Swag the dog: The shitstorm that could stop all junkets

Swag? Ask the Urban Dictionary

Swag? Ask the Urban Dictionary

 

Yesterday, Noah Joseph, a writer for Autoblog, went semi-public on Facebook, demanding more gifts from OEMs. “Am I the only one who misses a bit of swag from press events?” Joseph asked the members of an allegedly secret Facebook group (1024 members,) dedicated to writing about cars. It was a loaded question. Joseph not only shot himself in both feet, he took more than a few of his colleagues with him, and it may very well be the shot that signaled the end of lavish press junkets.

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Joseph decried the fact that OEMs are getting stingy: “From each of the past several trips I was on, I got little more than a notepad and a pen.” Donald Buffamanti, in jest, or not, demanded “an Apple watch so I’m on time for the press conferences would be perfect!” Buffamanti is known as one of the most colorful and least demanding writers. According to strictly unconfirmed and possibly vicious lore, the female assistants he brings to events are all paid out of his own pocket. Ben Wojdyla, copywriter at Team Detroit and hence familiar with the heavy burden carried by his Detroit clients, refused more swag, because he has only “one carry on and not a lot of room. I want a USB stick with specs, wifi, and time to work.” Good boy.

The semi-secret discussion quickly spilled over the flimsy walls around the group. Jalopnik, the Internet outlet that never lets a chance for fake outrage about ethics violations (elsewhere) go by, blasted the attempt to make OEMs bear more gifts. Under the headline “This is everything wrong with auto journalism in one Facebook thread,” Jalopnik channeled Thomas Mann, and wrote:

“So yeah, Noah Joseph of Autoblog wants the people who flew him to the event, put him up in a gorgeous hotel, fed him, and gave him a car to drive to also provide him with free memorabilia to remember the trip. It’s not out of the ordinary for automakers to give a little something out on these trips (Full Disclosure: All of us at Jalopnik have definitely accepted a little gift on a trip at some point), but what is out of the ordinary is to be so entitled that you express disappointment when automakers aren’t giving you something to remember a trip by.”

Jalopnik’s attempt on whipping up righteous indignation (along with a hefty load of SEO-enhancing incoming links) initially did not resonate among the auto writers. They love their swag. Instead of publication, Jalopnik got push-back. Aaron Bragman, according to his Twitter profile Detroit Bureau Chief for Cars.com, was semi-publicly offended by the sudden publicity, complaining:

“Just so everyone knows, this entire supposedly private thread was just posted by Travis to Jalopnik.”

(Travis is Travis Okulsky, who described the travesty in Jalopnik. Journalists: Unless everybody has agreed to keep their mouths shut, nothing is off-limits.) The lack of resentment riled Jalopnik even more:

Nobody seems to find a request like this out of the ordinary.

Barely anyone here is saying that this is bullshit. Nobody tells them to find an actual story. The suggestion to open your own damn wallet and buy a souvenir isn’t seriously proffered. The idea that you should be thankful that you have one of the most desired jobs amongst gearheads isn’t really acknowledged.

And that’s when you look again at some of the comments that are meant as “jokes” and you start to wonder… are they really joking?”

If they were joking, it may have been some of their last laughs. If contacts at major automakers did tell me the truth, some of the contributors to the Facebook swagfest will find themselves no longer invited back. The number of fly-aways could even become curtailed.

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Not only was the story quickly on Twitter, that “secret” group is well read in the PR departments of major automakers, and the rant comes at an inopportune time.

For quite a while, there have been discussions among major OEMs about the efficacy of the junkets. They are extremely expensive. The pro-junketeers say that the press-trips, properly timed, provide a PR surge, along with the chance to expose reporters to the real people who make the cars, the designers and engineers – if only more reporters would jump at the rare opportunity.

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Corporate members of the anti-junket camp claim that the company is no longer getting its money’s worth.

I ran a back-of-the-envelope raw guess of the cost of getting a “journalist” to the event and back home – remember, I spent most of my life on the dark side, I did not just see the budgets for the events, I submitted them – and I arrived at a cost of above $10,000 a head.

“All-in? Easily!” said the chief of a large global automaker, when we discussed this in a dark and noisy bar a few months ago.

It’s not just the flights, the hotels, the catering that need to be paid. Armies of OEM personnel – augmented by warm and expensive bodies from the agencies – need to be brought to the front. Cars need to be trucked in, and some not brought back. Race courses need to be rented, cops need to be paid off, and we still have just scratched the surface of the true cost of a big press event.

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Let’s see what’s on the other side of the ledger. What do carmakers get for all that money?

At TTAC, where I had all the numbers, a good car review got anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 clicks. A bad one, hastily written in the departure lounge, got less. Sure, a good car review draws traffic a little longer than a quick news-item, published three days after it appeared first on the wires. Then also, a “good” car review in the eyes of the reader often is not so good in the eyes of the OEM, who bleeds money through the nose to get one.

Car reviews are well read, but they aren’t guaranteed home runs. When I left TTAC in mutual anger, the most-read, all time high story was “Ask the Best and Brightest: Fuel Injector Cleaner?” a 2009 nugget from the Farago era, written by gunslinger Farago himself.

