In Defense of Automotive Journalism

The plentitude of pixels has muted the old saw, “don’t get in a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel” as PR pro John McCandless evidences in his response to Jack Baruth’s April Tom-Tom. Baruth proposed, “auto journalism as we know it should die.”

 McCandless, who has PR in his blood (his father was an ace practitioner in his time) has been in automotive PR with Chrysler, American Motors and Toyota where he is now National Manager, Corporate Communications Field Operations. He also rose through the ranks as a communications officer with the U.S. Navy Reserve, retiring as a captain in 1999. He recently won praise for his frank discussion of Toyota’s communications problems with graduate students in the University of Michigan’s School of Management.


In Defense Of Automotive Journalism

Oh No! A free trip will bring down all of automotive journalism.

Autowriters.com Tom-Tom: John McCandless, Toyota PR
John McCandless

I hope Jack Baruth is a better racer than he is a reporter. His recent rant demonstrated little knowledge or talent for the latter.

It would appear that he wrangled an invitation to a new car preview and was aghast that others, (likely as well as himself,) were the guests of that manufacturer, to the tune of airfare, lodging and meals. Somehow, he concluded, that this hosting would guarantee that automaker good ink (or internet space), regardless of how good or bad the product performed.

Long-lead previews have been around for ages. Mr. Baruth might be surprised to learn that a significant number of organizations pay their own way to these events and pick up their lodging tabs. Others, including buff books, trade magazines and freelancers, accept the fact that they are being hosted.

His solution to this terrible violation of ethics? Invite consumers to these events. Hmmm, let’s see. Most manufacturers sell millions of cars and trucks annually. Sure, let’s invite every prospect to come evaluate our vehicles. We’d get through the 2010 products say, by 2055. I’m sure Bristol Cars will be alive and well for decades, but then again, who has ever heard of Bristol Cars.

Mr. Baruth needs to keep focused on racing. As a critic of automotive journalism, he has crashed and burned.

For those who have not visited the hornet’s nest of other responses Baruth evoked, check out the comments online.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Vince Capece

    I see the merits of both arguments, and can’t call a winner between the two. First there is the history of free trips to long- and short-leads (been there) that should engender positive reviews, moreso back in the day when ink was actually put to paper. Today, many online journalists either see it as their job to be counter to the published establishment’s positive reviews (and will probably not be invited to the next event). The writer probably wouldn’t get the necessary hands-on experience without the free trip in the first place.

    On the other hand, the there’s the “suck-up” factor. Nobody can say that it doesn’t go on in the publishing world. My favorite example, however, comes from the world of Top 40 radio (anyone remember those days?). I often visited the DJs at my local Top 40 radio station when I was young. This radio station would create their own local music chart, which was distributed to the public and to the record companies. When I asked about a particular #1 song…I believe it was “Adult Education” by Hall and Oats, which I could find nobody who particularly cared for it, I was told that it was so highly ranked to encourage RCA Records to send more free music. That’s how business works.

    Two guys making grand stands for and against it won’t change it.

  2. Richard Truesdell

    While some of Jack’s points are valid and well taken, as someone who has been doing this for 15 years, he mostly comes off as a know-it-all “Young Turk” who is literally biting the hand that feeds him, his disclaimers notwithstanding.

    The long- and short-term ride-and-drive is an established part of the new vehicle reveal process. Is it perfect? Of course not, especially for manufacturers trying to balance out the needs of the increasingly less important mainstream buff books with their Internet competitors. I speak from experience as someone who straddles the divide as the Editor of Chevy Enthusiast, contributor to more than a half dozen other publications and the Editorial Director of my own website, automotivetraveler.com.

    I attended the last wave of the same Ford Fiesta launch event as Jack and felt that the scale of the event was appropriate to the times and said so to Ford’s PR team. Personally I find writing a meaningful driving impression based on two to three hours behind the wheel to be difficult at best and try, when possible to do a drive-off from the event when attending the last wave and where it makes sense (when the event is on the West Coast and the manufacturer is going to be transporting the vehicle into the LA press fleet; in this case Ford couldn’t make it work).

    In the past, Chrysler has been able to work with me and this usually results in better post-event features as my own independent drives are usually much more meaningful.The best example of this is two years ago when Chrysler’s Scott Brown in the West Coast PR office was instrumental in helping me get a Challenger SRT8 drive-off for my old/new Challengers on the route of Vanishing Point, which resulted in six different features around the world. I didn’t even attend the launch event in Pasadena and paid all my expenses on the trip to Denver and back – which were considerable – to produce the feature so I am on the same page as Jack with regard to this element of his rant. But because a manufacturer pays our way doesn’t mean that we can’t or are unwilling to be objective when writing new car first drive features and columns.

    The Internet is clearly redefining automotive journalism but I am already seeing a bit of a swing back towards traditional forms of the art. The Internet literally gives anyone a printing press and throw in social media, and you have a new stew that we are all trying to get our arms around, writer/contributors/content providers as well as the manufacturer’s PR teams who are trying to get the message out to as many potential buyers as possible. Now people are coming to realize that a blogger with 12 readers and a half dozen ride-and-drives under his or her belt simply doesn’t have the credibility of someone who drives 50+ different new cars each year and has done so over an extended period of time.

    While I do believe that Jack raised a few valid points about a few stereotypical members of our community, on the whole I believe, as I have over the years, that he can learn many valuable lessons from the veteran members of our profession. Many of those that he tarred with his broad brush have mentored me and help me get as far as I have in a crowded field that many outsiders would kill to get in and helped me get established (thanks Jeff Bartlett). And I now try to do the same with new writers that approach me, looking for a way to get their foot in the door. The first advice I give them? Pay your dues, work on your craft and learn how to take good photos to augment your work, both in print and online.

    Richard Truesdell
    Editor, Chevy Enthusiast
    Editorial Director, automotivetraveler.com

  3. Jack Baruth

    Mr. McCandless definitely takes the ol’ straw man out back for a thorough beating here.

    Obviously, I’m not suggesting that press-preview-style events be held for every potential customer in the country, and it’s mystifying that he chose to read the article that way. Instead, manufacturers will eventually see that it’s better to reach out to customers directly than it is to beg a class of career freeloaders to shuffle-steer their way into an alcohol-fueled rewrite of the press release on the flight back.

    I would like to thank Mr. McCandless for his service to the armed forces. As for his article… well, it closely resembles what one Ankylosaurus must have said to another one as the asteroid burned in their night sky.

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