Is Motoring Content Unviable?
Car Journalism is Doomed – watch or read this before you consider becoming a Motoring Journo or Content Creator. The clock is ticking on how long before car culture gets canceled by woke anti-motorists!
Car magazines and comic books. I have no recollection of when it might have been, but I’m pretty sure I started reading both voraciously, as soon as I could, well, read.
Motor magazine, later Autocar and Motor, plus Car Magazine, where I became an LJK Setright fan (who I later actually got to meet) and Performance Car, where I first became aware of Jeremy Clarkson – this was BEFORE he became a Top Gear presenter.
I was buying car magazines right up to the Naughties. These days though, I’ll rarely pick up a periodical. I stopped buying them, because, I realised I’d stopped reading them, they would just stack up on my side table till they toppled over.
Admittedly comic book purchases ceased even earlier, during the 90s, probably around the time that superhero movies got good again. There was about 10 years between Christopher Reeve’s standard-bearing Superman and Batman 1989 – still two of the best Superhero movies ever. Today with all the great superhero movies and TV shows out there, why do you need to buy a comic book anymore? With no disrespect to those that still do of course.
Right there then, you’re beginning to see a parallel as to how my two main reading compulsions started to recede. The advent of good motoring websites (remember World Car Fans and when Autoblog and Jalopnik first became popular?) plus online video content through YouTube, essentially seduced and satiated me quicker and more comprehensively than mere mags could.
But there’s more to it than just that. While physical publications are on the verge of extinction (where, to be fair, they’ve been teetering for about a decade now), it is the notion of actual automotive journalism itself that is ultimately on life support, and in my opinion about to be pronounced brain dead, with the plug unceremoniously to be pulled.
Everyone hates us
Motoring journalists, that is. Well, okay, maybe hate is a strong word, but audiences think we don’t know what we’re talking about, and car manufacturers don’t like us knowing what we’re talking about.
To be fair though, car journalists have frankly always been out of touch with actual car buyers. Ask motorists what they look for in a car, and they’ll give you a list of thoughtful parameters such as suitability-for-purpose, efficiency, safety, reliability etc.
However, delve deeper into the psyche of a car buyer, strip aware all the logical BS and you realise that actually, cars are either an emotional purchase or a necessary one.
The latter buyers don’t care what motoring journalists think, they just buy what they need, based on the money they can afford and usually the proximity to the seller, often with advice from friends and family, and these days maybe a quick glance at online ratings. Or they just stick with the brand, or even model, that they’ve always bought.
Meanwhile the former, the emotional ones, also don’t care what motoring journalists think because they’ve already made up their mind what they want. And if we dare tell them that it might in someway not be suitable, appropriate or a sensible purchase based on their requirements and circumstances, they’ll simply dismiss us and find a verdict that does corroborate the choice they’ve already made.
As for motoring journalists themselves, the vast majority start out because they love cars. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, they usually forget that. They lose sight of having started down this route because they found cars fun. Instead, they get very po-faced, snobbish, cliquey, overly serious, frankly a bit up-themselves and totally disconnected from their actual audiences. Guy’s we’re not reporting on wars, crime or politics, it’s just cars.
At some point car journos stop writing for readers, and start writing for each other. The cliches, engineering and design terminology that no one understands, the knowing in-jokes and jibes, and the fact that they test every single car at ten-tenths or sideways on race track proves that whatever it is they’re doing, is merely for their own pleasure, to impress their contemporaries with their self-perceived brilliance, or to annoy manufacturers. Or in the case of digital content, simply aimed at getting views.
And there’s one other thing most have somehow not quite come to accept. For about the last 20 years, and even up to 15 years ago for Chinese-produced cars, cars have got good. Very good. As automotive reviewers, it used to be possible for us to identify clearly competent cars and blatantly bad ones. Cheapness and shortcuts would be very evident to our eyes, and brilliance would shine.
Take for example a first-generation Kia Rio from 1999. It handled and gripped so badly in the wet, and the windscreen wipers were so abysmal, that one particularly wet day, I was seriously thinking about calling my wife and telling her I loved her, cause I didn’t think I’d make it back. On the other hand, a standard 1998 Ford Focus hatchback was an absolute revelation in not just practicality, but ride, handling and steering dynamics.
