Over the last ten years, the exponential rise in the use of the internet has forced established automotive publications to constantly evolve in terms of both appearance and content – primarily through the influx in the number of automotive websites and blogs popping up all over the web covering all manner of subjects from Reliant Robins to rare automotive exotica.
The increased accessibility of automotive web-based media to the general public has empowered the automotive enthusiast to take up the challenge themselves and create their own journalistic outlet, with no formal training or technical skills required.
The growth of the blog has allowed the individual to take journalism into their own hands and maximise the ability to produce content on a plethora of topics. Now, one blog may only cover one area of content per se (no matter how in-depth it is), but with even the most computer-illiterate of us still able to perform a Google search, the ease and proficiency with which the average internet user can surf the web means the next topic, and therefore area of maximised content aimed at an unbelievably narrow market by print standards, is only seconds away. Something a print publication could never compete with.
As Frank Giovinazzi of the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA) outlines: “The new reality of always-on, instant information has changed everything – from the frequency and volume of information to the very identity of the major publishers.” (Giovinazzi, 2006).
In America, blogs such as Autoblog and Jalopnik (although now commercial enterprises in their own right, they were once independent blogs) have really taken the fight to mainstream titles such as Car and Driver and Motor Trend. The story is the same in theUK. There are plenty of forums and blogs that cover the same news and publish the same leaked photographs and rumours of the next German or Italian road-based royalty as the established print players and web-based magazines do; they just do it with more exclamation marks. So why do people visit the amateur blog-type sites if they can get the low-down from people in touch with the industry, who make it their job to report such news?
Unfiltered information, freedom of expression, what ever you term it as, it’s a major factor in attracting users to the blogs:
“We can put our comments there, we can frame it any way we want, but we’re going to give you all the information we get. When we go to an auto show, within two hours of the press conference our live shots are there, all of the press shots and the complete press release is there on the site. We’re not going to sit there and pick out the information we think our readers want to read, they’re going to get all of it and we can do that because we don’t have to worry about what it costs to print on paper. We can put as much up there as we can stuff and it doesn’t cost us anything” (Giovinazzi, 2006)
John Neff, editor of one of the most prominent upstarts in online journalism Autoblog.com, believes the lack of constraints surrounding what content they can publish attracts the glut of readers his site manages to net. In conjunction with this, Neff believes the informal editorial style of the blog-based automotive journalism outlet has contributed towards the formats success. “Autoblog’s editorial approach is interesting in that it is a blog, and while that scares a lot of automakers because they think we might be unprofessional…the advantages of being a blog is that you don’t have to be a perfect writer – you don’t have to write a magnum opus for every article.” (Giovinazzi, 2006).
While this maybe true, it’s fair to say that it has also become somewhat of a contentious point in the world of online automotive journalism. As Zgale (2010) highlights, the lack of formal training and professional practice can get the blogger into hot water, the point being that; “basic journalistic practices of checking sources and not believing everything you hear should be considered when writing any story.” A sacrosanct principle of any journalist worth their salt that is often ignored by the blogger sometimes resulting in a story based on incorrect fact.
Initially, blogs had the edge on the online derivatives of the reputable print publications. The constant flow of information to the end user that made the blog what it is today was key to its success back in the early 2000s, and in Autoblog.com’s case proved a successful model achieving well over 3 million monthly visitors within 2 years of the inception of the site in 2003.
Today however, interactivity, informality and raw information isn’t enough to steal the market share. “Automotive journalism has been transformed over the last decade thanks in part to web-only publications pushing mainstream magazines to redefine their print issues and web sites.” (Zgale, 2010). In the early days, the blogs could trade on these factors alone but currently, with the market place becoming ever more crowded, the big print monthly and weeklies have also branched out into the world of online content. The empowerment of the bedroom journalist, along with the increasing role technology plays in everyday life, has forced the recognized names of the motoring press to broaden their horizons and re-analyse their brand’s strategy and position in the market place.
Autocar magazine, the oldest and second most read motoring publication in the UK, according to National Readership Survey figures with an estimated readership of 265,000 between October 2009 and September 2010 (NRS, 2010), is a prime example of how the established and respected names in automotive journalism have staved off the threat and embraced the tools for the modern media age.