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“The Truth About Carmax,” also a 2009 oldie, ranked 2nd, at last followed by a car review in place 3: “Comparison review: 2013 Honda Accord Sport vs. 2013 Ford Fusion SE.” (This was when we still could pay Michael Karesh $1,000 a month for professional car reviews. I soon had to fire him to save money.) This all-time high review pulled some 15,000 clicks over a few months, not enough at all to pay Michael’s bills.

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How much are these clicks worth? I know how much they are worth to the publisher: A freelancer used to get $25 a post, now, increasingly, nothing. The free trip, paid by the automaker, is used in lieu of payment. A publisher can buy 1,000 clicks for less than $1 these days, and rumor has it that some of these bought clicks are used to prop-up increasingly flagging numbers. What do you think does happen when it’s cheaper to buy clicks than to pay a writer? Now you know why Karesh was let go, followed a year later by the last of TTAC’s pro reviewers, Alex Dykes, a never-complaining, always on time sweetheart of a writer, who was grossly underpaid for what he delivered, and who couldn’t hurt any car, except for a black 2010 Mercedes C63 AMG.

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Writers can, but probably won’t, find solace in the fact that they are not alone. The New York Times has the story, in an article about “the culture of free”, of Zoe Keating, a cellist from Northern California: ” Over a six-month period, Ms. Keating’s songs had been played on Pandora more than 1.5 million times; that earned her all of $1,652.74.” There is that number again, a dollar for a thousand clicks. Would we be selling ads here, this story would get me a buck. Begging pays a better, and far more assured, hourly wage.

Follow the money: Instead of pros, the OEMs increasingly get what the publishers don’t pay for, rank amateurs in the unpaid sense of the word. What can cost the OEM more than $10,000, is valued by the publisher at anywhere between zero and $25. Granted, numbers can differ. A prudent OEM could get away with $5,000 a head (no swag), and a very generous publisher could pay $500 an article (please call me when you find one.) Even then, a huge discrepancy remains.

“We know that,” the PR chief of a large automaker tells me, “but as long as I get [insert a few big names in auto writing] to the event, those [derogatory deleted] bloggers can tag along.” Touché. The bloggerati better pray that the derided paper-based dinosaurs don’t get extinct too early, or the free source of their frequent flyer miles will suddenly dry up.

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At other automakers, lavish press trips already are under review, and they become target practice during budget reviews. Sales always needs more money for their dealer reveals. Accountants, who count increasingly rare press clippings instead of beans, hear, as last defense of the junkets, that this is the price that needs to be paid for good behavior. The swagstorm doesn’t help here. It also isn’t helpful when excited writers find their trips to and fro the event more tweet-worthy than the car they are supposed to write about, when they bitch about the middle seat, or when they brag on-line that they can take their whole family on vacation using the frequent flyer miles amassed during the press trips.

The swag, missed by Noah Joseph, is not the real currency. What keeps the writers coming are the frequent flyer miles. And that must be the most wasteful way to pay off a journalist. Even that expensive currency is about to lose all value to the spoiled scribes. Said Larry Nutson of the Auto Channel:

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They refuse to go on the junkets once put in boarding group 5 – when they fly their family to Maui, on miles they never paid for. To and fro the event, they fly up front, on tickets paid by the OEM. How much longer will that fly?

Someone out there probably already is re-thinking the wasteful mess that can only enrich airlines, hotels, and manufacturers of swag, instead of the lives of prospective car buyers, or the pockets of carmakers. If OEMs would junk the junkets, and pay $100 per story, outright, in cash, straight to the writers, those $10,000 a head would buy 100 stories, instead of one, or increasingly none, a more than hundredfold improvement on both sides. Writers would suddenly be well paid again, and would no longer complain on Facebook about the diminishing quality of chachkes. Quite possibly, Jalopnik could castigate it as gross ethics violation, and add to the widespread popularity of the idea. I’d be grateful for a 1% commission, much cheaper than the 15% I used to get in the olden days, I am more or less embracing the culture of free.

P.S. The golden days of junkets are over anyway. Dinosaurs who have been in this gig as long as I have been (a few more years, and it will be half a century, if I won’t be killed before) have seen better days and more lavish services. I remember times where female companionship was not refused at the door (as Aaron Bragman says he did, no wonder he wants top keep it secret,) but expected to be in the room on arrival, ready to sort through your dainties. Two of them, if you deserved their utmost appreciation. There was no Facebook, and it was kept entre nous, professional courtesy.

P.P.S.: Just when we thought the secret Facebook shitstorm had died down, Michael Caudill of Burson-Marsteller, and hence with a professional interest in the continuation of junkets and swag, ripped Jalopnik a new one for calling swag-loving journalists “entitled assholes,” whereupon Okulski fired back: “I feel that there is one term that describes that to a T: Entitled asshole,” saying what’s wrong with auto journalism in one sentence. It’s a new day, and the discussion about swag or not is in full swing again, along with fresh demands by journalists that it should be possible to enjoy the swag in the privacy of their own Facebook. If $SWAG is listed, I’d short it.

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