The truth about motoring journalism
Automotive journalism as a distinct media beat started rolling in the Philippines in the early ’90s, when local newspapers began publishing weekly motoring sections. Back then, the pages were mostly assigned to the advertising department—special supplements to attract print ads from a then-nascent (and returning) industry.
It was everyone’s general understanding that motoring wasn’t hard news, and that all content produced under its banner was purely for commercial purposes. It was against this backdrop that I became a motoring journalist in July 1995, as editorial assistant for the country’s first full-color, glossy car magazine.
Note that I take special pride when I say “motoring journalist,” even if there are people who dismiss me and my colleagues as nothing more than paid corporate hacks, whose job supposedly involves partaking of carmakers’ PR largesse and then unconditionally praising them for said perks. I don’t blame these people. Motoring journalism, after all, has its roots in marketing (even before the term “marketing” became widely used).
How do we, as salaried journalists, laugh at a ridiculously inferior sedan in our articles without running the risk of getting banned from the manufacturer’s media list?
An American monthly journal called The Horseless Age came out in November 1895. The tagline for the first issue was: “Published in the interests of the motor vehicle industry.” Think about that for a moment: The profession of writing about automobiles was actually born out of a need to promote the industry that produced them. People had been riding horse-drawn carriages all their lives; now, all of a sudden, a modern invention was offering to take them around without requiring the galloping presence of a breathing steed. It was surreal, for sure. Hence, the need to sell the newfangled idea to the public.
Thankfully, it only took one volume for the publishers to realize that for the magazine to be taken seriously—for it to shed its promotional nature—it had to present things from the perspective of its readers. The tagline was thus changed the following year: “Devoted to motor interests.”
Nevertheless, the formula had been established: Car companies make motor vehicles; automotive scribes write about them. It was a symbiotic arrangement that was interesting at best and dubious at worst. For a journalist to report on an automobile with a modicum of credibility, he’d have to get his hands on an actual unit. And for him to keep getting his hands on the latest models, he’d have to have a good working relationship with the automakers. That’s where it often became complicated.
And that’s where it still gets tricky, even today.
How do we, as salaried journalists, laugh at a ridiculously inferior sedan in our articles without running the risk of getting banned from the manufacturer’s media list? How do we unequivocally declare a new SUV to be an outrageous gas-guzzler without having its maker withdraw its advertising support from the publication that puts food on our table? How do we reveal that a van died on us in the middle of the road without the client excluding us from its next road trip that promises a posh hotel stay and a lavish buffet? (These questions were meant to be read with a generous dose of sarcasm, in case an overexposure to Donald Trump has robbed you of the ability to detect mockery.)
Well, there’s an art to it, the mastery of which you don’t acquire just by putting up a blog or a Facebook page. You train for it. You beef up your resumé for it. But most of all, you value your byline’s worth more than anything else. Just like in any field, I suppose.
Twenty years ago, the owner of my first car magazine, Automotion, called my attention to a complaint lodged by a Japanese automaker. My article was too harsh, they apparently said. My boss mentioned that an advertising pull-out had been implied. My idealistic and naive self felt violated and disrespected. Then again, I needed—no, I loved—the job. I had to cleverly find a way to communicate the truth in a manner that was palatable to car companies but still useful to readers. Also, I had to show that I was fair and that I favored no one. Once companies understood this, they eventually let me get away with many things.
The art of writing an honest automotive story takes time to hone and perfect. Not many motoring journalists have managed to pick up the skill even after years of posturing. By my mental count, the number of “journalists” in the automotive beat is now easily triple the tally when I was first starting out. A new medium has emerged, and this has deluded not a few individuals to believe they can wear the badge of the trade just because they happen to know how to drive and string a few sentences together.
You would think that with all the digital technology making the fast transfer of information possible, we motoring journalists must be having a walk in the park. On the contrary, it takes double the effort to get noticed now. With so many “writers” and bloggers and social-media know-it-alls, the fight for readers’ attention has never been fiercer. And that’s why we, too, must evolve. A car writer fond of rattling off technical specifications in his articles will get buried in the news feed faster than the new Corvette will smoke an econobox in a stoplight race. Why would anyone bother with an amateurish piece peppered with information culled from a brochure, when he could simply google the product literature?
Today, I read motoring content produced by charlatans and freeloaders. It’s a blatant display of disregard for public trust. Actually, never mind public trust—just think of all the hard-earned money wasted on shoddy cars, all because a load of BS gets allowed to float its way into the stream of stories that flood mobile phones everywhere.
As with any beat, motoring journalism is now at a crucial crossroads. On the one hand, there is no shortage of information out there. On the other hand, however, most people are left to sift through this oversupply of knowledge by themselves. In an era where even car manufacturers are caught lying with vital data, that’s certainly far from ideal.
Writing about cars as stand-alone objects will no longer suffice. They need to be framed within a dynamic context that encompasses many facets of life.
In this generation of trolls and fake news websites, it may no longer be enough for automotive writers to churn out a customary product description in order to connect with readers. They need to do reviews with conviction—with unassailable integrity—but also with shareable wit and humor. Somebody once paid me the ultimate compliment: “You’re the Conrado de Quiros of the motoring beat.” I’m not sure if even that is still enough, or if I’m just already obsolete.
Another thing: Writing about cars as stand-alone objects will no longer suffice. They need to be framed within a dynamic context that encompasses many facets of life. The editorial brief, I believe, is car culture. Or cars and people. The journalist who consistently puts together entertaining, practical and bang-on car-culture stories will build a solid, quality audience that should provide a more gratifying experience than a quick spin in a Ferrari.
My advice to readers? Find credible motoring journalists you can trust with a car-purchase decision. Those who do not merely shill for corporate advertisers with press releases disguised as feature articles. Those who know what they’re talking about, as opposed to those who just recite from spec sheets. Those who can empathize with you as consumers, but also inspire you as car fans.
I hear the guys at Top Gear Philippines are good. Go check them out.