Avoidable Contact #31: Automotive “journalism” is a joke, and it needs a punchline.

"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.

"I’m increasingly of the opinion that while critical opinion is necessary — especially with a big purchase like a car — manufacturers are wasting time and money by catering to writers with large or focused audiences but little pull in terms of who actually purchases the items." Now that was written by Michael Banovsky, in his recent piece regarding free-ride automotive journalism, and I think it's also quotable, although it lacks that certain 'zing' that my quote has.

The aforementioned Mr. Banovsky has a novel idea: that 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 (and it's a lot of money, reckoned to be over five million dollars per year in the case of some of the bigger automakers) 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.

He's right, and he's right about why. The Internet will eventually connect manufacturers and consumers directly, with very little third-party (lack of) expertise muddling the flow. That's the end of the story. But the road to that happy ending will be longer than the road Dorothy took to Oz, and here's why.

Let's start (cue groan from the readers) with the reason automotive journalism in its traditional form exists 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 like Patrick Bedard, race car drivers like Paul Frere, or even hopelessly passionate and lyrical enthusiasts like Gordon Baxter. 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. The "media associations" like TAWA and MAMA are filled to bursting with these $40,000-a-year careerists.

I believe that the phenomenon of the all-expenses-paid press event evolved to suit these easily-impressed mooks. As Mr. Banovsky notes in his article, there's an almost hilarious conflict of interest involved here. You take a guy who barely earns enough to feed his family and put him up for two nights in a boutique hotel, pay for all his meals, keep his glass filled with cost-no-object alcohol, and let him drive brand-new cars. He's living like a prince on someone else's dime! Only a fool would do anything on the flight home but rewrite the press release.

And if the proverbial carrot is large, the proverbial stick can be larger still. This Panamera review made Porsche PR people angry enough to call my editors and make some "suggestions for improvement". Since I already own three Porsches and am accustomed to the policy of hateful contempt with which the company views all but its most monied customers, I wasn't really surprised, but I also have the luxury of not relying on autojournalism to pay my rent. I'm now more or less banned from Porsche events. If I needed to make my living writing about cars, I'd be in a world of hurt.

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. Would you, as a reader, rather read about the 2011 Shelby GT500 in May or November? Will you wait until November to read a review of a dealership-stock car, or will you eagerly gobble-up the May review, which will be paid for in some way by Ford?

The solution proposed by Mr. Banovsky: 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. The dirty business of checking panel gaps and testing slalom speed can be left to Consumer Reports. Anybody stupid enough to read their local "Wheels" section will still probably see a regurgitated press release on the top fold fifty times a year, so no harm done there.

The advantages of this approach are easy to see. The direct interaction between manufacturer and consumer allows the desired messages to pass both ways with minimal interference.

"Hey, customer, We put the 5.0 in the Mustang just like you asked."

"Great! And while you're at it, could you put a Blu-Ray player in the 2012 model?"

"Sure! Come back to www.yourfordmustanginfosource.com for the details on how you'll be able to order it, and while you're here, why not purchase a 'The 5.0 Is Back' T-shirt?"

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. The feedback received by the manufacturers will also be of much higher quality. If I had a dime for every time I've heard some drunken moron lecturing an engineer about "the real best way" to do something during an after-dinner free-drinks session, I could probably afford a "The 5.0 is Back!" T-shirt. It's been shown time and time again that listening to auto journalists is a losing game, particularly when it comes to introducing high-cost specialist product. Consider that the auto press moaned for years about the lack of a manual-transmission E60 M5 and then crucified the car upon its arrival. Oops! And the Astra. And the GTO. The list goes on. The color rags have no idea what really sells cars, and neither do the bloggers. If bloggers were in charge of product planning, every manufacturer would offer a six-speed turbodiesel wagon of every single model, and the resulting flood of absolutely unsaleable cars would cause California to collapse into the ocean.

Customers, on the other hand, tend to be reliable sources of purchase information. Know why? They've actually purchased the product in the past. They have credibility. Asking some community-college lard-ass who's never bought anything newer than an old Volvo station wagon what you should sell to the general public is a losing strategy. As Packard used to say, ask the man who owns one.

I'm speaking from personal experience here. I've purchased several new VWs, including two freakin' Phaetons. I have probably signed sales orders for $300,000 of new Volkswagens. VW has never asked me anything. Instead, they hold cost-no-object parties for "social media leaders", who tell them to import more diesel wagons and then drive home in twenty-year-old GTIs with ironic stickers covering the tailgate. No wonder the VW brand is in free-fall. Maybe VW should try something different. I don't think it would be a bad idea to interact with the customers.

