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.

With former Managing Editor Derek Kreindler heading to a position in planning at an automaker, his replacement Mark Stevenson got off on the wrong foot with a rambling introductory post that tore at TTAC’s entire legacy. Stevenson’s thesis, to the extent that it could be deciphered, seems to be that the site’s founder Robert Farago had some fun car reviews but that he lost the plot when he started the GM Deathwatch series. In addition to misspelling Farago’s name, Stevenson argued that

In short, Farago told a story of an elderly man bringing a knife to a knife fight; but, while his foes brandished freshly sharpened Gerber blades, this old man was holding a butter knife, built by overpaid people, and engineered down to a price.

Like every other human being, Robert Farago has his shortcomings… but wielding a dull rhetorical blade has never been one of them. Moreover, as author of a short-lived “Death Watch” series predicting that Suzuki would exit the US market, Stevenson’s attack on the Farago’s influential GM Deathwatch series is as hypocritical as it is out of touch with the history of the brand he is inheriting. The GM Deathwatch, which ran for hundreds of installments before GM collapsed into government-organized bankruptcy, was what put TTAC on the map and gave it a sense of mission that still has yet to be matched by any other auto media outlet. But to hear Stevenson explain it, the GM Deathwatch series marked the point at which “the voice of TTAC officially become adversarial and tarnished.”

The truth is, of course, the opposite. TTAC’s adversarial nature was part of the site’s DNA from day one, and as this tendency found its perfect opportunity documenting the collapse of one of the world’s largest automakers, the site’s popularity exploded. Not because every post or line of argumentation was indisputable, but because no other outlet had the balls to so directly confront the truth about one of the biggest advertisers in the auto media. Given TTAC’s unique positioning within the motor press and its improbable success building that niche into one of the top car blogs, the only way to “tarnish” its brand is to take it from big game hunting (GM Deathwatch) to plinking at varmints (Suzuki Deathwatch).

It’s tempting to believe that Stevenson is simply too stupid to understand the history he lectured the site’s readers about today, but his historical illiteracy merely masks an all-too familiar agenda. Under the banner of a crusade against “oversimplification” (a sin every blog is guilty of), he is actually reigning in an unruly outlet on behalf of its owners. His argument is reminiscent of countless debates between TTAC editors and their clueless overlords in Toronto, who invariably frame their concerns just as Stevenson has:

We can’t – correction: won’t – be the old man with the butter knife.

It is with this new found responsibility – for the future of TTAC and also as a journalistic citizen in the automotive industry – that I ponder: what’s next?

It surely won’t be a return to what we’ve been. Feather-ruffling for the sake of feather-ruffling will only make for a deafeningly loud hen house. Instead, we must look at the bigger picture, be true to our mission, and an active part of the conversation — hell, be the conversation. Shouting from the other side of the fence is not an option.

This is the winning attitude that has made VerticalScope’s main auto outlet, Autoguide, into one of the least noteworthy of a whole host of car blogs that all peddle the same recycled “content.” Joining the crowd on the respectable “side of the fence” means falling in line with the outlets and writers whose risk-averse, “love every car” platitudes have been helping automobiles become less culturally relevant with every passing year. It’s comfortable on that side of the fence, where junkets and long-term loaner cars beckon as rewards for compliant behavior and advertisers don’t give your corporate overlords grief for content that strays too close to actual journalism. But that lane is crowded with mediocrity already: even if TTAC could move in that direction without losing its fanbase, there would be no reason for readers to switch over from whatever car blog already provides their uninspired automotive content.

TTAC’s owners and new editor will find all this out in due course, so my point here isn’t simply that they are making a business mistake. Rather, I worry the entire discussion will reinforce the idea that the auto media faces a choice between occupying the respectable side of the fence and failure. Every media outlet in the world has to balance aggressively serving readers while growing advertising income, but this balance need not be a trade-off. As I think back on my time at TTAC, it was my most searing and controversial pieces that caught the attention of editors at major outlets, and led to amazing new opportunities. I may not be on the junket-and-press-car gravy train, but I do enjoy a career that’s based on the strength of my analysis and independence of opinions. Had I ever believed for a second that having adversarial or controversial opinions traded off with my future success, there is no way I would enjoy the immensely fortunate position I occupy today.

Still, I can’t take full credit for my success: I was profoundly lucky to begin my career at a moment that now looks like something of a golden age for blogging. When I first started writing at TTAC back in 2008, the idea that our plucky little WordPress blog could go give the car blog behemoths a run for their money wasn’t absurd. The blogosphere was wide open, and by taking on tough topics, churning out high-quality writing and trolling the slow-footed competition, TTAC became the alternative to Autoblog and Jalopnik on a relative shoestring budget.  Sparked by Farago’s single-minded intensity and fueled by some of the top auto writing talent, TTAC’s era of rapid growth now seems more and more like lightning in a bottle. Especially now that Jalopnik has moved past some of its growing pains, the idea of any car blog coming out of nowhere to threaten it seems less likely than ever. After a period of dynamic competition, it seems the online auto media has matured in much the same way that the industry it covers has.

That’s not all bad news: in large part, the decline of smaller blogs is a product of talent being pulled up the media food chain, into the auto industry and to increasingly niche-focused blogs. Besides, what I remember as a romantic and thrilling underdog story may well be remembered by others as little more than a period of increased inter-blog catfights. And at the end of the day, the internet is still the internet: in theory, anyone with enough talent and drive can still grow a small personal blog into an influential and heavily-trafficked media outlet.

So don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere…