The key to understanding outdoor magazines - which I both read and write for - is that they exist to sell advertising. This is neither an indictment nor something unique: Virtually all periodicals except nonprofits depend on ad sales for their survival. The advantage of a large circulation comes not from income, but as bait to lure more and bigger advertisers and justify steeper ad rates.
Among outdoor magazines, the
stars are the so-called Big Three: Field and Stream, Outdoor Life
and Sports Afield. All are published in New York City, all have
been around for a century or more, and all are general-interest
slicks shooting to be all things to all outdoorsmen - and
increasingly, outdoorswomen. All operate on the "service article"
triad of how-to, where-to and product hype.
Browse any of the Big Three or their plentiful competitors, and
you'll see monthly columns on how to improve your skills in
hunting, fishing, shooting, boating, woodcraft and more.
Gadget-related columns carry such straightforward titles as "New
Gear Review" and "Vehicles," and either directly or indirectly
complement the ads that consume roughly 50 percent of all healthy
To their credit, the Big
Three also carry regular coverage of conservation and ethics
issues. The opinions and information expressed in these columns,
features and print-bites, however, vary tremendously in insight and
accuracy. Even so, it's more than is offered by most other magazine
genres, which find it commercially convenient to ignore issues that
could cost them income.
Like the columns,
hook-and-bullet "feature" articles follow the seasons: "Spring
turkey tips," "Summer bass hot-spots," "Fall big game bonanza,"
"Winter ice fishing." As one editor recently admitted, "We've been
recycling the same "How to get your deer" story for a hundred years
In their early days, the Big Three
offered hunting, fishing and adventure stories, plenty of
conservation coverage and a conspicuous absence of commercial hype.
Back then, sportsmen necessarily relied on woodcraft, skill,
patience and hard work. Consequently, they were more serious and
deserving of respect than today's gear-laden poseurs and
By the end of World War II, as
hunter-conservationist Aldo Leopold complained, the outdoor media
had "turned billboard for the gadgeteer." But - an important point
if we are to maintain objectivity - so had all of
Today, following the style popularized
by USA Today, the Big Three hold most articles to 2,000 words or
less, employ lots of sidebars and flashy graphics, and otherwise
cater to the well-founded assumption that the average American
reader has an attention span shorter than his nose. And, too
(thinking goes), the briefer your articles, the more of them you
can cram into X number of pages. Good if you're looking for a
variety of fast information, but frustrating for serious readers
In these days of political
correctness, true-believerism and ideological polarity, it's
tempting to view hunting - and the publications that champion it -
as either good or bad. It's not that simple. And nowhere is the
complexity clearer than in the wildly democratic pages of the
hook-and-bullet press. Below are necessarily subjective profiles of
five leaders in the field.
FIELD AND STREAM: Founded in 1895, Field and Stream is the most
widely read men's monthly of any genre. The proud owner is Times
Mirror (which, ironically, competes against itself with Outdoor
Life). The statistically average reader of Field and Stream is a
40-year-old, middle-class male. In 1996, the magazine boasted sales
of more than 1.7 million copies per issue, with a pass-along
readership of nearly 13 million.
Times Mirror senior vice president Jason E. Klein, Field and Stream
is the world's leading "outdoor lifestyle" magazine. "The best
outdoor photographers want to get their images on our pages, and
the best writers want to write for us."
and Stream is indeed a handsome product. My primary criticism is
with the publication's "conservation" coverage as voiced by
columnist George Reiger - whose hostility toward professional
wildlife management and strenuous wildlife law enforcement strikes
me as myopic, misguided, self-serving and ... well, scary. And,
hardly compatible with Field and Stream's self image as "the soul
of the American outdoors."
OUTDOOR LIFE: Outdoor Life readers number more than 1.3 million
paid, about 5.4 million total, and are demographically
indistinguishable from consumers of its sister publication. Nor are
the magazines themselves strikingly different. Klein, who oversees
both, interprets the distinction thus: While Field and Stream aims
to evoke the "feel and texture" of outdoor sport, Outdoor Life
emphasizes service articles and adventure.
Regrettably, Outdoor Life's idea of portraying adventure has been
to present nature as hostile and threatening - as evidenced by the
long-running cartoon misadventure feature "This Happened to Me,"
and such testosterone-soaked cover blurbs as "Grizzly Terror,"
"Cougars that Hunt People" and "Horrible Hyenas." Cover art follows
suit, leading one to wonder what Outdoor Life would do for covers
without its snarling bears, snarling African lions, snarling
cougars and snarling coyotes. A lot of readers I know find such
blatant appeals to machismo juvenile and embarrassing. Yet Klein
reports that Outdoor Life's fierce creatures are "extremely
Regarding ethical, environmental and
political issues, Klein says that Outdoor Life has no
across-the-board stance, but takes positions as it sees fit.