The Autocar umbrella of publications including: Autocar, Autocar.co.uk and the new for 2011 Autocar iPad app and digitised version of the print magazine (available from mag.autocar.co.uk) have brought the brand to the forefront of online automotive content. With the brilliantly diverse cross-platform strategy Autocar has lined up for itself, the brand exemplifies how the advent of the internet has changed the world of automotive journalism for the better.
With Autocars’s product line-up consisting of a successful magazine and website, as well as a branded insurance product, popular trackday program and now two new revenue streams coming on line in 2011 in the form of Autocar’s iPad app (priced at £2.99) and the digitised version of the magazine (priced at £2.80 per issue or £89 for a 12-month subscription) (Haymarket Media Group, 2011), Autocar have moved the goal posts of the automotive journalism world out of reach of the bedroom-blogger in terms of the ability to offer almost limitless specialist content through a variety of different media. The ability to generate revenue through associated products is a beneficial facet of the business brought by the onset of the digital age and is heavily apparent in automotive journalism. Autosport and web-based magazinePistonheads.com have capitalised brilliantly on this phenomenon with sponsorship of the Autosport International show and the Pistonheads car shownot only giving them another excellent outlet to promote their cause but also generating huge awareness in the process.
The digital world and the internet in particular, have also fuelled the relentless quest to produce new and interesting ways to develop and display content whilst conveniently relieving fans of their hard-earned. Primarily however, it’s the ability to maximise the output of content, facilitated by the growth in the online platform allowing in-depth audio-visual content that has been the primary driver of change in automotive journalism – regardless of the size of the organisation.
Mark Payton, digital editorial director at Haymarket consumer media, perfectly attests to the forces at work: “I love the way that online I can become vertical in a way that I could never afford to in print. I could take your wildest fetish and exploit it to its absolute extreme. So if you want in our case, a car buyer’s guide, we can just keep on going and we can indulge you fully, no matter what type of car you’re in to or what your outlook on motoring is, we can take it to its logical extreme and as an editorial director I find that extremely exciting.” (Bull, 2010).
Underlining the success of the recognised publications in the automotive world however, is a fundamental point of journalism that transcends all platforms of media. There is no replacement for journalistic technique. Plain and simple. Readers appreciate the research and thought that has gone into a considered piece by someone who makes it their job to research, review and write about a given topic. Without wanting to dismiss the work of the blogger, it’s often seen as has been previously highlighted, that the blog-type outlet is long on enthusiasm and interest, but short on grounded fact or technique. This is not to say professional publications are upright and austere however, as many major websites also offer the musings of the motoring journalists in a more relaxed blogging style again giving that option to the reader in terms of content. Still, coupled to the fact that the big players with established links to the automotive world have direct access to new models and motor shows, giving first hand news and reviews on anything from the latest Ferrari to fuel-duty rises, the reasons as to why the online versions (or even solely online) of well-known motoring titles achieve such success aren’t had to fathom.
There’s always an exception to the rule though. Pistonheads.com was established by David Edmonston in 1999, and although recognised as a pioneer in the world of online automotive journalism, the website’s original concept was a less than clear vision:
“I was researching the web in order to get up to speed with developments for my day job. This was around about the same time as I bought a sports car. I combined the two interests for fun initially. As I experimented more I realized how little investment I needed in order to create a ‘publication’ that could steal a march on traditional magazines and sources of motoring news. With an old PC and a bit of shared server space I set about creating a crude magazine that would bring news daily rather than weekly – quite a novelty in the motoring world even in 1999.”(Loughane, 2005)
The website’s popularity grew rapidly, not least thanks to extensive TV coverage in 2004, owing to death threats made to road safety campaigners on the website. By January 2007, the online magazine and forum had been swallowed up by the motoring arm of publishing giant, Haymarket and by 2008 was receiving more than 1.5 million unique visitors each month (Racecar.com, 2008). The once small and crude online magazine had traversed the gap between the individually run enterprise and the global online outlet for automotive content that it is today. To many, it is the original automotive journalism website.
The fact that Pistonheads.com was eventually bought out by Haymarket stands to reinforce the extent to which the internet has changed automotive journalism. With online content in the form of Autosport.com,Autocar.co.uk, WhatCar.com and Pistonheads.com among others, Haymarket have clearly set out their stall for the future, and in complimenting their print counterparts (Pistonheads.com excepted) firmly believe online content is going to play a large part.
