Letter to the Editor and Reply, with Extra Salt

A letter to the editor in the January 2021 Fine Scale Modeler (paywalled) criticized the magazine for not covering that most evergreen of topics, The Death of the Hobby, and in reply, the FSM editor admonished readers to expect entertainment from FSM, not actual journalism on the scale modeling industry or its culture.

The letter writer charged that FSM has downplayed the significance of the twin demises of Wingnut Wings and the Testors paint brand, along with the aging of plastic modelers, which the letter writer further asserted are indisputable indications of the decline of the scale modeling hobby, AKA The Death of the Hobby. (More on that shortly)

Fine Scale Modeler editor Aaron Skinner offered some factually correct but desultory talking points about churn in the hobby business, and then dropped this little turd in the punchbowl to remind readers that

FSM is not a news magazine, we are a hobby magazine. Rather than report statistics, we want to focus on information and stories to help readers build better models using all of the great kits, paints, tools, supplies, and references available today.

Fine Scale Modeler, January 2021, p.7

By copping to the ‘we don’t report news’ plea, FSM isn’t doing as much as it should to add value for its modeling audience or kill fear mongering about The Death of the Hobby. To be fair, The Death of the Hobby is indeed an evergreen topic.  The Plastic Model Mojo podcast thoroughly litigated the topic over a couple of recent episodes (disclaimer: I am quoted extensively). PMM co-host David Knights, who is a few years older than me, says he has been hearing about the death of plastic modeling since the 70s or 80s, and that tracks with my experience on the floor of a big Chicagoland hobby shop back in the early 90s.  Model railroaders fret about it, too. 

By taking this passive role, FSM is missing an opportunity for leadership in hobby media and falling short of its parent company Kalmbach’s legacy of popularizing and advancing the model-building hobbies. (FSM‘s much older sister magazine, Model Railroader, has been running since 1934)  Real news about the shuttering of Wingnut Wings came from online forums and podcasts like On The Bench, not FSM or other established hobby media. Cynical folklore and conspiracy theories like the letter writer’s persist, arguably in part because an outlet with the authority, credibility, and reach of FSM didn’t forthrightly report the story. 

Checking in on the Wingnut Wings saga as a leading indicator of our hobby’s health, one can’t help but think of Mark Twain: rumors of Wingnut Wings’ and our hobby’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Turns out Wingnut Wings kits have already started to re-appear in Meng packaging. Apparently, Wingnut Wings’ state-of-the art tooling had resided in China all along, another example of how China has supplanted Japan as center of cutting-edge model kit manufacturing. From a certain viewpoint, this development suggests that Wingnut Wings was not quite the powerhouse of Western hobby manufacturing–akin to Monogram in its late-70s 1/48 heyday–many had imagined, and was more of a well-funded importer or brand than an actual manufacturer, not unlike a 70s-80s-era Minicraft, Entex, or Testors that brought Hasegawa, Fujimi, Italeri, and other foreign kits to market in North America. I’m not an economist, but Wingnut Wings’ departure from the scene could eventually lead to lower prices by reducing middle-man costs. Hopefully, Meng will pick up where Wingnut Wings left off with high-quality instructions, decals, and packaging. Queue Monty Python: not dead yet!

The other disappointing bit in Aaron the Editor’s salty reply was his poo-pooing the possibility of reporting on statistics, and by implication, reporting on scale modeling industry and culture. Modelers love to build models, but in my expericene modelers love gabbing about the model business even more, suggesting that there is a healthy appetite for good reporting on where kits and supplies come from. Fine Scale Modeler could undoubtedly provide some insightful and entertaining reporting, for example, on how hobby retailing and manufacturing is changing, instead of passively allowing rumors and speculation on The Death of the Hobby to fester. I suspect that if FSM were to put a business reporter or data scientist on the beat, available data from Ebay, Google, Scalemates, and other online sources would actually paint a very upbeat picture about the hobby market. That could be an interesting and entertaining ‘Freakonomics‘-style story or even regular column in FSM

To be fair, reporting on the dirty little secrets of the hobby industry could be risky for FSM. The revenue model of nearly every magazine, including FSM, is supported overwhelmingly by paid advertisement, not subscribers or newsstand sales. Finescale Modeler is a small operation, and the hobby industry is a small world. A story seen as unflattering could result in cancellation of a major FSM advertisement deal, or hurt FSM‘s access to news about new products. (Think about that, all you Elizabeth Nash fans!)  

If that’s not enough anxiety for the FSM masthead, social media is challenging the magazine business, in much the same way e-commerce is challenging small retail. (Bought a camera in an actual camera shop outside of New York City or San Francisco lately? Probably not, because camera shops are right next to local hobby shops up in small retail heaven.) If you listen to modeling podcasts, subscribe to YouTube channels like Doogs Models or Nightshift or Plasmo, and doom-scroll Scalemates, modeling forums, and Facebook groups, and then you are already sucked into FSM‘s competition for modeling eyeballs. As a business optimized to put out a dozen or so issues per year of print magazines with advertising, FSM has a proven business model adapted from decades of model railroad publishing success. It’s ill-equipped to replicate the grass-roots (and mostly free) success of a popular podcast or YouTube channel, whose hosts can badmouth model manufacturers more or less without consequence. Straying away from its proclaimed orientation of “Let Us Entertain You!” (FSM‘s words, not mine) would pile on even more risk at an uncertain time.