Automotive journalism has survived due to arbitrage of information. As discussed above. autojournos see the product well before the public does, and are granted no-cost access to it through loaners and long-term fleet cars. They --- we --- have the information and you don't. If the manufacturers took that "gap" in time and access away, the "experts" would simply vanish. Why listen to what Bob Denimjacket has to say in your local paper about the 2016 Chevrolet Impala SSSSSSS if you can attend a customer event on the same day and see for yourself? Sure, there will still be a small market for detailed performance numbers, but in an era where everybody takes a video record of their dragstrip runs and open-track laps, that market will be small indeed.

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 some smarmy, cliche-ridden drivel review in Motor Trend. The guy from MT 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.

When you have your own personal Nissan 180Z long-lead event, probably a parking-lot autocross with 100 or so other owners, you might say, "You know, I like the seats in my current 160Z better. Can you do something similar to those?" If the feedback from enough 160Z owners is along the same lines, when the 180Z reaches your dealership, those seats will be an option.

That's the future, and it's outstanding. It probably means more "Wheels" guys will be homeless and holding cardboard signs at freeway exits reading "Will Shill for Grey Goose". I consider this a bonus. But the road to that future is going to be bumpy. The first manufacturer to take Mr. Banovsky's advice and 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 nearly a decade. 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.

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Jack Baruth

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  • I wonder if the Bristol reviews are scathing because of the lack of pandering to the press or because the cars are so eccentric that journalists can’t wrap their heads around it. Considering that the enlightened Mr. Setright was as emphatically enthusiastic about Bristols as he was about 4WS Honda Preludes, I think that Bristols are just beyond the comprehension of most people, especially those as ill-suited to writing about cars as car journalists.

  • Of the mainstream brands, I can think of two manufacturers who ascribe to this theory at least in part: Mazda and General Motors.

    "Zoom-Zoom Live" was a hit with owners and their friends. GM had a similar program, but both have been mothballed due to financial constraints.

  • That's one way to look at it. But i think Mr. Baruth misses two important aspects.
    1. The consumer simply doesn't have the time to go and test drive the Camry, Accord, Fusion, Malibu, Sonata, Altima, Optima, Sebring, Avenger, Passat. There simply isn't enough time in the day to drive all of these mid-size class vehicles (and these are only the mid-size!) – and that's where automotive journalism as we know it today comes into play. It can be an autojourno who actually drove all these cars b/c it's his/her job – who then tells the consumer which is the best in his/her opinion.

    2. Mr. Baruth hits the nail on the head – if a single manufacturer decides to no longer participate in these press/media events, they themselves would be ridiculed beyond belief for having done so. However, the suggestion to listen to existing customers can be a double-edged sword: most customers ACTUALLY DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT FROM A PRODUCT.

    In fact, if customers were allowed to make product decisions, we wouldn't have such innovative technologies such as the iPhone or iPod. We would be stuck using tapes and CDs for years to come. What this means is people – your average consumers – are only good for certain types of feedback and suggestions, some of which the automaker should ignore completely.

    So as long as everyone understands these finer points to what is otherwise a great article, then we should all be for the better.

    Alex from http://GMAuthority.com – The definitive source for General Motors news and analysis!

    • I agree a customer might not know what they want enough to create a car from scratch. I don't know the full history but, I am guessing customer feedback could have saved Pontiac or Lincoln some time and money if they let the customers opinion speak early on instead of the marketing department. Customers maybe don't know what they DO want but they know what they DON'T want.

    • While the two points you make are true, they aren't particularly relevant to this discussion. First, you don't need to have the same person test drive every car to understand the pros and cons. Reading many people's opinion of each vehicle is going to provide better information than one person's opinion of them all, even more so because most of the people writing the review are going to be in the frame of mind of deciding whether to put their own money down to get the new model, rather than performing a hypothetical experiment where cost is abstract. There's a huge difference.

      Your second point sounds good but also doesn't hold up. First, for your all-caps sentence you're talking about revolutionary products, not evolutionary ones: products that do something so differently that people can't really conceive of how they might use them. It's true that revolutionary products wouldn't be suggested by customers, as they aren't even on their radar. The relevance of that point to this discussion, though, is zero, for several reasons.