Just a few years later, every manufacturer had learned how to make good cars. Let’s go back to Kia. I’d happily recommend any modern Kia from within the last 20 years, and the latest ones are absolutely outstanding.
All manufacturers now know how to make cars properly, engineer them for robustness, set them up to drive superbly, and the computers have done the rest. They’re also perfectly attuned to what 99.9% of owners will actually use them for – and I don’t mean perceived use, I mean actual use – for example a sports car is rarely driven on track, and off-roader almost never leaves the tarmac.
There is presently so much data and research on drivers, driving behaviour, driver demographics, and how motorists use cars, that manufacturers frankly know how to precisely fine tune their offerings.
And having spent billions doing so, they really don’t like to be judged by the amateur engineers masquerading as serious motoring journalists. Which brings us to the modern phenomenon of Influencers, and in particular car influencers.
Social media influencers are just having a great time, and they’re sharing that with their followers. When they drive new cars, they’re like kids in a sweet shop, and everything tastes simply yummy. And frankly their audiences relate to that. Unfortunately, between all the selfies and beauty shots of the car, there’s not the time, space or possibly even the ability for studied independent analysis.
Which of course suits car makers just fine. Deal with motoring journalists, and you just never know what they might say about your product. Let Influencers loose with it, and they ooh and aah and get you loads of views on their posts. Not many of which will actually influence buyers however, but that’s no longer relevant it seems.
It’s very apparent that several manufacturers have pivoted to snubbing journos completely now and entertaining social media influencers instead, and frankly it’s easy to see why. Fair play to Influencers. They’re a happy bunch, and happiness is better than hate in a world overwhelmingly dominated by the latter these days.
Everyone hates cars
And sadly hate in the world has extended to the automobile.
In the 20th century humanity fell completely in love with the automobile. The advent of the automotive age did so much for us, from freedom of movement, the ability and ease of getting around, to travel and have adventures, to creating a focus for our passions and interests. From weekends spent racing or washing cars, to hours spent drooling over motors we can never afford, they’ve definitely kept us engaged for decades.
Unfortunately, at this point in the 21st Century, improved public transport systems and rides-on-demand at the end of an App have caused the smartphone-generation to be the least interested in cars and driving of any before them. Having all their friends, and any kind of delivery service, all just a tap away on their phones, means they don’t need to get around so much.
Then there’s been the highly effective, and as a car fan I would say damaging, anti-car propaganda that has got people believing that cars are actually somehow evil. Also, that if we just did away with cars, our world would be saturated with colourful daises and pink fluffy unicorns.
The car is being singled out and blamed for everything from the hole in the ozone-layer, to your granny dying of old age. We’re getting Ultra Low Emission zones, 15-minute cities and low traffic neighbourhoods (or LTNs) as punishment for our previously enduring adulation for the automobile.
There is no denying that there is an environmental impact and consequence of making and motoring in personal cars, more on that in a minute. But the big black carbon footprint of humanity on Mother Earth is from a cumulative impact of all our machinations and man-made miracles. Not to mention our conflicts.
The War in Ukraine alone has put out at least 33 million tons of greenhouse gases, it is estimated, and there’s military action going on all over the world at any given point. The world’s military sector is known to generate around six per cent of all CO2 emissions. And then there’s all the rebuilding to be done after we’ve blown a country to bits – post-war reconstruction can cause as much as 22 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Buildings (you know the things we inhabit) are accountable for 39% of global carbon emissions, mostly from operational emissions (heating, cooling, cooking, entertainment and, er, waste). 11% of that 39, is just from construction and materials needed to make them. So, should we all go back to living in mud huts?
And then you have shipping. the Nitrogen Oxide emissions of the world maritime fleet are higher than all of the cars in the world put together, plus shipping also produces more sulphur than cars. And then there’s aviation which is responsible for around 2.1% of human-induced CO2 emissions.
Transport admittedly accounts for around 30% of global emissions in fact, and yes, 72% of this is from road transport including cars, vans, buses, lorries, motorbikes etc.
However, we NEED road transport, we need buildings to live and work in, we don’t need wars. Plus, the latest cars in particularly are cleaner and more efficient than ever. Compare the technological solutions to reducing carbon footprints and emissions, being developed and deployed in the automotive industry, and the aviation and shipping industries appear positively archaic.
