Jack Baruth says he is the only person in American history to hold both a professional BMX racing license and a professional auto racing license. This, combined with five dollars, he notes, will get you a “venti” at Starbucks. He has been writing for publication since 1991 and wrote the unpopular “One Racer’s Perspective” and “BMX Basics” columns for Bicycles Today magazine. In the past several years, Jack has won a few races, lost many more, and received multiple disciplinary actions for contact and rough driving. He races in NASA Performance Touring, the Koni Challenge and the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Series. You can find him at speedsportlife.com, thetruthaboutcars.com, leftlanenews.com and in Malaysia’s “Wheels Weekly” tabloid.
Automotive Journalism’s Credibility Gap
“If Woodward and Bernstein had been automotive journalists, the Watergate story would have been a five-star review of Richard Nixon’s personal tape recorder.” I’m putting that in quotes, even though I just wrote it, because I think it’s quotable.
Here’s another quotable idea, courtesy of a young autoblogger whom I occasionally read: Manufacturers should stop paying for auto journalists to enjoy unbelievably sybaritic new-vehicle launches, $80,000 free loaner cars disguised as “long-term testers”, and all of the other little bennies of the biz. Instead, the money should be spent reaching out to, and connecting with, the actual customers for their products. In short, auto journalism as we know it needs to die. The denim-jacket fatties and bald old buzzards who shuffle-steer their incompetent way through a driving event, hold down barstools for the evening, and then rewrite the press release during the flight home — well, they should be taken out back and shot.
The color rags should wither and fall from the shelves like autumn leaves, with only the lace-like rotted pages of a MacNeil Products special-advertising section remaining. The functional illiterates who take a free plane ticket to an auto show, have their hands held by PR reps through a scripted sequence of roundtables, and then breathlessly blog about the “awesomeness” of cars they’ve never driven — they will become as difficult to find as their talent was. All change, as they say. Everybody goes home.
It’s interesting to note that special-interest car rags have been around nearly as long as the automobile itself. Autocar was founded in 1895, and the inimitable LJK Setright tells us that it was originally a bit of a shill rag, featuring far-from-impartial opinions to benefit its owner, who also held part of Daimler. The idea of the self-published auto magazine is still with us — nearly every major carmaker publishes an utterly worthless color rag on a quarterly-ish basis, complete with moronic reviews of luxury hotels, expensive watches, and second-tier men’s fashion — but I find it hilarious that the most dignified name in the print trade was corrupt from Day One.
As we’ve all heard, the automobile is the second-most expensive purchase we will make in our lives, unless we buy a used Porsche 928, in which it will be the most expensive purchase we will ever make. It’s no surprise, then, that buyers have been looking for advice since the nineteenth century. In some cases, such as when Patrick Bedard left an engineering career to work for C/D, or when Consumer Reports decided to pay its own money for cars to test (mostly) impartially, the buyer has been well-served by listening to that “expert advice”.
Other examples of automotive “expertise” are closer to being laughable than reputable. Consider the “Wheels” section in nearly every major newspaper. The “Wheels” writers are as numerous as Biblical locusts at the new-car launches, and they descend on the buffet table with the same legendary ferocity, but in most cases they are completely unqualified to review automobiles. They aren’t engineers, race car drivers, or even hopelessly passionate enthusiasts. They’re just the guys who sucked too hard to be permitted to write about something critical, like municipal levies, local flower shows, or country-club golf tournaments.
This is the problem in a nutshell. Real journalists go out and find their stories at their own expense, or their employers’ expense. Automotive journalists are effectively compensated by the manufacturers on which they report. And if an autojourno decides to take a “principled” approach, refusing to participate in press launches or take loaner cars… that writer will be effectively six months behind the competition.
One solution: stop inviting journalists to events. Rather, manufacturers should invite existing customers to attend preview events, and manufacturer-sponsored discussion forums should eventually replace general-interest automotive news sources as the place for consumers to get their information. This doesn’t sound like a very impartial way for consumers to receive new-car information, but trust me: putting a fifty-year-old man who normally drives a used Corolla behind the wheel of a Corvette ZR1 and letting him putter around a racetrack, thirty seconds a lap off the pace, isn’t exactly delivering absolute truth either. Customers, on the other hand, tend to be reliable sources of purchase information. They’ve actually purchased the product in the past. They have credibility.
Automotive journalism has survived due to arbitrage of information. As discussed above, we see the product well before the public does, and are granted no-cost access to it through loaners and long-term fleet cars. We have the information and you don’t. If the manufacturers took that “gap” in time and access away, the “experts” would simply vanish.
This is my vision of the future: Joe Customer wakes up on a sunny Sunday. His tablet/smart paper/superphone says to him, “Good morning Joe. You’ve been happy with your Nissan 160Z and you’ve been an active Official Z Forum participant. The new Nissan 180Z is coming to a release event in our town this week. Would you like to chat with an expert system about the car’s features, schedule your own exposure event, or have a complete simulation of the car loaded into your PS6 for a few laps of the old Fuji circuit?” In a world like that, nobody’s reading a color mag. The guy from that mag won’t see the car before you do, and you wouldn’t trust him anyway. You might trust nissanZfan1983, a guy you know on the forums who races Z-cars. Maybe he’ll meet you at the event, or you will chat about it over Skype, or you’ll race each other in a simulator. In any event, you’ll make up your own mind.
That’s the future, and it’s outstanding. But the road to that future is going to be bumpy. The first manufacturer to turn away from the free-ride merry-go-round is going to take a pasting. They won’t be discussed favorably in print or in major blogs. Rumors will fly. Mean things will be said. Snide comments will be made. It will be widely supposed that they have turned away from conventional press PR because their product is antiquated, or second-rate, or simply not good enough for the (*snicker*) “glaring spotlight of journalism”.
In fact, any carmaker who wants to know what it’s like to focus on real customers instead of the press can talk to Tony Crook. Mr. Crook is a former Grand Prix driver who ran Bristol Cars for decades. Bristol doesn’t bother with press drives. There are no press loaners. There are no press events. The auto media is not welcome to tour the factory. Bristol prefers to work directly with their existing customers and find out what they want in a car. Their business grows, such as it does, by word of mouth and exposure to the product in the hands of owners. Go read a Bristol non-review in an English magazine to get a sense of what will be said about any manufacturer who hops off the freebie train. It’s rarely complimentary.
Still, Bristol is alive and Pontiac is dead. There’s a lesson here, if we could only figure it out.