      1. Car manufacturers aren't producing revolutionary transportation products. The thought that your 2010 Accord owner wouldn't be able to give relevant feedback on a 2011 model because they don't know what they want is ridiculous.
      2. The importance of truly revolutionary products are also panned by the "experts" in the field. Is your point really that auto journalists are better at predicting what consumers will buy than actual consumers? They both might miss the boat, but to imply that auto journalists do a better job of giving feedback to the manufacturers over the gamut of needs, incomes, social circles, etc. of the entire auto-buying public than individuals from each actual market seems a little nuts.
      3. Neither the iPod or iPhone help your case. What's being discussed here is not whether auto journalists or the public are the right people to ask for ideas about new products to design. What's being discussed is who will provide better information in reviewing actual products already made. You think that if you had given the iPod to a bunch of customers using other MP3 players they would have told you that they should make it less intuitive? Of course not: the iPod was an instant hit. Customers who got their hands on early loved it.

      On the other hand, the automobile industry is littered with examples of automakers completely missing the boat on what customers want and then having to play catch-up when some daring (or insightful) manufacturers takes the bait.

      Again, it's true that the masses don't have the vision to come up with truly revolutionary products (that's why they are revolutionary). To think that this truth has relevance for most products is foolish. While believing that the customer doesn't know what he/she wants does prop up the "experts" ego for 99.9% of companies and products it's pure fallacy.

      Andrew

  • I love how you follow your crack about unsaleable 6-speed diesel wagons with pointing out you've purchased not one, but two Phaetons. To say you want or enjoy a product is not to say the manufacturer should go all sportwagon all the time.

    And since when is VW in free-fall?

    Consumer suggestions about seats 6 months before the launch of a product are completely unactionable and you know it. By then, the seats are already crash-tested and fully engineered. And no company in their right mind would expose would-be customers to early-stage pre-design-freeze vehicles. They're come off as unfinished and terrible.

    I agree with Mr Luft's points above, but would also add: how many previous or would-be buyers do you think auto manufacturers could reach in your suggested scenarios? How many people would actually come out to these events? Mainstream buyers (those less likely to be reading MT or the like) aren't going to bother to come out to check see the 2012 Camry any more than you or I might be to check out the 2012 Maytag lineup.

    Meanwhile, for those who actually do take interest in cars, each Mr Denimjacket reaches thousands, if not millions (if we're talking about the big rags) of readers. Flights, booze and other favors are a cheap way to get that kind of awareness for a product. This is especially true if your and up-and-coming brand or have a new product.

    It's lunacy to assume that dissolving the status quo and takin' it back to the people, man would be a more effective strategy. It's not like this is life saving medical science we're talking about here. Everyone knows reviews are part of an integrated PR/Marketing strategy. This is a business where people buy products they can't afford for the wrong reasons and base their satisfaction (or lack thereof) on inaccurate impressions of a car's attributes.

    This isn't meant to come off as a defense of the sense of entitlement of non-driver shimp-gulping ass-grabbing boozehounds. To half-ass your work like that is lame, regardless of profession.

    • A few responses:

      1) Mr. Denimjacket reaches fewer readers every month. He's being replaced by Mr. Emoglasses, his Internet equivalent, and even if that guy has a similarly-sized audience, it's no longer the captive audience that Denimjacket had.

      2) "Everyone knows reviews are part of an integrated PR/Marketing strategy." I'm not sure everyone knows that. As I noted to "imag" below, not every obvious thing is obvious to everyone. Some people continue to believe that auto reviews are honest, heartfelt attempts to convey the essence of a car to potential buyers. I know people who write reviews like that, so I would like to believe it as well.

  • As a lard-butt (5’11”, 195 pounds, 34-inch waist, size 44 jacket) member of not only the automotive media (I didn’t say journalism) world, but also the Midwest media organization that refuses to receive Mr. Baruth’s charming persona into their presence, I found his latest tirade amusing. As usual, there’s always a kernel of truth underneath the thick layers of resent and bitterness that define most of his writings.

    Yes, it’s true that there are plenty of guys writing about cars for a living who couldn’t make a rev-matched downshift if their kid’s college education depended on it. There are plenty of guys who write about cars AND high school sports on the same page. And yes, I’m aware that several so-called professionals in the business have a reputation for clearing out the mini-bar and taking home the robe on press junkets. But to generalize everyone in the business as a poor, talentless schlub is fairly arrogant.

    Do today’s auto writers generally write good things about the cars they drive? Yes. Do the free dinners and drinks and cars ensure this? Not usually. Are most of today’s cars truly bad? No. Are most new models better than the ones they replace? Usually. Do car enthusiasts and/or general consumers enjoy reading a collection of negative articles? None that I know.

    Citizen journalism in the form of blogs and discussion forums is a great way for individuals to share their experiences, but I’d hardly consider the 21-year-old kid who just bought his first new car an automotive authority (in fact, I’d say the last decade’s worth of discussion-based automotive communities has made “virtual experts” out of a bunch of impassioned idiots with Napolean complexes). Likewise, as a communications officer at a carmaker, I’d hardly relish the though of taking someone like Chris Bangle or Mark Fields to a local car show for a little face-time with the owners. Look what happens every time GM gives Lutz even a semi-public stage.

