The magazines have an important role to play: although their circulation may not be what it was, it is still hundreds of times greater than the readership of my blog. They have a voice. I wish they would use it better (in both senses!)


  6. mike

    Hi Gerard,

    Welcome to the blog and I’m so happy to have you here.

    I agree that we are on the cusp of a turning point in hobby publication. There is little doubt in my mind of the value a well-written blog provides, not only in terms of timeliness but also in point of view.

    Perhaps at this point I should clarify something I said earlier. I draw a distinction between personal blogs written for the sole purpose of sharing the owner’s ideas or modeling, and those like this one, that serve as one component of a business, in my case writing and publishing.

    I do not hold a personal blog to the same standard of frequency or consistency as I do for my own because in my view, the two serve very different intents: one for pleasure, the other a component of commerce.

    Having said that, both serve to communicate in some form and at the least, should adhere to common standards of taking pride in one’s work. As I mentioned in my post, if the writer doesn’t care enough to run a spell check or be otherwise considerate of his readers (think microscopic white text on a black background), why should I bother to do the extra work of deciphering his or her intent?

    Again, a different purpose among the various forms of blogging, but the point remains.

    Many bloggers celebrate their freedom from “heavy-handed editing” when posting. As the editor of O Scale Trains Magazine for three years, I could tell many horror stories of manuscripts we published that were an absolute mess in unedited raw form. I could share episodes where I cut the text of a piece by a third or more because of irrelevant rambling, or the times of second guessing a writer’s intent because of what was left out completely. In all cases there was no time to have the writer redo the piece. The sheer lack of even basic writing skills among contributors was the most eye-opening thing for me in my time there. It was frustrating and at times untenable. We simply had to work with what we had or not print the magazine. We were not unique in this regard.

    My experience of working with professional writers is completely different. Here it’s a collaboration between two people who bring equal skills and mutual respect toward a common goal. Such a collaborative approach is a powerful tool for the growth of writer, editor and readers alike, and is one of the most satisfying experiences the craft offers.

    I have read the comment thread from Iain’s post and I’m surprised and dismayed by how universal this situation seems to be. I wonder if there is a correlation between how far we’ve come from the emphasis of craft and making things and the seeming bias in certain quarters against striving for excellence in any aspect of the hobby? The empty mantra is always the same: it’s just a hobby and we aren’t expected to have the same quality standards as the rest of the world. My burning question is why not?

    I tend to agree that the days when a general interest magazine editor can exercise the bully pulpit to shape the direction or mind-set of readers are perhaps gone from our craft. People are too fragmented into specialized interests and the economics simply won’t allow it, given how much competition is at hand now. But I have seen comments by one that may do more damage in the long run than he realizes.

    I’ll close with this. A truly valuable contribution bloggers make is in the ability to uphold an ideal for others to consider. I’m not here to impose my beliefs on anyone or foolish enough to dictate how to practice this craft. That is for the individual to decide. For my purpose though, I can make the case for a point of view and provide a means of exchange in real time for those who happen to agree. This is the gift that blogging has given us, though sadly, it’s one too often left unopened.

    Thank you for contributing Gerard.


  7. Riley Triggs

    Thanks for the shout out, Mike. I’m feeling very much the same way about the state of the hobby press (and hobby in general) as you are, and I was very pleased to stumble upon your blog a few months ago and find within it a kindred voice. You are definitely providing that broader and more rigorous inspection of the theory and practice of railway modeling.

    Having been fortunate enough to experience an academic writing environment, I can say that I enjoy strong editorial input because it ALWAYS makes my work better. Just as a critical third party eye can help a craftsman model something better, the objective engagement of an editor provides invaluable assistance in shaping content, context and voice of an author.

    Behind any great writer is a great editor, and editors are definitely scarce in the digital age, but I have a feeling that there is a growing desire for quality publications as we tire of the aesthetic of rawness, immediacy and banality.

    I will refrain from making gross generalizations about intellectually lazy Americans and the war on intellectualism, but Gerard and I have both experienced that sting in the hobby where intellectual quality was not only frowned upon, but actively rejected and demonized by prominent members of the community in public displays of bullying and aggression. I think good quality writing (and design) is uncommon in the hobby not only because of the lack of demand for it, but also for an outright spurning of it.

    The European press is miles beyond what we have in the USA, mostly because of more rigorous and more universal education as well as higher cultural sophistication. They still have a few hundred years on us, but it does seem to be nearing a momentum shift here, though, as we have done enough damage to our educational systems that the results will start bearing witness to our missteps. Perhaps then we will seek out better quality and greater substance in more things, including model railroad journalism! All of this aside, one must realize writing does more for the person doing it than for those who read it.

    Writing is, indeed, difficult, as is rigorous and critical thinking to begin with. It is, however, the best process to really understand what one is thinking and feeling. Regular writing (and rewriting) help me expand what I know and care about, as well as refine those ideas that bump around the dark recesses of my mind. Without the act of writing, these thoughts remain unrealized helping neither me nor anyone else.

    Your post has jarred some (more) of those thoughts loose, so I best go try to make some sense of them. It might take a while, though – this comment alone took me two hours to consider, write, edit, and rewrite.
    Cheers, and keep up the good work.

