The Changing Face of Online Automotive Journalism

May 13, 2010

Motor Trend's homepage in 2000 (left) and May 2010 (right)

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.

We’re not just talking about how the magazine Web sites look, though the Internet Archive Wayback Machine is always fun.

You’re reading a post originally written for Journalistech.org, a site for journalists that covers “the latest devices for newsgathering, the software for storytelling, and the systems that interact with the audience.”

Within the last 10 years, blogs such as Autoblog and Jalopnik have become real competitors for sites such as Motor Trend and Car and Driver, all covering the same automotive news. As a part-time member of Motor Trend’s Web team, I can attest to that fact.  Jalopnik is part of the Gawker family of blogs (like Jezebel and Gizmodo), providing automotive-themed content that blends news with feature stories and oddball blogs you probably won’t see on the sites of major magazines.  At Jalopnik, the automotive experience is as much about the witty comments as it is about the content itself.

Autoblog is as mainstream as an automotive blog can get.  Operated by AOL-owned Weblogs, Inc. — Engadget and Luxist are also part of this network of blogs — Autoblog started in July 2004.  In its latest site design, Autoblog features a thorough database of makes and models for new car consumers, something that’s very important to sites like Motor Trend and Car and Driver.

With all these outlets covering the same news, how can any site protect itself from becoming nothing more than a place for regurgitated press releases?

Car and Driver's homepage in 2000 (left) and May 2010 (right)

Part of the answer is with a combination of unique journalistic endeavors and popular feature stories like this one about eight convertibles for under $30,000.  For an excellent example of site-specific journalism, read Jalopnik’s account called “The Real History of John Dillenger and Henry Ford.” Or head to Edmunds’ AutoObserver.com for a regular flow of articles that require more research than the average piece on Edmunds’ InsideLine.com.

One of the critical issues with automotive journalism is the need to be first.  There’s a seemingly endless flow of automotive news, from speculation on new models to the impact of the latest Toyota recall.  With the core content of most automotive outlets derived from the same sources, the differences between journalistic coverage is often in on-the-surface analysis.  Further research and basic phone calls should be attempted by reporters for these stories, but with each passing hour you wait for a source’s response, your competitors are getting page views.

To view an interactive graph of unique page views of Motor Trend against Autoblog and Jalopnik, head here.  For an interactive graph comparing Motor Trend against Car and Driver and Inside Line, go here.

Autoblog (green) and Motor Trend (blue) fight for the most unique views while Jalopnik (orange) is a distant third here.

It’s this type of “publish-everything” strategy that has worked so well for sites like Autoblog.  While a site like Jalopnik specializes in providing basic automotive news with a special helping of humorous feature articles, Autoblog’s coverage of the industry is, as the homepage says, obsessive.

With so much happening in the automotive industry between the publication of monthly magazines, Motor Trend and Car and Driver have changed their approach to automotive journalism.

Motor Trend now features a “Wide Open Throttle” section at the very top of the homepage to complement regular blogs.  From my own experience producing content with the blogging tool since it was introduced on MotorTrend.com, Wide Open Throttle is designed to match competitors like Autoblog in providing automotive news and entertaining features.

Unique views for Edmunds' InsideLine.com (orange) pale in comparison to Motor Trend (blue), but with all Edmunds' automotive sites considered, Edmunds takes a sizable chunk of the automotive news and new car buying sites picture from Car and Driver (green), Motor Trend and others.

The new head editor of Car and Driver, meanwhile, has initiated some changes to the monthly print magazine, with Web competitors in mind.

“With all the Internets out there, how can a monthly magazine do breaking news with a straight face?” Car and Driver Editor-in-Chief Eddie Alterman asked in an editorial on Jalopnik.  “It can’t, which is why we’re not doing it anymore.”

Replacing the pages previously devoted to automotive news in the magazine, Alterman says, will be infographics, technology, and humor pieces.  If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the fact that Car and Driver’s head editor gave an interview to Jalopnik, understand that an on-the-fringes site like Jalopnik does not completely overlap the coverage of major magazines.  Jalopnik does not have the resources to perform standardized testing or the reputation to consistently receive long-term test vehicles from automakers as Car and Driver does.  On the other side of this coin, Car and Driver still needs readers of Jalopnik and other blogs as subscribers.  Even readers of automotive blogs like Jalopnik need a print magazine to take to America’s Favorite Reading Room.