    The professional automotive writer not only has the benefit of driving perhaps 100 or more different cars at length every year, but also the one thing most consumers (even enthusiasts) lack: perspective. Most journos aren’t fanboy, cheerleader types who defend their purchase of, say, multiple VW Phaetons.
    Just kidding, Jack. My point is, even if you just spent $25,000 on a Mitsubishi Galant, chances are you think it’s a pretty swell car. Short of picking up a lemon, most new owners are reluctant to admit they’ve made a mistake, so getting the truth about cars out of laymen is generally fruitless too.

    If Jack so likes pointing at and mocking the lard-ass, denim-jacketed monkeys in the cage, why does he continue to climb the fence and try to join them? He’s got passion and he’s got talent (I hear rumor he even has genuine sheepskin in journalism). And I think that's his rub: why are all these no-talent hacks employed in a field that he can't break into, despite his winning numerous regional races in a Focus? Until he realizes that this business is as much about personal relationships and professionalism as outright talent, he’ll stand bitterly on the other side.

    I applaud him for demanding more from the field, however.

    • This is a very solid point: "Until he realizes that this business is as much about personal relationships and professionalism as outright talent, he’ll stand bitterly on the other side. "

      I do realize it, and I will continue to stand bitterly on the other side. I turned down a pretty decent print gig last year because it came with the caveat that I could no longer work with SSL and TTAC.

      I would suggest that one of your points (that there are very few bad cars left) works to undermine another one (that it's important to have perspective). If most cars are pretty okay, then the most important thing is to get what you want from a brand to which you feel connected, not to have a 230-comparison-test-point Honda Accord instead of a 227-comparison-point-test Nissan Altima. (I made those numbers up, before you check).

    • Well put.

      Once again, Baruth writes eloquently about the completely obvious 90% rule.

      Most people are not good at any particular thing. Baruth happens to be good at driving, so he wrote a whole column about how most people are bad at it. A musician, a computer programmer, or a professional baseball player could write the same exact column about his or her respective profession and act like they are too good for this cruel world. Incidentally, I'm sure more than a few F1 drivers could also teach Baruth a thing or two about driving. Everyone can look down at others about something; it doesn't mean that others are worthless, only that the person looking down on them is narrow minded.

      And now we get this one, wherein Baruth uncovers for us the fact that most journalism in the Western world is little more than glorified advertising. My answer: no f_ing s–t. What's next on the topics to rant about?

      – Boating magazines don't actually engage premier investigative journalists to suss out the best yachts;
      – GQ doesn't really wear the suits or watches they advertise to make sure that they are actually good products;
      – "Technology" news is only PR about new products;
      – The real estate section of the newspaper doesn't really have your best interest in mind when it tells you that now is a good time to buy, (just like it was last year);
      – Most publications could care less about journalism. Hint: most of them will flat out admit it.

      Jack – be the change you want to see in the world and quit whining about what other people aren't doing. You're a great reviewer and a great writer. Many people who are good at what they do come upon opposition – look at the vitriol Farago got for trying to practice journalism in a PR-dominated field. That doesn't mean you have to spend your talent whining about how unfair it all is. Guess what? Anyone in any field can look around them and say that most of the other people in that field are morons. Maybe it's true; maybe it's not. Either way, complaining about it doesn't raise the bar, and isn't journalism.

      And personally, the last thing I want to read are some customer's comments about cars. Forums have tons of that talk, and *most* of it (90% rule, remember?) is crap. And by the way, if you bought two Phaetons, you're not the customers VW needs to hear from, because the car didn't sell for shit. That means you're not representative of the majority in the market segment. The people they need to talk to are the ones who bought a 7-series, S-class, or LS instead. VeeDub would probably find out that they should have slapped their Audi badge on that particular car to sell it to people who aren't enthusiasts (hint, that's also most people).

      And I really do not want to read "reviews" where the ordinary person was given a junket and/or a free product. That's how it works in blog-land, where the marketroids have realized that handing out free products like candy to influential ordinary people is cheaper than wooing professionals, with an even higher likelihood of positive feedback. Ordinary people have even less responsibility, less reason to have integrity, and less experience on which to base product evaluations, so there's not going to be a tremendous amount of good meat from most of them (though let's not forget the 10%).

