The buff-books are dying, and the car blogs are right behind them

Hackenberg Wolfsburg- picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Yesterday evening, Automotive News wrote about mass firings at Source Interlink. The publisher of motor magazines including Motor Trend, Hot Rod and Super Street circles the wagons. 75 positions were eliminated, and from what I hear, it was the good and expensive ones that were fired. When the cheaper talent compares the cost of living in downtown LA with Ann Arbor, more attrition is to be expected. Car blogs usually don’t miss a chance to make snide remarks about the downfall of tree-based automotive journalism. This time, the echo is muted. Perhaps because the car blogs that shoveled the graves of the buff books show signs of impending death themselves.

 

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If you look at the Alexa rankings of major car blogs, you see that they mostly have been going sideways in 2013, a trend that could be observed for the last few years already. On the Internet, treading water means drowning.

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Ad prices are trending down, and one needs to increase traffic just to maintain revenue. Too many blogs chase the same dollar. The “race to the bottom” so many bloggers are ready to decry when Daimler sells a GLA, or Porsche a Macan, is taking its toll among the blogs. Like a chicken that is oblivious that it was just beheaded, the blogs stumble on. Even Google “continues to grapple with ad-pricing declines,” wrote Advertising Age.

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In 2014, Alexa rankings of major car blogs started to deteriorate, dramatically at some.  Seasonality may be one factor (traffic is always lowest in summer,) but I have never seen across-the-board deterioration of that magnitude.

jalopnik

Interestingly, the only large car blog that budges the trend is Jalopnik. Maybe because Jalopnik is no car blog. Jalopnik caters mostly to juvenile drivers of car sims. The bulk of its traffic originates from schools, Alexa says. “Penis” is a hot search word in this underage demographic, and Jalopnik is happy to serve the search results. The stories in Jalopnik simulate real journalism as much as Gran Turismo simulates car racing. Both do it quite convincingly, and on occasion, Jalopnik is capable of pugnacious dirt-digging. The big car blog downdraft was powerful enough to retard Jalopnik’s ascendancy a tiny bit. Fear not, as long as their readers search for their penis, and as long as Jalopnik is willing to sift through the mud before it slings it, the site will grow. And if you worry about young people losing their lust for cars, Jalopnik can provide that target in spades.

ttac-compete

Alexa shows how sites are ranked relative to other sites, reflecting their global market share, so to speak. It is a good indicator of how big a share of the advertising pie a site can command. Of course, there are other ways to look at it. Compete.com charts the number of unique visitors of a site. I never understood why internet metrics favor visitors who come out of nowhere, and why those metrics dislike loyal repeat-customers who read you every day. But who am I to argue.

The chart Compete.com paints for my former employer looks especially gruesome. Uniques peaked in August 2013, and were down-hill ever since. TTAC’s upper management had told me many times that the site never made money. That was when the trend was up.

Some blame Google’s ever-changing algorithms for the moribund website traffic. Ask on Google product forums why a site’s traffic is suddenly down, and the standard answer is “the content is poor.” Google tries to algorithmically grasp the quality of an article, and if the spider says your story sucks, your rankings will suffer. It doesn’t need a highly intelligent spider to notice the sinking quality. Writers are capable to supply quality articles. However, publishers no longer demand it.

If price is the perfect measure for supply and demand, then there is abundant supply of shlock and no demand for quality. Blog writing in America is alarmingly underpaid. Bloggers make more money in China these days. In America, the going rate increasingly is $ zero, and blogs get what they pay for. Research? What research? “News” are delivered days late, and are clumsily rewritten – if they get rewritten at all. Most of the alleged content is stolen from other sites. Regurgitating something does not make it more appetizing. Even “World’s most famous car spy – Brenda Priddy” complains louder and louder on Facebook that nobody wants to pay real money for her pictures anymore. Why pay if you can steal, and claim that it is “the work of our hotshot team of spy photographers?”

Faced with the choice of investing money into better writers instead of buying traffic outright, more and more blogs choose the safe, but shady way. They buy the clicks.

Look at the economics. A story at TTAC brings anywhere from a few hundred clicks to a few thousand. Bought outright, a thousand clicks will be yours for $1 on upwards. Which quickly sets the price of a good article: $3 to $5 per story. The only way a writer can consistently beat the bots is by writing for free. Which is what they do. This is a wide and interesting field, and we will cover it later in more detail.

For years, OEMs have complained that those tree-based professional journalists, people who know the car beat, people who know the difference between on-the-record and off-the-record, are a dying breed. Hopes that the thinning ranks of greybeards will be filled by sharp young bloggers are being frustrated.

Hackenberg-Jost - picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Whenever I think about these things, I remember the trip to Wolfsburg, to which Volkswagen had invited the crème de la creme of American auto bloggers at a cost of what I estimated at more than $10,000 a head. They dragged Volkswagen’s Über-Ingenieur Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg out of a board meeting so that he could face the eager journalists. Then, nothing happened. The hopes of journalism poked their smartphones and noses instead of asking pointed questions. See picture at the beginning of the story.

Instead of talking to Hackenberg, the scribes were interested in talking to themselves, or their friends on Facebook and Twitter. Volkswagen made a mistake and served free WiFi along with free food. Both were consumed with gusto, the Über-Ingenieur was ignored. Hackenberg ended up being interviewed by two troglodytes from the last century of auto journalism, Kevin Jost of SAE Magazine, and Doron Levin of Fortune.

The bloggers deserve to be replaced by bots.

The downspin of the auto sites has worried carmakers for quite some time, and they are working on alternatives. Nissan especially is at the forefront of that movement to leapfrog the do-nothing, bot-based media, and to talk directly to the public instead through open-mouthed mouthpieces. Others are rumored to work on similar projects. When Nissan launched its Global Newsroom, Roger Schreffler of Wards, a fixture of the Tokyo auto circuit, complained loudly at the Foreign Correspondents Club that “Nissan wants to put us all out of business.” The blogs don’t even notice that they are being replaced.

Meanwhile, Motor Trend’s is “restructuring its automotive titles under a new branding group called The Enthusiast Network,” wrote AN. This should hasten their demise. It’s a badly kept secret in the industry that “enthusiast” is a dirty word among automakers. According to lore making the rounds on corridors of major OEMs, those expletive deleted “enthusiasts” give bad unsolicited advice on how to build, brand, and sell cars, they get vicious if they aren’t listened to, and the only thing they buy are aftermarket parts for their 15 year old jalopies. To get ad dollars out of the OEMs, ready buyers need to be delivered. Enthusiast and news sites are on the subsistence diet of Google Adwords, or shadier networks. As the charts above show, the lack of calories is taking its toll.

P.S.: Don’t ask for our rankings, we have none. We don’t take ads either.

 

P.P.S.: Neal Pollack pointed to the second picture, demanding credit for “peeking over Doron Levin’s right shoulder, and I am TRYING to listen.” It sure looks like Neal receding hairline. Credit issued.