TTAC And The Golden Years of Car Blogging

The author, getting an early taste of automotive journalism on his first travel assignment at TTAC (SEMA 2008, Las Vegas)

The author, getting an early taste of automotive journalism on his first travel assignment at TTAC (SEMA 2008, Las Vegas)

Some of these days, and it won’t be long
Gonna drive back down
where you once belonged
In the back of a dream car
twenty foot long
Don’t cry my sweet,
don’t break my heart
Doing all right,
but you gotta get smart

-David Bowie, “Golden Years”

None of Daily Kanban’s well-informed readers will mistake today’s changing of the editorial guard at the former blogging home of both Bertel and myself with a story of deep importance to the auto industry. I suspect the topic doesn’t even hold the same importance for Bertel, whose time at TTAC was a relative blip across an long and accomplished career (and who is currently on the ground at the Shanghai Auto Show), that it does for me. Even if you are familiar with the history of the site in question and really understand what happened today, it’s just another instance of a dynamic that is playing out across the broader online media. But as I start another week deeply satisfying work, I can’t help but notice that my great professional fortunes all trace back to my time at TTAC. If others are to enjoy the opportunity that I did, it’s important to understand what happened today.

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It’s (Not Even) About Ethics In Automotive Journalism

Advertisement or just plain old "car content"? Or is there a difference?

Advertisement or just plain old “car content”? Or is there a difference?

The first time I ever watched “The World’s Fastest Car Show,” I was on an airplane. I can’t remember the airline, but when I took my seat on the flight, an episode showing a shootout to crown “The World’s Fastest Sedan” was playing on the seatback screen in every row. At the time I didn’t think twice about it, assuming it was simply an advertisement for the winning Dodge Charger Hellcat. I’d previously seen a similarly-produced segment featuring the Lincoln MKS “competing” for the affection of a bunch of actors portraying luxury car buyers, and that was unmistakably advertising. After all, everything that runs on those seatback screens pre-flight are clearly paid-for advertisements.

So imagine my surprise this morning, when Jalopnik’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Hardigree tweeted a link to a Kinja Post from “The World’s Fastest Car Show” which stated that the segment I had seen on that airplane was “banned” from Motor Trend’s YouTube channel.

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GM’s “Award-Winning” PR Strategy

Cui bono?

Cui bono?

For as long as General Motors has been losing market share in the United States, Detroit’s largest automaker has looked beyond mere success on the market to craft a winning PR narrative. This has been no easy task; after all, nothing succeeds like success. But luckily for GM there is an alternative to actual success: awards. Offered by countess media outlets, professional associations and industry groups, these awards may not actually substitute for (let alone drive) consumer demand for GM’s products, but they do allow the Ren Cen’s merry spinmeisters to craft an appearance of success for the company, no matter how at odds with reality it is.

History is littered with embarrassing legacies of this strategy, perhaps most notably the time when GM won Motor Trend’s 1971 Car Of The Year award for its hapless Chevrolet Vega. But GM’s awards-centric strategy is hardly a thing of the past: just last week, CEO Mary Barra claimed that recent awards prove that GM is indeed a new company and that “we are there to win.” Barra’s statement was deeply ironic, as touting award wins as a sign of success is precisely the kind of “leadership” that allowed GM to ignore its failures on the market for decades. In fact, under Barra’s leadership GM is not simply falling back on awards to burnish its underperforming vehicles, it’s relying on awards to polish Barra’s image as well. Worst of all, it appears many of these awards are effectively bought and paid for.

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Sorry, you have been lied to about the next-gen LFA, and here is the proof. Now, about that LF-LC …

One of the last LFA made in Motomachi. Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

On Thursday and Friday, I went to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. I did not go for the scenery, but to watch Lexus’ new crossover, the NX, come off the line. I did that. And I did something else. I experienced the birth of a duck. In the business, the French word “canard” (duck) stands for “false or misleading report or story,” and this is the story of how a canard was hatched.

Since yesterday, you undoubtedly have heard the reports that a new Lexus LFA “has been confirmed.” Don’t sell that house, or cash in that 501K just yet. I have to disappoint you, the reports are bogus. [Continue Reading]

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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The Mystery Of The Unsold Cars

Ah, look at all the lonely automobiles...

Ah, look at all the lonely automobiles…

One of the great frustrations about writing on the internet is the constant reminder that words can never compete with images for immediate impact. The human symbol-based psyche craves simplicity in a frighteningly complex world, and images provide their impact immediately, without need for further consideration. The old chestnut that “a lie is halfway ’round the world before the truth gets its pants on” is especially true in the modern world, where ever more is shared in images that can only ever show so much.

When Zerohedge posted photos portraying huge parking lots where, allegedly, “the world’s cars go to die” it was inevitable that the photos would have a huge impact. After all, 1) ZH is very well read and 2)monstrous overflow lots stuffed with unsold vehicles were to the 2008 US auto meltdown what suburbs full of foreclosure signs were to the mortgage crisis. In my naivete, however, I believed the shocking (if not entirely accurate) imagery of the post would inspire a closer look at the current auto inventory situation around the world. Having warned of inventory buildup in the US in a recent Bloomberg View post, I thought I could busy my weekend with other issues.

Yeah, right.

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The Great Auto Safety Crash, Or, Why You Need To Be A Lawyer To Do An Automotive Journalist’s Work

GMCobaltNHTSA

I'm not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960's...

I’m not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960’s…

Of all the automotive sector topics covered by the business media, defect recalls are consistently one of the most tricky to cover. Most defects are the inevitable products of immensely complex supply chains and constant price pressure, and recalls for them are ultimately a sign of a company responding to the problem. And with some 22 million vehicles recalled from the US market in 2013, consumers can hardly be expected to know which ones represent grounds for real concern.

Because automakers control all the information about the products they make, reporters on the automotive safety beat have little choice but rely on the company line for their stories. Only the threat of investigation by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration compels automakers to fully reveal their dirty laundry, and only NHTSA’s complaint database gives the public an opportunity to compare their experiences with the company line. No wonder the first real auto safety journalist (and the inspiration for NHTSA’s founding) was a lawyer.

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Five Rules For Writing About Millennials And Cars

Go knock yourself out

Go knock yourself out

If you have read any of the big car blogs in the last year, you’ve doubtless endured at least a few pieces on the “Millennial Question.” The role of youth in the automotive culture has so thoroughly captured the attention of car writers, hardly a day goes by in which at least one blog doesn’t add something to the debate. And no wonder: America’s much-vaunted “love affair with the automobile” has long relied heavily on a strong association between the youthful desire for freedom and the mobility that cars provide. If, as the data clearly shows, kids are less likely to buy cars than they used to be, it’s not just the auto industry that stands to be impacted… the very character of American culture is at stake.

Unfortunately, these high stakes have led to a more emotionalized discourse on the subject but not a better one. As I mentioned in my last Blind Spot on the subject, the conversation seems stuck between Baby Boomers trying to blame/shame Millennials for “giving up on cars,” and Millennials blaming Boomers for bequeathing them an economy with far less opportunity.

Regardless of which side you want to blame, it’s important to understand how complex this issue is. In the spirit of improving the discourse, here are a few issues that every writer should consider before launching into this divisive and far-more-interesting-than-you’d-think-by-reading-most-of-the-stories-on-it topic.

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