      So please cut this out. Go find: a car, a race, a car experience. Write about it. You're good at it. You enjoy it. Let life be life; it's not going to change…

      …Or you can keep being the old crank at the bar telling us that most politicians don't do things the way they should be done, or that most people lack common sense, or that things used to be better in the old days. Personally, I'd ask that you don't be that guy because it seems like a waste of talent, but hey, it's your life.

      • One of the benefits of being a bright, informed guy is that things seem obvious to you.

        I think you would be surprised about how many people view the automotive media, particularly concerning the barriers to entry/talent required/and so on.

        Your point regarding "blog-land" is spot on and it's one of the things I discussed with Banovsky after he printed his article. The problem is that there really isn't that much airspace between what a "regular guy" would write after a top-notch junket and what a "respected journalist" writes after that same junket.

        I wrote this article for a very specific purpose. You would be surprised at how many mover-and-shaker types in the industry read SSL. I'd like to see the current system of auto journalism and PR burn right to the ground. This column is just another log thrown under a pyre that I believe to be already smoldering.

        • Are you sure you're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater on this one?

          Your hate seems directed at the shirmp-scarfing no talent hacks, but you want to kill the whole system just to spite that faction.

          What if (more) auto writers were just good at what they did?

          That means authoring well written evaluations of products for their intended audience, regardless of the perks. Do you still take issue with that?

        • If you can change the world this way, go to it. I'll be impressed if you succeed, simply because I think all three parties are complicit:

          1. The auto manufacturers want people to regurgitate their press releases
          2. The journalists love driving new cars, getting flown around, and getting taken care of (can't say I blame them)
          3. The American public, in particular, doesn't respond well to criticism, and they like PR.

          The last point is critical. We have a populace who, for the most part, doesn't like criticism or complexity. They have been told that good things are simple and entertaining and require only a minimum of thought.

          Digression: partly this is new; partly this attitude is the same stupidity of the masses that people have talked about for hundreds of years. I think the truth is that, given any subject, there are more people who don't know much about it than people who do, so the mass or people tends to act stupidly, even though the people in the mass are not stupid. Ironically, the point of specialized journalists is to have people who know more than we do about a given subject tell us about it.

          Back on topic: Americans *like* PR, because we have been trained to feel that it's unbaised. Anyone who criticizes, they've been told, just has a bone to pick, and is not trustworthy. That's where the railroading of Farago came from; people didn't want to understand that someone else might have a different opinion than they do, but that it was okay. Good criticism is about the approach, not necessarily the statement.

          Whatever. Good luck. The house needs more than you to bring it down, because it's bigger than cars; it's about consumer culture, and the people at all key points *like* it the way it is. My point was that 90% of the people in any given system will be garbage, so it's up to you to just write the best stuff out there, regardless. I haven't read how you feel about Dan Neil, but I think he's done a pretty decent job of being passionate about cars and respectful of journalistic principals, while having some fun and success along the way. My gut says that's a decent way to go…

          • Great insights here. Very much what I've learned (to my surprise) when trying to counter the well-funded Consumer Reports PR machine.

            Today the press is once again covering the Auto Issue as if the reliability stats in it are news, when they're the same ones that have been around since October and are based on data a year old. But this isn't in the CR release (imagine that) and no one seems inclined to dig even this far into their information.

    • "My point is, even if you just spent $25,000 on a Mitsubishi Galant, chances are you think it’s a pretty swell car. Short of picking up a lemon, most new owners are reluctant to admit they’ve made a mistake, so getting the truth about cars out of laymen is generally fruitless too."

      And that's something that makes discussion of cars in any kind of objective sense a real nightmare at the consumer level, because you never know if somebody's speaking from a position of practical or objective sense, or if they're just defending their purchase or brand of choice. Hell, we own four Mazdas. Should I be considered a trustworthy source of information, or just another fanboy? And in that context, from what position am I speaking when asked about our experience with our Ford Focus? Am I speaking as a Mazda guy who got stuck fixing his girlfriend's car, or am I objectively outlining its strengths and weaknesses?

      A wise man once told me that I should be wary of sticking to my guns when it comes to reflecting my online attitude in my daily life, lest I one day end up owning two Phaetons. I chew that one over from time to time.

    • The truth, as I see it, is a combination of Jack's piece and this response. I've supervised the auto section of Epinions for the past several years. The great majority of car owners do lack sufficient perspective to properly critique a car.

      On the other hand, few professional journalists manage to properly critique a car, either. Some avoid criticism. Others simply don't embody the needs of the typical buyer. Any review is subject to the perspective of the reviewer, but this perspective is hardly ever explicit.

      So what are we left with? What should be a big gaping hole. But few people seem to notice this hole, so perhaps there isn't a very large market for reviews that thoroughly critique a car from the perspective of the typical buyer.

