It was a long, boring, wonderful weekend.
I had no deeds to do, and no promises to keep. Other than spending time with the family and getting better acquainted with old Simon & Garfunkel songs, I pretty much had the time to myself.
It wasn’t until late Sunday that a piece of news would forever change my life.
Road & Track was getting merged/acquired/moved to Michigan. The dusting of media PR was soon avalanched by an endless variety of Facebook comments on my computer screen.
Rumor this. Vitriol that. Everyone seemed to have an opinion and an idea about the past, present and future of Road & Track. Not to mention every other car magazine that occupies the limited space in America’s ever dwindling newspaper stands.
It was strange that so many folks were capable of seeing the future of automotive print media as a dire one. Heck, didn’t Warren Buffett get rich investing in print media?
The comments struck me as nothing more than an overreaction to a publication that had struggled well before Craigslist became a household word.
I thought about the future of car magazines for more than a moment. Close to an hour’s worth of scenarios and ‘what if’s’. Then I started looking deeper into the mirror of online journalism… and I saw the exact same thing.
This is what I wrote…
For the all too few folks from the mag world who visit the confines of TTAC, you can look forward to the following sequence of events.
- Your magazine gets cut, sold, merged, acquired or sent to the hellish Siberia known as Michigan.
- Staff gets reduced further. Parent company starts getting the cold… or the corporate version of pneumonia. Magazine gets combined with automotive web sites and budgets are reduced further.
- Bored 16 year old invents a computer program that takes the writing from old magazine articles and alters them using an algorithm that relies on grammatical contexts, so that new car reviews and comparos are simply cut and pasted with mild changes.
- The ‘writer’ gets a free tank of gas and chotchkies for the next corporate event in exchange for cheerleading and rampant plagiarizing, which is OK now. Since everybody does it with the notable exception of Yahoo’s gifted editorial staff.
- Former auto journalists now perform routine automotive maintenance in Ho Chi Minh City where upwardly mobile Vietnamese drug distribution firms give out pills that offer the same high you got from reading Car and Driver. A gas station is named after Brock Yates.
- The end.
I received the usual assortment of likes. Along with one intense dislike. One auto journalist in question had thought that I had become a chicken-shit, and broken a sacred rule that I call ‘The Piper Principle‘.
The essence of this principle can be summed up in the career of long time professional wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper. The more of a heel he became, the more you rooted for the guy. Piper was the guy you loved to hate… and once you got sick of the ‘good guys’, you rooted for him.
When everyone else is busy booing and kicking the big guy, you start defending them.
Print journalism has been the ‘big guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ of the automotive media for nearly a decade now. My peer thought I was piling on with a mob that was engaging in nasty behavior.
All I was trying to do was point out the obvious.
There seems to be an insurmountably high bar of excellence that the monthly mags now have to pursue to remain relevant. To be blunt, you have to find the most knowledgeable and gifted literary minds in this business to make that model work. By the time the magazine heads to the enthusiast, the news is old and the ‘exclusives’ are now screenshots.
Your online presence has to be able to attract new readers, and those readers have to be given content that is rare, valuable and difficult to imitate.
There also seems to be an insurmountably low bar of mediocrity that the blogosphere can use to attract an audience these days.
Name the snark, the pop culture, or the popular Google reference, and you can pretty much enjoy the good life if you have the right backers. Or at least amuse the public, and let the real enthusiasts go off and not spend their money elsewhere.
Most publishers in this day and age, online and print, generally don’t ‘invest’ in good journalism over the long-term. It seems like the trend is to simply outsource as much talent as possible, keep the wages low, the benefits minimal, and the turnover constant.
I have seen this happen in another industry, the auto auction industry. The largest salvage auction company in the world, Copart, used to hire dozens of bid callers throughout the country to perform their sales. In 2003, they constructed their own automated chant and fired all the auctioneers. Today if you want to hear a chant at one of their auctions…you can…. online.
The chant just won’t be a human one.
A lot of you laugh at the thought of some automaton dishing out car reviews to the masses of enthusiasts. But consider how many PR blurbs now pass as car reviews in today’s newspapers and online publications. Heck, I’ve seen many industry press releases be duplicated and sent forth as actual ‘news’ in this business… under the byline of a supposed journalist.
I have faith that enthusiasts will still invest their time in the unique and the interesting. The question is whether the crux of the mainstream automotive media will remain that way.