It may well be wishful thinking on my part, but in the three years that I’ve been covering the world of cars, I do feel like I’ve seen a subtle but perceptible improvement in the general quality of the automotive media. Obviously the progress hasn’t been evenly distributed, but more outlets seem to be tip-toeing towards more in-depth stories, better analysis and more independence from the forces of OEM PR. Why? Possibly because the industry’s many challenges are providing more and better stories about cars, or possibly because the recent downturn made OEMs more open to less obviously-friendly writers, outlets and story pitches. One thing is certain: the growth of online automotive media has certainly played a role, putting more pressure on the established outlets, branching out into media criticism and reconnecting auto writers to the readers they serve.
For a while now, blogs have benefited from a lack of faith in the entrenched world of automotive print journalism. But, as print outlets have started to respond to the online threat and online outlets become increasingly sucked into the “PR Friendly” maelstrom that engulfed the buff books’ credibility, a new phenomenon seems to be on the rise which threatens the blogs from the very point of attack that helped them vault into the ranks of the auto media establishment: the “enthusiast reporter.”
What launched the blogs into relevance was their ability to break free from the comfortable “insider’s club” that dominated the mainstream auto media. From the outset, blogs made their outsider status a fundamental element of their brands, juxtaposing their struggles to maintain editorial independence against the cozily protective fluff of the big car magazines. Now, however, as some auto blogs eclipse the reach of some long-established auto magazines, their outsider status is no longer a given. Whereas online criticism of the automotive media was initially focused on buff book sponsored “pimpatorials” and other excesses, now it is becoming more of a tool of inter-blog sniping than journalistic principle. After all, in the new automotive media, the names have changed but the underlying dynamic of access-versus-editorial independence remain.
And as the autoblogosphere increasingly turns on itself, the manufacturers seem to be increasingly looking past the new elite of online automotive journalism, to fans, “lifestyle journalists,” mommybloggers and other less immediately credible but more reliably positive outlets to publicize their products and initiatives. Jack Baruth examined one of the more recent examples of this today in his piece on the Acura TL launch, but that’s hardly the only example. Jack’s piece on OEM-sponsored bloggers at the Detroit Auto Show, and a recent Jalopnik piece on Nissan and Hyundai-sponsored coverage of the New York Auto Show all expose the same growing phenomenon.
And, if we examine the underlying causes of this shift, there seems little reason for this trend to end any time soon. On the most fundamental level, it allows the OEMs to end-run around the growing problem of editorial independence, itself a product of blog-driven competition for new readers. Possibly more dangerously though, these “amateur reporters” also rely on another blog-world crutch: the assumption that untrained amateurs understand consumer experiences as well or better than “automotive journalists.” These folks, who in many cases have (at best) a one-person blog or (at worst) simply a Twitter account may not be creating memorable content, but they’re doing a great job of making blogs at like the new old auto media, forever harumphing at the ill-informed opinions of the uninitiated.
That’s where this dynamic becomes downright dangerous. Established blogs have earned their recent lofty positions in the auto media by playing up the outsider perspective that they are now so quick to slam. Now, by reacting to “enthusiast reporters” as a threat, they reduce their only competitive advantage (other than sheer timeliness) vis-a-vis the buff books, just as magazines are slowly starting to respond by improving the two-way conversation between outlet and readers. After all, if a blog sends a writer to a manufacturer-funded launch event, how is that different than a rank amateur receiving the same treatment? Worse still are the blogs who actually sponsor these “enthusiast reporter” PR exercises, as they both promote the kind of “pimpatorialism” that helped bring down the buff books and (by promoting the “enthusiast reporters”) undermine the illusion of their own outsider status (where this is even possible).
So what’s the appropriate response to this rising tide of manufacturer-sponsored, reputation-free, “enthusiast reporters”? That’s ultimately a question for TTAC’s Best And Brightest to answer, along with the other auto media consumers who determine success and failure in this industry. My personal opinion is that the rise of “enthusiast reporters” was inevitable, and therefore somewhat pointless to judge on a moral or ethical basis. If anything, the real lesson of their emergence is that auto media consumers must, now more than ever, adapt to set aside the form of a given piece of media and focus on its content. Whether your read, watch or hear an opinion here at TTAC, another automotive blog, a “CARGUY4PR”-style Twitter or Youtube account, or at a long-established buff book, there’s no alternative to critical analysis. As for the car blogs, they still face the same choice that they (like the buff books before them) have always faced: credibility or death. No amount of automaker-sponsored “enthusiast reporters” will ever change that basic problem… if anything, it will help refocus blogs on substance rather than outsider posturing.
But enough about my opinion. For me, credibility has always been measured by the openness, genuineness and ferocity of debate that results from any given post, podcast or video. So let’s hear your thoughts…