      • And honestly, that market isn't very large because all-ecompassing reviews tend to be boring, and you'll alienate one audience by catering to another, even if you try to do it all in moderation and within the space of a single review. Look no further than my 370Z Speed Read (which was *not* a particularly spectacular piece of writing by my own admission, but I'm talking content here). The guy who wants to hear praise heaped upon his new sports car doesn't want to read three paragraphs about its practicality as a DD.

        And, whether we acknowledge it or not, enthusiast journalism is just as important (if not moreso) to consumers who already own a product as it is to those seeking one. In fact, in some cases, the latter may even make up a bigger chunk of your audience than the former.

        • Excellent point. It's long been known that the most avid readers of ads are people who've just bought a car. They want reinforcement that they've made the right decision. The same could well be true of car reviews.

          Once again the question becomes: are you trying to lead your audience, or follow it? There are certainly plenty of people who only want to read things they already think they know, and agree with. But, what's the point of catering to this desire?

          Oh, that's right, Jack just answered this question.

    • "Likewise, as a communications officer at a carmaker, I’d hardly relish the though of taking someone like Chris Bangle or Mark Fields to a local car show for a little face-time with the owners. Look what happens every time GM gives Lutz even a semi-public stage."

      For a more concrete example, look no further than the b.s. that surrounded the Auto Channel's Audi S4 video that circulated through the auto forum and blog community recently. Talk about a fiasco on all fronts. It's funny; my bachelor's degree is in Communications, but my "focus" track was Journalism and Public Relations. If I had been told as a student just how beautifully that almost contradictory combination would frame my career path, I'd never have believed it. And yet here I sit, square in the middle of this. To say I can see both sides is somewhat of an understatement.

      (continued…)

  • Since the LA Times no longer has any sort of auto section – and they subsequently lost Dan "hyperbole" Neil to the WSJ – I'm surprised that many papers even have a "Wheels" section (or auto writer) any more. Should we listen to Jalopnik commenters who hate Chrysler LX cars without having actually driven them? Are those people our "new" experts? I'd like to think that magazine comparison tests still have some relevancy, particularly for the non-enthusiast buyer.

  • I find myself so glad to have been a Bristol owner for some decades, not being smug just recognising the strengths of the company who will indeed happily tailor the seat to your specific wants, in fact they will ( as in have done ) build you a one off unique car should you wish it.
    Tony Crook presided over the company for around half a century not a mere decade.
    The current owner is more 21st century but still retains the customer centred / guided approach in addition to expanding the range of possibilities for the cars.
    Which other car maker knows your car ( whatever its age ) by your name followed by its model designation?
    Where else is your car repaired by the skilled worker who built it initially, perhaps thirty or forty years earlier?
    I have no connection with the company other than as a customer, a satisfied customer.

  • Great piece (as usual, one might add).

    Here's the missing punchline: Bristol are crap cars for eccentrics; obviously, you don't need crap journalists to push crap products. A cult following the Bristols might have (which, of course, means nothing at all), but they are a joke nonetheless. They might have been good in the early 1960s when Setright had one, they might be good enough for people who don't drive much such as Noel Gallagher or Paul Smith, but they still look funny, have no airbags, be noisy and drive strangely. Our own Robert Fargo wrote a hilariously accurate review of a Blenheim. To say that the existence of Bristol the company is proof of anything at all about journalism (or anything else of note), is wacky and amusing to dedicated Fans of All Things Setright, but still doesn't make much sense.

    • "Bristol are crap cars for eccentrics". Don't you just love the intellectual rigour of some pundits.

      Bristol is uses a relatively modern Chrysler engine/transmission, and it has excellent turning, stopping and handling performance – so say I who has driven about 8 different Bristols as well as many other high performance vehicles. It does the job.

      Airbags are only of use for people who crash cars, especially monococque cars without a separate steel frame. I've driven for over 45 years and never needed an airbag. In fact, the only person I know who has experienced airbags say it was worse than three rounds in the boxing ring. Martin, every had the pleasure of being hit by an airbag or is this an intellectual exercise for you?

      "Drive strangely". I wonder if Martin S has actually every driven one, or is he relying on Robert Fargo [sic] who wrote "True enough, despite the fact that this particular Blenheim had recently enjoyed a body-off restoration– to eliminate rot. Which was discovered after the car's paint had cracked (necessitating a total re-spray). Whereupon the owner's mechanics addressed a veritable laundry list of mechanical ailments: inoperative air conditioning, "inappropriate" shock absorbers, a failed exhaust system, two blown window motors, axle whine, insufficient engine cooling and more."

