By Eric Killorin
In the golden age of computing—early 1980s to be precise—I had the good fortune to join Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) as the lone market analyst and writer among a sea of network engineers. DEC’s Writing for the Reader became a constant companion for navigating the sea of narrative uncertainty. I wrote for techies and laymen alike during the era’s transformation from scientific machines to consumer products. How prescient its theme is today!
We are bombarded with the mantra “Content is King” to the accepting nods of publishers, journalists, and marketers. Yet is content all it’s cracked up to be? Is content now so ubiquitous and accessible that it no longer holds regal status? With social media unleashing millions of wannabe writers, publishers, and photographers inhabiting playgrounds like Facebook and Twitter, can the professional high ground of trained journalists maintain their relevance? With a growing print obsolescence, can publishers afford full time staffers or even freelancers? In a nutshell, is the golden age of editorial vanishing?
Perhaps now is time to revisit content in the context of what it is today: A tool for consumers to express themselves… writing for the reader! And, for automotive writers, let’s also examine ways to leverage your experience and skills in this brave new world.
Content is So Valuable Its Free
Without the story there’s little reader traction, right? In some markets, automotive in particular, “ads are editorial” providing as much a red-pen experience as sheer entertainment. Direct response marketing contains its own rules for communicating and closing the sale. So too with engaging prose on the car industry we know and love. Describe a Ferrari barn find, or predict what eventually comes true (GM bankruptcy anyone?), and you had a reader for life.
Social media, beginning with message boards and forums in the late nineties, to blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and Pinterest, has changed the nature and distribution of content. Content is no longer the haven of staff-written articles dispensed as one-way communications from publishers to readers. Today, 50-word sound bites from anyone anywhere are the method of choice. A gallery of mobile phone images from Indy, or a burst of videos from Pebble Beach get the job done. Everyone is an unpaid observer of events, willing and eager to click their content over to a few thousand followers.
A July 16 post at Newsasour explores this phenomenon in the context of what I term the publishing equivalent of a Star Trek convention: Weird societies meeting by secret handshakes hoping their world will rise once again.
Their (traditional publishers) views were shaped in the pre-interactive era, when journalists, in their sole discretion, decided who to cover, what to report, what to write and when to publish it. Apart from the occasional crayon-scribbled note that arrived in the mail, readers seldom talked back, leaving little reason to doubt the work was being well received. This led to the ill-advised belief that journalists, in their sole discretion, were wise enough to know what readers wanted, whether they really wanted it or not.
Unfortunately, this type of one-way, prescriptive thinking suffuses journo-futuramas. But it is seriously out of step with the real world, where readers not only can talk back to the media but also publish news and commentary on their own. Politicians, entertainers, marketers and even humble hockey moms can bypass the legacy news media by establishing direct, one-to-one connections with their intended audiences.
This new democracy is not unlike that bygone era of computing where monolith mainframes ceded to “distributed computing,” or peer-to-peer. More so today where every mobile device is a node of power just as capable as the next person’s. Our world of publishing is perhaps 30 years behind but the parallels are uncanny: The traditional publisher/reader relationship is that of a few big machines dispensing information to many little machines. But no more. Readers themselves are dominating the creation and distribution of content. Enter the era of Audience.
Look no further than new media models that seek to rapidly amass large audiences and where the revenue model sits on the back burner. With Facebook’s 900 million users and growing—and all that mined data—there’s gotta be a bazillion-dollar business there somewhere, right?
Pinterest is the latest incarnation of this scary new trend where a zero revenue status at this hot new crafts sharing site is a badge of courage: $150+M in venture funding, 15M+ registered members, less than two years in business, zero income. Get big fast and forestall competitors; revenues will come later.
By creating new online centers of gravity, the new membership armies are the new content providers. They pay nothing for membership and thus become the product. And with the web becoming an increasingly visual medium, count on user-supplied images and videos to lead the story. Quick, easy, and zero cost to the reader. “Free” continues to have bragging rights as our language’s most powerful word.
The automotive sector is dangerously vulnerable as we’ve seen with Road & Track moving to the Detroit home of Car & Driver followed by the likely melding of the titles (R&T has dropped 90K circ since 2008, C&D over 80K). Competitors Automobile and MotorTrend are not far behind. (Frankly, what’s in their pages of any timely relevance?) On the collector side we have the former “Bible” Hemmings Motor News practicing an online strategy that restricts digital delivery for the sake of print fulfillment, and a classified ad policy delaying ad publication by as much as 30 days. I’ll do eBay, thank you.