  8. mike

    Hi Riley,

    Obviously agree about the value of objective editing.

    In many ways I think the US hobby is exactly what people have clamored for and reflects the significant changes in American culture. Perhaps we’re not as aware of the scope of these changes having lived through them. Much of what we take for granted in the hobby now was science fiction in our youth.

    As you know, magazine editorial also reflects the status quo more than the cutting edge. The legacy titles are in an increasingly no-win position against the immediacy of digital media. But more, general interest publications almost always default to the lowest denominator to maintain audience share for advertisers. They’re caught in a trap they built themselves.

    What we’re seeing now is a rise of increased specialization and niche interest because of the zero (essentially) distribution costs of digital. For those who want more depth beyond the beginner/intermediate levels, blogs and niche focused work like my Missing Conversation is the answer going forward.

    The possibilities are there for the taking but the biggest obstacle is getting the word out in an ocean of noise and chaos.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.


  9. Matt


    An excellent post, especially for the bloggers like myself. My blog editing needs a major improvement. Far too often I rush myself and do not read everything through like I did in school or when writing for work. The most significant change for me has been adapting my eyes to reading a screen vs. paper. Even reading online is new to me. After the purchase of my iPad, I “forced” myself to read more using the iPad. May sound strange from someone who has used a computer in their profession for 25 years, but it is true.

    So, thank you for the reminder to improve my editing. I certainly will.

    Independent voices. I, for one, am glad to hear them speak out. As Trevor Marshall has pointed out in his blog, S scale is a somewhat forgotten scale. The narrow gauge areas of S scale are even more off the radar of the hobby. Even in On2 the people actively involved in a project are very few, and their collective voice almost unheard unless you know where to look. The internet, blogs, and yahoo groups have been a boom for someone who models a niche gauge, railroad, or time period. Perhaps it has even opened that area up to others who never even considered it until now but will pursue this avenue now.

    It has been the thoughtful posts of the new pioneers in the “independent writer/editor” area of the hobby such as you, Trevor, Riley and others that have inspired the quieter type like me to even think of writing a blog. It is nice to “hear” the independent voices, and recognize the benefit of the conversation.


  10. mike

    Hi Matt,
    So much of what I write concerning publishing is my attempt to understand the massive changes the industry is going through now, with much of it being spawned by the Internet. I don’t have a clue where it’ll wind up, no one does. I do know that writers are re-discovering the power to shape their careers, power they collectively handed over to publishing gatekeepers in exchange for distribution.

    With this post I wasn’t trying to chastise anyone’s writing style or skill levels. I was just sharing lessons I’ve learned in seven years of writing and three years editing at O Scale Trains. And since I charge for the work like TMC, I hold it and myself to higher standards, otherwise I have no right to ask for anyone’s money. I consider myself a life-long student of the craft who is always looking to improve the work.

    A lesson that has gone deep for me is the power words have to inform and shape ideas. This is why I put in the work to edit and rewrite my longer posts so many times. My readers volunteer to return week after week and deserve no less.

    I appreciate yours and others’ participation. It’s what makes the hard work worthwhile.


  11. Jimbofin

    I wonder if it is the case that there is no longer room for the voice of an authoritative editor in the model press? Is it that they are held back from saying what they really want to say by fear of alienating readers and advertisers or is that editors simply have less to say and less claim to be experts in their field? And if they have anything to say would they be listened to, or would they be attacked for their efforts? I rather fear the latter is more likely.Should that be more likely or most likely? We all need editors.

    What does seem clear is that in the short term we will have a hybrid model, with a mix of high street magazines, individuals promoting their own independent but authoritative view, and the forums that will continue you to be a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Personally I find even those forums that attract a lot of justified criticism can be immensely useful as an aid to research on a specific topic.

    Incidentally if you can get hold of a copy I suspect many of you will enjoy Shelley Gare’s “Triumph of the Airheads.”

    Years ago the RM used to run a regular Junior Modeller article featuring layouts built by teenagers. It crossed my mind that one reason CJF did it was to discourage submissions from adult authors whose own layouts were on a par with those featured in it.


  12. Jimbofin

    I do feel I need to explain the multiple typos in most of my comments.I suffer from a condition that means my mind doesn’t sequence things correctly. Generally I pick them up myself on my own blog, eventually, but instant messaging and comment features that don’t allow post posting editing are my downfall.


  13. mike

    I read your recent blog post Jim. Not to worry, you’re among friends here.


  14. mike

    Hi Jim,
    We’ve certainly seen a shift in culture, online and off. It seems we all have to be one big happy family now and any dissenting voice is shouted down by the self-appointed mob.

    There’s a mentality about the craft now that refuses to accept any criticism, regardless of how valid it is. Everyone is an expert now even when they’re clueless.

    I agree with your notion of publishing moving into a hybrid model. The remaining general press will cater to the mass market, while increasing numbers of specialist publications, in the form of curated blogs, tightly focused ezines and the like, will come into being. What I’m doing here is a prime example.

    I don’t spend much time on forums anymore. I left one dedicated group because trolls who had no interest in P48 modeling made any serious discussion a shouting match. It seems to be the case that forums get taken over by such people who must flaunt their ego everywhere. However, well run blogs allow like-minded people to find each other and form a community around their shared interests.