      In other words, Mr. Farago drove a tarted up heap and based his opinions on a car where a fly-by-night restoration shop ripped off the owner. Mr Farago then made a judgement on the marque based on a car that otherwise would probably be in a scrap yard if it was an equivalent year Pontiac. I read the story, and concluded it said more about one bloated ego tilting at a private business that had no interest in entertaining him.

      Actually having driven Bristols, I would say the 1971 411 that I drove was smoother and tighter than my late model (then) 1987 Mercedes 300E. The earlier 409 (1965) with age hardened bushings and bias ply tyres reminded me of a 1952 Plymouth… all over the road, but this should not be unexpected from a then 40 year old car whose tyres had not been changed in 25 years. I have not had the pleasure of driving a new Bristol, but I hazard to say Martin S.'s comments are those of a flamer (look it up on Wikipedia) rather than an enlightened commentator. Then again, some people have too much time on their hands and not enough to do.

      Bristol exists because it focuses entirely on customers with discretionary assets, who look at cars entirely differently than the statistical norm. Tony Crook saw no benefit to entertaining the press, and did not set aside cars for them. It would be a bit like a member of the press asking to borrow a Saville Row suit before the customer picked it up. He would let prospective customers drive his own personal car (usually the one with the 100 MPH plate on it), but that was because they were actual potential buyers, and he was running a smart business… not a business dependent on free PR from the press, but one that allowed him to enjoy the life he chose for over half a century.

      Toby Silverton is less intolerant than his predecessor, but he still knows his market, and it has nothing to do with the Martin S/'s and the Robert Farago's of this world.

      But I do agree, the article that prompted the comments is insightful, but then again, it sadly is a commentary on the press in general. If Woodward and Bernstein were reporting on a new Watergate story today, they would have not been printed, and their contracts would not have been renewed.

      By the way, as a matter of fact, as noted by another commentator, Tony Crook was associated with Bristol cars starting shortly after the second world war. In 1960, when the government reorganised aerospace, he bought the car division in partnership, and when his partner was injured, he took over full ownership. He then owned the company well into his 80's and only sold it to Silverton a few years ago when age began to take its toll… a wee bit more than a decade. What is more remarkable is that Sid Lovesy is still working there. He began in 1946 when the first Bristol was made.

  • Now wait a second, Jack. Off the top of my head I've been on at least three press launches with you. I still remember the salads and pizzas in Sonoma with the GT500/Tom Waits and the who has the gayest, drunkest shoes competition at the 5.0-launch in Detroit.

    How are you not implicating yourself in this great big giant scam? Are you not (and by extension, yours truly) part of the problem? Are you admitting that you're part of the problem?

    Put another way, when else would you and I get to hang out?

    • If I'd let the article run past its already considerable length, I would have gone into more detail about the idea that the change has to come from the "other side". An individual journalist who quits the merry-go-round changes nothing and destroys his own ability to obtain information.

      It's the classic Prisoner's Dilemma: if you quit going to press events and the other guy doesn't, he wins.

      You and I can hang out at Lemons as soon as I figure out a way to get a Porsche 962 past Phil.

  • One other point: They Are Just Cars.

    Do we really need our best journalists writing about cars? Does a correct comparison really matter?

    If you get the "wrong" car, you still get an amazing piece of machinery, as there really aren't many out there (*cough* Sebring), which are total crap. And if you can have fun in a $500 POS at LeMons, you can sure as shit find a way to enjoy a less-than-perfect new car.

    Sure, comparison tests with a ranking are totally idiotic. It makes far more sense to say what each car succeeds and fails in comparison to the others in the group, as different drivers will have different priorities. But who the f___ cares if the car that suits you was ranked third? Some people's primary worries center around the number and size of the cupholders; others like interiors; others care about whether the calipers provide good pedal feel on a track.

    It will never be perfect. Does it matter? Anyone can always drive the cars for themselves – you can even get on a forum and convince a Lambo owner in your area to give you a run around the block if you want to. And ultimately, driving for oneself should be the ultimate decision, not a bunch of writing by a bunch of anyone else.

    After all, isn't the driving what it's all about?

    • "After all, isn't the driving what it's all about?"

      In the real world? Rarely. If it were, Ariel Atoms would outsell every other sports car.

      The tricky part is that (most) dealers won't (and shouldn't) let you test-drive a new sports car in a manner that'll tell you what you need to know about it. No, most owners aren't taking their cars on the track, but a good windy-road blast is a real possibility. Typically salesdouches prefer you don't return to the lot smelling of smoked brakes and clutch.

