The Road Ahead 04-2009

Has the Elephant left the room? Maybe this time, the old jeremiad always good for a column may be true and “America’s Love Affair With Cars” is over.

The economy going over the cliff and auto sales with it, the domestic industry falling to number 2 or 3 in the world and the arbiters of vehicular taste diminished by a surfeit of voices may have done what foreign competition, poor quality, regulations and the digital diversions and frontiers of cyberspace did not. The economy will come back; car sales will revive but will automotive journalism rekindle the flame?

Steven Johnson, author of the best selling The Invention of Air, says the Internet’s transformation of information deserts to jungles rich with abundant and timely data is a good thing. But, will the jungle of automotive information be more like the Everglades or Louisiana bayous where it is easier to be swamped or get lost than find solid ground?

Even when print publishers, the AP and other providers of content on one side and the lords of the Interne resolve how content will be paid for, what will it mean for auto journalism?? Kendall Allen’s thoughtful Online Spin piece on The Mores of Content In The Digital Age (Media Post Publications) suggests a likely outcome of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt’s much quoted insistence that advertising will pay for content on the web and the insistence of financially-strapped publishers that consumers must help pay for the content they receive.

She says, “I absolutely would participate in and pay for certain aspects, quality thresholds, media treatments and outright increased access and portability of content. However, this no longer means the answer to just one trite question: Would I pay for my news? It’s certainly not a moral question, though it’s as complex as the best of them.” But, would she pay for automotive news, information and features?

Lee Iacocca reportedly said once back when it was a lot of money, a car on the cover of one of the then big three automotive books was worth a million dollars. Now, the return on the expense of providing a car for a magazine shoot is scrutinized. And, with the advertising dollars that support content rapidly diffusing across a thousand-fold more outlets than in the past, will there be any to underwrite auto writing that meets Allen’s standards – and will she be able to find them in Johnson’s jungle?