The arrival of the information age, and with it a new and unique platform on which to display content, has also heralded a new type of automotive journalism. Automotive satire is here.
Sniffpetrol.com is a satirical take on the motor industry that has become an extremely popular haunt for many interested in automotive journalism. With it’s clichéd road tester and Executive Associate Editor-At-Large for DAB OF OPPO magazine, Troy Queef is a character that embodies all those, done-to-death, corny and unoriginal quips of the motoring journalist. The site also features Carcoat Damphands, the venerable used car salesman that seemingly only speaks in cockney rhyming slang and riddles as well as the hilarious ‘not advertisement’ section that pokes fun at the sometimes unbelievable and tenuous marketing campaigns masterminded by the manufacturers.Sniffpetrol.com is a brilliant example of how the versatility of online journalism allows the production of a product that would never be able to succeed in print and is a perfect example of the transformation automotive journalism has undergone, making the media actively work for the journalist.
Online automotive journalism has not been without its failures though. Founded in March 2008 by Steve Davies, Richard Meaden (co-founder of evo magazine), Jethro Bovingdon (former deputy-Editor of evo magazine) Chris Harris (former road test Editor of Autocar),DriversRepublic.com was a successful digital motoring magazine and niche social network for drivers – very similar to Pistonheads.com – that published news, features, first tests, a usually twice-weekly digital magazine and video clips. However, the site was to disband by 11thAugust 2009 and in the process highlighted one of the major issues to face online automotive journalism; the brief of the publication.
Steve Davies: “There has been plenty of speculation on other sites and forums about the reasons why this has occurred, and despite the first impressions that it must have been for financial reasons, nothing could be further from the truth. Thanks to your participation and the generous support of the automotive industry we were in rude health and looking forward to a bumper year, but differences in our vision about future priorities have led to a parting of ways.”
The ability of the internet to allow almost limitless scope for the production of content in a manner of different forms brings with it a potentially, massively more varied set of aims for any given publication. With content maximisation at the forefront of every body’s minds, the potential for dispute within management over the editorial direction of a publication is a real issue, and one that obviously in DriversRepublic.com’scase couldn’t be solved, causing the cessation of production for the website.
One final point that must be noted is how online automotive journalism has been implemented. As is with the most successful online newspaper, the Mail Online, next to no web-based motoring sites have erected a paywall – content remains free. The big publications have followed the lead of the biggest online title in Fleet Street in adopting a no-paywall strategy; a strategy for the Mail Online that is proven to work and a business model that many believe actively increases revenue. With readers of the online arm more likely to buy a copy of the same newspaper and the ability to serve ad impressions to millions of viewers at a negligible marginal cost, why shouldn’t it work for the large motoring periodicals?
Overall, be it a blog or a recognised title, the internet has changed automotive journalism for the better. The online world doesn’t appear to be encroaching on the domain of print as after all, no matter how much and how varied the content that can be displayed online is, there is a quality to print, the way a spread comes together on a page and the tactility of the material, that digital media can never hope to compete with.
Bull, A. (2010) Multimedia journalism: a practical guide, Routledge.
Davies, S. (2009) Farewell to DR, DriversRepublic.com, 11.08.2009. Available online at: http://blog.drivers-republic.com/2009/08/11/farewell-to-dr/, accessed 23 January 2011
Gionvinazzi, F. (2006) Auto Journalism’s New Speed, Bloomber’s Business Week, 27.03.2006. Available online at:http://www.businessweek.com/autos/content/mar2006/bw20060327_944744.htm, accessed 23 January 2011
Haymarket Media Group, (2011) Autocar strikes twice with digital media, 21.01.2011. Available online at:http://www.haymarket.com/newsarticle.aspx?news=957, accessed 23 January 2011
Loughane, E. (2005) Net Success Interviews, Lulu.com
National Readership Survey, (2010) NRS Readership Estimates – General Magazines: October 2009 – September 2010, NRS
Racecar.com, (2008) PistonHeads Show live attractions, Racecar.com, 02.01.2008. Available online at:http://www.racecar.com/Motorsport/News/PistonHeads-Show-live-attractions/20094.htm, accessed 23 January 2011
Zgale, (2010)The Changing Face of Online Automotive Journalism, 25.07.2010. Available online at:http://www.journalistech.org/index.php/2010/07/the-changing-face-of-online-automotive-journalism/, accessed 23 January 2011