“It’s hard to classify the Remington R51 as anything other than the best new compact 9 mm handgun on the market.” That’s the official word from Richard Mann, reviewing the R51 in Shooting Illustrated magazine‘s June edition. The seven-page review (eight including the cover, which features a beauty shot of Big Green’s latest effort) has nothing but glowing reports of Remington’s new handgun — there nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for the firearm. Par for the course in terms of the established print magazines, but the vast disparity between the R51 as presented in the article and the Hindenberg re-enactment that it’s been shown to be has highlighted the continuing decline of journalistic integrity that reigns in the dead tree gun mag world . . .
There’s an inherent problem with gun magazines and that problem is advertising. The things are so expensive to produce, from paying full-time writers to printing and distributing the books, the only way they can survive is by selling expensive, glossy ad space to the gun companies. While this may have started out with the best of intentions, over time it has turned the “review” into just another ad.
According to every PR person I’ve managed to liquor up, the gun mags (and the NRA in particular) are strictly a “pay for play” proposition. Manufacturers pay a certain amount of money for ads over the course of a year, and the magazines give them a proportional level of coverage. Kick in some more money and you get a review. For a few dollars more the review is featured on the cover. It’s a straightforward symbiotic arrangement, one that is well known within the industry.
The problem for gun magazines arises when they are asked to review a gun that doesn’t live up to the hype. When I interviewed for an editor’s position with American Rifleman a while back, their approach was made crystal clear: if a gun is a POS, they won’t say a single word. It goes back to the manufacturer, the review is spiked and no one breathes a word of it ever again. It’s a clear, straightforward arrangement when a magazine’s existence depends on the continued support of the firearms manufacturers since pissing one of them off with a bad review might mean shutting the publication down and everyone losing their jobs. That’s a huge incentive to keep the happy talk flowing.
So when Shooting Illustrated announced that they were putting the R51 on the cover of their latest edition, the response from their Facebook fans was predictable. Moving at internet speed, hundreds of thousands of people had already read our R51 review and MAC’s similar experience, and figured out for themselves that at the very least this was a gun with some serious QC issues. Those issues have turned out to be so catastrophic and universal that Remington is rumored to be on the verge of a recall — just as soon as they figure out how to fix the damned things. Which they apparently haven’t.
The backlash from their own readership about the blatant sale of their front page was so intense that Shooting Illustrated felt the need to post an article defending their position.
Simply put, the R51 was a major introduction for 2014 worthy of coverage by any outlet. We provided an honest review from someone who knows what he’s writing about. If other individuals experienced difficulty with their R51s, that is certainly something they should report, but again, the reason they are reporting on it at all is because the gun is interesting and worthy of coverage.
In short, they’re passing the buck. Shooting Illustrated claims to be covering the R51 because it’s popular, and the content of the review is the honest opinion of their writer. But here we run into another issue.
Even if we take SI’s word that they are only putting the R51 on the cover because of the popularity of the gun (Freedom Group did indeed purchase advertisements within the issue as well, just none for Remington specifically this time), the writer still isn’t exactly insulated from the manufacturer’s influence.
Writers in the magazine world generally only get paid if their stories are printed. In an environment where “we don’t publish negative reviews” is clearly communicated from the very first interview, the writers know full well what’s expected of them. Negative reviews will not be published, so they only write positive reviews. And for a firearm with as much media hype as the R51, not publishing isn’t an option.
And there’s another influence bearing down on this writer. You can even see hints of it in his article. Grok this:
In December 2013, the Remington R51 made its debut at Gunsite. Several writers expressed high praise for the pistol and, thanks to my charming personality, I garnered the first independent field-test of the R51.
What the author doesn’t say is that the Gunsite event he mentions was a Remington-funded junket extended to writers they trusted to give them positive press. Big Green picked up the tab for everything including airfare and hotels. They provided the writers with samples that had been pre-selected and were certain to work. And they pampered them for days on end. It’s no wonder that the early reviews of the gun were so glowing.
In that kind of a situation, the rules of the game are crystal clear. Play ball and give us a good review, or your invitation to the next press event will get “lost in the mail.” For a writer who has to worry about deadlines often set months in advance of an issue’s publication, getting your hands on the product before it’s even released is critical to getting the story. No early gun, no story, no paycheck, no food on the table.
In almost any other line of business, I wouldn’t be so concerned about this arrangement. It’s the same game that’s played with golf clubs, cigars, boats…anything else people pick up a magazine to read about. The difference here — and the reason why this is so unacceptable — is that people’s lives are on the line. If a writer pens a puff piece about the latest Ford Focus, the worst that’s likely to happen (short of a Pinto-like fireball) is it spends a lot of time in the shop and you trade it in. Quickly. With guns it’s a different story, especially with a firearm designed for the concealed carry market.
The R51 is a firearm that people are going to trust with their lives. One they’ll depend on to protect them when their life is on the line. Despite the massively negative reviews that the gun is getting online and the hundreds of personal accounts from R51 owners having to send their guns back, there isn’t a single mention about the possible issues with the firearm in the dead tree press. How could there be? The slightest whiff of a negative comment could mean losing Freedom Group’s truckloads of ad revenue and getting black-listed down the road. So SI’s review — as it would be with Gun & Ammo, Handguns and American Rifleman — was pre-determined.
Bottom line, there’s no longer any room for journalistic integrity in the print world. Blogs like TTAG, along with YouTube channels and independent Facebook pages, are eating their lunch. “New media” are pulling readers away from the traditional rags, giving readers the content they want for free. With an ever-declining readership, the mags no longer have a monopoly on gun owners’ eyeballs. The same manufacturers can get more eyeballs on their ads online for less money than the magazines can offer, so monthlies have to fight to keep every last ad dollar. They need to cater to the manufacturers’ every whim to keep the doors open.
In that kind of environment then, it’s no wonder that Shooting Illustrated published their rose-tinted R51 review. That’s their business model. There’s no other alternative for them if they want to keep the magazine up and running — and issuing paychecks. Their response was also predictable, doing their best Baghdad Bob impression.
Consumers aren’t the target for the gun mags, it’s the manufacturers that are their true customers. Gun buyers become collateral damage as the rags suck up the last remaining advertising dollars they can as they wither and die a slow and painful death.
There is another business model, though. Magazines like Recoil are the exception to the rule, and it looks like the others are beginning to following suit. Instead of relying reviews and objective journalism, Recoil is to guns what Top Gear is to cars. Pretty pictures, some articles most people will probably gloss over, and loads of pretty gun porn. That appears to be the future of print gun media and Iain Harrison has it pretty well figured out. The problem is that magazines like Shooting Illustrated are still trying to style themselves as journalists instead of what they really are: compilations of advertorials separated by page after page of glossy ads.