      • …which leads us to the question: "What do you really need to know about a new sports car?" It's a topic for another time, but I would suggest that most dealers will let you do anything that is legal in a demo car. Anything you want to do that is illegal… well, should auto journalists be out doing illegal things on public roads and reporting it? Or should we be driving around manicured tracks and then trying to translate that to the experience of doing illegal things on a road? I don't know the right answer here.

        • If all we were interested in was behavior allowed under the law, we'd be fools to spend extra money for sports cars…provided we're of moderate means and can't afford to spend every weekend at the track.

          Regarding illegal things on the road: your reputation's already well known there, Jack.

          I'm of the opinion that instrumented track testing of sports cars is highly overrated, if not damaging to the dialog. CnD, et al, do their readers a disservice by constructing a narrative in which the car with the highest ratings in 4 of 8 measurements is declared the clear victor. Given that the overwhelming majority of would-be buyers 1) can't drive well enough that it matters and 2) won't be taking their car to the track anyway (especially in stock form), such data are of little value.

          Moving to a more nuanced narrative about how each contender drives in the canyons (hopefully at 4am on a Tuesday) is probably more valuable information, but obviously leaves the doors open for more bullshit.

          Besides, the most informative, direct, honest information rarely makes for an entertaining read.

    • Rankings and "best picks" cater to people who want to as little research as they can get away with–and there are many such people. They'll look up which car CR or (less often) some other source says is the best, buy that one, and move on.

      The question for auto writers: how much you want to cater to this desire to buy a car without really thinking about it?

  • After reading the article and all the comments a few times over, I've figured out two things: If you like the car you're a hack, if you don't you're bitter. Either way you can't win.

  • Lots of good points in the article and counter points in the comments. While I agree with the main argument in the piece, there is a role for experts in our society. If we dethrone the buff books, Wheels writers and the like, they'll just be replaced by another set of people doing it online, on TV, or somewhere else and they'll get catered too and brow-beaten until they write nice things. It doesn't mean we can't and shouldn't change and improve upon the system, but there is a happy medium to it all and this is a good debate to have.

    It will be interesting to see which OE gets it first and starts making more changes in that direction.

  • I thought I heard some rumors that the Volt is going to or has already had some open to the public track events. Have you heard any word on this? It sounds like a move in the right direction to receive feedback from the public opinion. I guess there is a big gap in between holding the event and actually using the feedback to modify the car.

  • It has seemed to me that the value in the traditional automotive media is threefold: 1) inform about new products, 2) conduct performance testing, and 3) conduct comparison tests.

    1) The Internet has gone a long way to diminishing the value of the first, but short of actually reading the press releases themselves, the traditional media does seem to provide the most in-depth review, even if it is just a re-hash of the press release. I usually hear about new models first from the blogs but actually feel like I know something about them after I've read about them in a magazine or two.

    2) Outside of the manufacturers themselves, where else can you get performance data except from the traditional auto media?

    3) Lastly, many (but not all) of the ethical concerns would seem to be avoided when these folks collect a group of cars and are forced to provide a rank order. Specific comments may not be all that meaningful, but at least you know which of those tested was preferred. Those that further sub-divide their evaluation criteria also give you a sense for which vehicles are better in particular dimensions giving you the ability to provide your own weighting to determine a different winner, if necessary.

  • To expand on Mr. Luft's comment, I've seen this line attributed to Henry Ford:

    “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

    When I test-drove a half-dozen of the more hyped cars in the print magazines (G37, 135i, Mustang, Camaro, and so on), I found them to be more or less as described. If there's a liquor bias pervading the articles, it's not enough to ruin them. The most pin-accurate was Consumer Reports. For the car I eventually bought (Maxima), their description almost exactly matches my ownership experience. I've also found Edmunds, Autozine, Autoblog, and Jalopnik to deliver excellent reviews with more enthusiasm.

    As to the newspapers, so what if they're fluff? There aren't many truly bad cars these days, and the little things we care about that separate the good and great, no one else cares about. For someone embracing the direct enthusiast connection offered by the internet, I'm surprised the print media bothers you so much.

    • Hi David,

      Responding to your last paragraph: It's primarily because the PR/press event/auto show circus continues to be built around the newspaper autowriters and their ilk. The automakers don't yet know how exactly to measure the impact of a particular online source, so as a result many legitimate contributors end up standing on the sidelines while the fellow from the Hicktown Register bumbles his way around Infineon in an Infiniti and rewrites the press release on the flight home.

      • Your writing may be legitimate, but it's that bumbling Hicktown journo reprinting ad copy that brings home the manufacturer's bacon. Is it not enough to be appreciated by your loyal readers?

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