Historically, those positions have been all over the map, including
the enthusiastic endorsement of that bogus "sportsmen's friend,"
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Young and his cronies in the
Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, with enthusiastic support from
such "hunter's rights' groups as the Archery Manufacturer's
Organization (AMO) and Wildlife Legislative Fund of America (WLFA),
have proven adept at tricking outdoorsmen into believing they're on
the same team. Outdoor Life (and others), in the past has fallen
for and furthered the hoax.
I see a lot of
potential for Outdoor Life, if only it can figure out what it wants
to stand for and garner the courage (and permission from its
owners) to stand for it. My hope is that this second-largest of the
hook-and-bullet press will continue laboring to be the courageous,
intelligent, lead-don't-follow publication it was becoming under
Stephen Byers, the editor-in-chief who resigned when management
(buckling to pressure generated by WLFA) yanked Tom Beck's essay
critical of bear baiting. Byers' replacement is Todd Smith
(formerly of Petersen's Hunting). I wish him luck, dignity and
SPORTS AFIELD: Established in 1887, Sports
Afield bills itself as "the magazine for today's sportsman."
Editor-in-chief and publisher Terry McDonell recalls that the
mandate he was given by the Hearst Corporation when hired some
years ago was simply to "make the magazine profitable," which it
wasn't at the time. "Hearst knew my history," says McDonell, "with
Outside, Smart, Esquire and Esquire Sportsman, so they probably had
an idea what I would do. Mostly, I wanted to apply some basic,
old-fashioned journalistic disciplines ... good writing,
Under McDonell, Sports Afield
has become aggressively political. "We relentlessly promote the
idea that serious sportsmen are dedicated conservationists; to fail
to understand that is to miss the whole point of what's been going
on since Teddy Roosevelt."
contributors' list bulges with talent, celebrity and authority (not
to imply the three always coincide), including Jim Harrison, Thomas
McGuane, Tim Cahill and Russell Chatham - none of them regulars,
but well worth hanging around for. While not neglecting his
"service" base, McDonell has bolstered the magazine's credibility
with vigorous ethics and conservation coverage, largely through the
reasoned and informed voices of columnists Ted Kerasote (-Eco
Watch') and Susan Zakin (-Outdoor Rights').
its competitors, Sports Afield has traditionally attracted a mostly
male readership, fortyish and middle-class. But that's changing,
says McDonell. "Income and education are going up, and age is
dropping a little."
When I commented to
McDonell that he was conducting a brave and dangerous experiment by
introducing strong environmental and political themes, some of
which spit in the face of AMO/WLFA-mandated "correctness," he
responded, "I don't think so. Hunters have been negatively
stereotyped for so long now that it's almost impossible to see
reality any more. I'm absolutely convinced that sportsmen care more
about the natural world than almost any other group. Their
connection to nature is direct."
that optimism is the fact that under McDonell, Sports Afield's
"numbers' are all well up.
GRAY'S SPORTING JOURNAL: Gray's Sporting Journal is widely
considered the classiest act in hook-and-bullet prints. The writing
is consistently literate, and the art and photography are
spectacular enough to prompt my discerning spouse to ventilate each
issue with scissors before I'm allowed to pass it along to
To its credit, Gray's eschews how-to
articles. This, along with a stiff cover price, may explain why
paid circulation runs only about 40,000. In outdoor journalism as
in art, quality doesn't assure an audience, and vice
Montanan John Barsness, who recently
resigned as editor of Gray's to pursue a full-time writing career,
recalls that in 1992, "we did a big demographic study and learned
that our average reader was between 40 and 50, had a household
income of $125,000, and often a graduate degree. He or she was
mostly into fly fishing and upland bird hunting, but also
interested in waterfowl and big game. And Gray's readers travel
more than do subscribers to other outdoor
expect from Gray's," Barsness concludes, "is vicarious experience
and an illumination of the human condition."
BUGLE: What I like best about Bugle, the
journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is that it, more than
any other hunting periodical, focuses on such "peripheral" themes
as natural history; it offers frank discussion of hunting ethics
and wildlife management, and selects hunting stories that view
"success' as a matter of quality of overall experience. Bugle also
gives its writers plenty of room to roam. Of the five magazines
discussed here, Bugle alone is published by a nonprofit. Of its
150,000-plus quarterly copies (soon to be bimonthly), about 102,000
go to foundation members; the remainder sell briskly on newsstands
nationwide. Pulling opposite the Big Three philosophy even more
vigorously than Gray's, Bugle shuns the entire triad of how-to,
where-to and product-plugging - yet it's always fat with profitable
Like Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited,
the elk foundation's mission is to squeeze money from members and
corporate grantors (and Bugle advertisers), and put it to work "on
the ground" to benefit elk and other (often nonhunted) wildlife - a
hunter's Nature Conservancy, as it were. In its first 12 years, the
group has raised over $50 million to fund more than 1,300
conservation projects affecting nearly 2 million acres of
According to editor Dan Crockett,
Bugle's primary goals are "to encourage the highest ethical hunting
behavior and to foster a deep love and respect for the land, the
wildlife it supports and the outdoor experience." In all of that it
Petersen is the editor of A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on
Bloodsport. He lives in rural southwest