An Example of the Problem

Recently, Ford issued a press release stating the automaker sold more vehicles in Europe during March 2010 than any other automaker.  The story was widely covered in the automotive journalism world but there was one problem: the facts weren’t all true.  The industry-leading Automotive News newspaper reported a few days later that Ford outsold Volkswagen in the 27 countries comprising the European Union, but include non-European Union countries and Volkswagen leaps ahead by 482 units.

The story itself may not have been the most significant automotive event in April, but basic journalistic practices of checking sources and not believing everything you hear should be considered when writing any story.

Let’s take a look at the balance of feature stories versus news on the homepages of Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Autoblog and Jalopnik.  We won’t be visiting the subscription-only Web site of Automotive News, a publication that leads the field in original reporting.

Motor Trend's homepage

On Motor Trend’s homepage, the Wide Open Throttle section is placed front-and-center.  Original videos are on the right while a mix of reviews and special features show on the slider to the left.  Should you view the homepage yourself, you’d see the Blogs section filled with original reporting on an event called One Lap of America 2010.

Car and Driver's homepage

Head to Car and Driver’s Web site and the focus is on automotive reviews.  “Car News” is a small and cramped section underneath the four-item slider.  Blogs are relegated to a place below that.  As for original automotive journalism, the magazine occasionally has it, though it may be highlighted better in the print edition.

Autoblog's homepage

Autoblog’s approach to feature stories vs. automotive news seems to be: “cover everything.”  Most stories are taken or adapted from automaker press releases or other magazines with a bit of analysis, so you could consider Autoblog a portal for automotive journalism.

Jalopnik's homepage

Jalopnik uses a healthy dose of humorous feature stories along with some automotive news.  The news section is less comprehensive than other sources, but Jalopnik has a good amount of original reporting along with the stories that all outlets cover.

Inside Line's homepage

Insideline is part of Edmunds’ family of automotive sites, like Edmunds.com and AutoObserver.com. The site, pictured above, focuses on reviews and the brief bits of automotive news you can find everywhere.  Auto Observer is devoted to longer-form pieces of automotive journalism that might require more research and time than allowed for daily news updates.

The Takeaway

Automotive journalism sites all integrate feature stories and press release-based blogs with original reporting and reviews.  What’s most important is to never lose one’s voice and simply become an outlet of summarized press releases.  While most Web editors work on the daily flow of news stories, editors could be permitted to pursue longer stories requiring more research.  The sad fact is that a particularly engaging photo gallery might produce nearly as many page views, but showing that dedication to original reporting, at the very least, could bolster the publication’s reputation.

The future of so-called “Buff books” like Motor Trend and Car and Driver largely rests on the health of the automotive industry.  If people are buying new vehicles, they will need a place like Motor Trend or Car and Driver for research and reviews.  That is where a significant portion of Web traffic is derived.  Plus, while blogs and magazine sites may feature non-automotive advertisements, the majority of paid ads will still be from automakers.  In a better economy, automakers have more money to spend on advertising.

In 2009, for example, advertising revenue was taking its toll on the content of Jalopnik.

“Our Gawker overlords,” wrote Jalopnik’s head editor Ray Wert in January, “forced me to cut our editorial budget in half while simultaneously demanding increased traffic. … We chased the same carrot as Autoblog, Motor Trend , and the rest, pursuing what we were told was the “growth segment” of the automotive universe — general consumers and non-enthusiasts.”

Wert continues his fascinating editorial by summarizing Jalopnik’s renewed sense of purpose: “…breaking stories by shining a light on the dark underbelly of the automotive world.”

There are countless Web-only outlets of automotive news and features ready to challenge the Web sites of magazines like Automobile, Road and Track, Car and Driver and Motor Trend.  While Autoblog chooses the mainstream route, relying on new car consumers as much as enthusiasts, Jalopnik takes a different path.  Regardless of approach, one thing is clear: the magazine sites must never become complacent or plenty of Web publications might take their place.


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