Fine Scale Modeler was–and still is–a big part of my scale modeling universe. I even have had a byline there, and I look forward to every new edition. I’ve been a more or less regular reader since its earliest days, and I think it could better live up to its promise if it threaded the needle of entertaining us–as well as reporting on our hobby, its people, and its industry. Meanwhile, I suppose I will have to keep listening to podcasts and doomscrolling modeling groups and forums to figure out what’s going on the world of scale modeling.

15 comments

  1. Well said! Evergreen is right – I’ve been hearing about the death of the hobby pretty much since 2007 when I got back into it. I’ve always enjoyed these prediction in the midst of the platinum age of scale models and I wrote about it a while ago. My thinking is that yes, the hobby as we may have understood it back in the day (models marketed to kids and available at drugstores and supermarkets) is very likely dead.

    But so what? The hobby has grown up and changed. The products are better than they have ever been. And there is more available through a different means of distribution.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. ModelAirplaneMaker, your assessment is spot-on that hobby retailing just looks different than in the past era of kits and glue in drug stores and hobby shops in every town. Would that Finescale Modeler, in its hobby booster/cheerleader role, get out in front of the negative nellies who keep saying the hobby is dead.

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  2. Your comment on making advertisers mad is spot on. A long long time ago Model Railroader had an article where the writer said he used stove black instead of paint on metal steam locomotive bodies. A paint manufacturer got mad and quit advertising.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with ModelAirplane Maker. The hobby has evolved, not languished. For one thing the advent of online hobby shops has revolutionized the way we shop. Facebook groups and other online forums have revolutionized how we communicate. Slide molding and other techniques have revolutionized model kits themselves. And the array of tools, paints, glues, and finishing products has never been bigger. The hobby isn’t dying; in fact it’s thriving.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Robert, I agree emphatically that the hobby is thriving! While I miss hanging out in hobby shops—particularly picking over a paint rack—I’d rather have the endless selection of kits and supplies currently available online. I also prefer today’s opportunities to conveniently buy and sell kits online with other modelers via eBay and Facebook, instead of relying on a few hit-or-miss swap meets a few times per year. Finescale Modeler would do better to actually cover the revolution in scale modeling than pretend it’s not worth covering.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well said! The Main Stream Media in all it’s forms is passing into irrelevance, the result of self-inflicted editorial miscalculations and passing off opinions and slanted reporting as news. The replacement is the long-form podcast – when interviews hosted by an MMA commentator reliably get more views (and contain more factual information) than anything on broadcast or cable “news” shows the end is in sight.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent summary and something that is rightly generating a lot of conversation,

    We are going to talk about this topic on The Scale Model Podcast this week as it is one of the primary reasons I wanted to start a modelling related podcast. The hobby industry like many other ones have had to adapt and evolve. I have heard ‘the death of the hobby is here’ in so many hobby spaces and every single time, it has not died. It has been forced to evolve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stuart, thanks for your reply and kind words! I am a regular listener to your podcast and look forward to each new episode. Thanks to you and Anthony for walking the talk with your excellent mix of conversation, news, and interviews. Let’s do what Finescale Modeler won’t, or can’t, or just doesn’t want to do ourselves!

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  6. Great points, Steve!
    I’ll add that Kalmbach already knows how to do this. “Trains” magazine bridges the gap between the hobby side – those who like to look at, photograph/video, and learn about trains – and those who actually work in the industry. Or at least they used to: I’m not sure about today but at one time it was essential reading for railroad management, included solid columns on regulation, and would carry business-to-business advertising alongside stories about railfan safaris and Bull session reminiscing. So the template is there: Kalmbach has done it before.
    I do not think any company, in any sector, would be offended if the magazine’s mission included giving them a voice to share their successes and explain their setbacks – as long as those companies feel they’re being treated fairly and accurately. The small ecosystem works in the favour of established media too.
    Keep up the great work!

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  7. I haven’t read this issue of FSM yet in my public library reader, so something to look forward too! As you say, Model Railroading (my primary interest, I still dabble in plastic kit building) has been “dying” since before I was born in the 1970’s depending on who you talk to. I certainly remember a more robust network of hobby shops in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (doesn’t seem that long ago when you type it) that are largely all gone now as the world has changed around them. I know I am lucky to live in Toronto, where we have several good plastic and railroad modelling stores, and “niche” stores focused on Japanese products (gundam etc) or war gaming that also have great tool and paint selections, for when one can shop in person again!

    I have certainly seen and heard the kind of closeted thought that prevents FSM from tackling the hard issues in Model Railroader as well. I know for a fact that a manufacturer of supplies for hand building switches would not get mentioned in articles until they became an advertiser, then, magically articles started referencing using their jigs and supplies by name instead of just saying “hand laid”.

    Nice work though, Trevor pointed me to your blog, I look forward to taking the time in the next couple of days to read through all your posts.

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