AutoTrader ceases all print last year to fully devote their resources online. AutoWeek is now, ah, bi-weekly to the tune of a reader class action lawsuit. Old Cars Weekly has reduced full time staff to one, and Automobile Quarterly’s average reader age is 70+. Street rodders are among the most savvy online information seekers (anyone check out H.A.M.B. lately?) so what’s gonna happen to Hot Rod? Of the 280+ automotive publications’ I’ve tracked at Car Pub Insider since 2007, just 170 made it through my last census in March.
But wait, you say that these vaunted pubs boast websites chock full of advertising, feature articles, photos, blogs, and everything a web-enabled reader craves? Therein lays the conundrum: today’s consumers have no interest in print brand legacies, sub pitches, a decision tree of ad placement options, and magazine pages stuffed onto an iPad. Drag channel conflict into the consumer mix is no recipe for capturing business. Consumers simply want to speed date fellow enthusiasts.
So What’s a Writer to Do?
Writers can harness new media in ways never before possible. For those fortunate enough to have a steady stream of lucrative gigs, stick with it knowing even that gravy train has an end. For most, hiring publishers simply don’t have the budget, or so dumbed down the payment structure that even college interns are looking elsewhere. In both cases plan to be your own brand where valued contacts and public reputation will distinguish yourself. Despite today’s free flow of information, only you can tell a story your way and stories still matter.
Yeah, we’re competing with scores of unleashed amateurs with dubious skills, but through competition the breed improves. Here’s a few points to consider:
1. You’re on Your Own. Demand is shrinking for professional writers earning lucrative fees and travel expenses. Distinguish yourself by storyline, research techniques, knowledge, and contacts to build a unique edge. Your personality as a writer has as much to do with content than the facts and figures filling the page. We are not Ken Purdy or David E., but many of us have hidden talents for transforming The History of the Dodge Brothers into a page turner. Check out Mike Cannell’s The Limit and see what I mean.
2. Promote Yourself. Establish a Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr presence. It is free and easy, but time consuming as much as half a day to keep current. Write little and often. Join the conversation on related user postings including car mags. Make a continuous and regular impact with your target audience.
3. Become a Brand Merchant. If George Forman can sell Panini makers, you can be a spokesman for Tire Rack. By demonstrating an ability to inform and sway, companies will be eager to enlist your influence peddling in creative new ways. No joke, the holy grail of product placement is enabling everyday consumers. Be the lynchpin in this new stealth sales model.
4. E-books. For writers, e-books are today’s version of that famous line in The Graduate: “plastics.” But I’m not talking long-winded tombs for thirty bucks a pop. Deconstruct a typical book into chapter titles priced at 99 cents. Or take a small slice of an automotive subject and you’ve got a 30-pager in a couple days effort. Have a collection of neat photos? Publish photo essay titles similar to the Iconografix series; they’ll look terrific on an iPad. Hand it over to Amazon or choose among scores of self-publishing firms for sale and download, then move to the next one.
5. Get Paid. Okay, so you’re the hot property on every car nut’s touch screen and people seek you out for advice. You’re writing every day and even The New York Times quotes your pithy remarks. So where’s the beef? By establishing your credentials within a specific segment, speaking and consulting engagements are the natural next steps. For us wordsmiths the venues are abundant. Auction companies are always on the look out for catalog writers, “authorities” for vetting auction vehicles, and some even pay travel and daily fees to be onsite and help move the metal. Automotive companies may have the R&D and production side figured out, but how effective are they at grassroots consumer persuasion in this new digital arena? Your boots-on-the-ground experience is invaluable here. And the big opportunity will take place online itself as automotive manufacturers and the thousands of SEMA market vendors seek innovative methods for reaching their audiences. Know 1% more than your employer and he’ll see you as an expert.
The New Face of Publishing
I began this article from the perspective that content is a commodity and where audience development is the new gold standard. As such, writers should leverage the power of audience to generate new demand for their services. We must also accept an erosion of the publishing model itself.
Newspapers and magazines served a purpose, but no longer. The new face of publishing is that of an electronic aggregator of like-minded consumers who converse, share, and acquire. They will become the new salespeople for branded category merchandise. Add the immediate propagation of posted content simultaneously across multiple forums; one can only embrace this for the quantum leap of progress it is. For those longing for the way it used to be, take note: These are the good old daze. Make them yours!