Regardless, I emphasise again, we NEED transportation ultimately, not just to get around, but for all the stuff we want, from the food we eat to the latest versions of the smart phones we’re so in love with now.
The car is not evil, but it’s an easy target. For a younger generation that don’t see the necessity, or the appeal of owning and driving one – and with such high ownership costs these days, you can’t really blame them – it’s easy to believe the negative propaganda.
Pulling this all back to the original discussion at hand, what this means is they have no use for motoring journalists, commentators and eventually even, the Influencers.
Everyone hates paying
As already inferred, the high costs of learning to drive and then owning, insuring and running a car is a massive put off. However, what I’m referring to here, is that everyone hates paying us.
Us, the motoring journalists and content creators. Motoring magazines’ staff have been dramatically downsized, newspapers just buy in generic content or reprint press releases, rather than actually have a motoring correspondent on staff, the freelance rates are rubbish and there’s little to no additional value placed on experience unless your name is Jeremy Clarkson.
It’s not entirely the publishers’ fault either, audiences don’t want to pay for printed periodicals or digital paywalls, when there’s so much content available online for free. This of course then makes it harder for publishers to afford original expert content.
The lack of real revenue has killed off some astonishing digital-age giants in the automotive media. Who remembers the pioneers of beautiful visual automotive porn, that was Petrolicious? Okay, it’s been relaunched but it’s not what it was, nor is DriveTribe (started by no less than the aforementioned Clarkson and Co). Carfection recently died, Chris Harris tried numerous digital ventures before giving up and jumping on-board with Top Gear, and Motor Trend and its excellent channels decided to go behind a paywall.
What’s the common factor behind these failures? Big epic videos and high production values. Time and again, I see automotive content creators trying to produce ‘Top Gear’ for YouTube, and I immediately know they will eventually fail – except in a specific scenario that I will come back to.
Take for example the cost of producing a car review for TV. You’re talking presenter, producer, director, cameraman (or two), soundman, runners, and then an editor, a full day or more’s production, potentially as much again for editing. It’s hard to put an exact cost on that, but I’d estimate £8,000-10,000. TV production might be able to justify that, not digital media.
Of course, you could cut that down a fair bit, with a smaller team, but factor in the cost of going to and staying at a location and you’re still looking at probably two-three grand. Add in the rental of a track or airfield if you’re going to be doing the sideways shenanigans like on the telly, and you might be up to £4-5k.
I haven’t even factored in the cost of the equipment itself, which if you buy decent stuff could be several thousand pounds alone.
If you’re fortunate enough for your video to get millions of views, you might recoup some of that cost in terms of YouTube earnings, but it’ll be a miracle if you make a profit. Depending on where your video is being viewed and by whom (for example American viewers are usually the most profitable) most videos, even with views in the hundreds of thousands, will barely earn a few hundred pounds.
In my case for example, that’s my entire channel. This is why I’m still a freelancing journalist, without those gigs I would not be able to make ends meet, and even my humble little channel would have to close. This is why things like Patreon and Ko-Fi are so vital to help creators like me.
Frankly, making high quality YouTube videos for a living is simply not viable, unless you’re one of the massive players in the field like Mr Beast etc. This is why even automotive YouTube channels with millions of subscribers will fail. They can’t afford to sustain the level of content that gets them those millions of followers in the first place.
It only works in two cases, if the channel is complementary to a larger more profitable business, such as in the case of CarWow or Hagerty for example. Essentially then, it’s a marketing exercise for the main business which might be selling cars or motor insurance. And frankly, thank goodness for such arrangements.
The other case is if it just a fun vanity project for people with two much time and money on their hands – which is also absolutely fine by the way, and potentially gives us irreverent and real-world content that we wouldn’t normally get, such as an owner smashing up his own supercar because he’s not happy with the dealer service. Doh!
For the rest of us automotive content creators, it’s a struggle, one that we manage only by pretty much being a one-man band, keeping as tight with spending as possible, and constantly trying to work out how to maximise views with minimum expense.
But it’s a struggle that we persist with, mainly because we want to provide you with info, we want to entertain you, we want to help and guide you, we have something to say that we firmly believe is of value, and because we are compelled to do this. Whether you want us to or not.
However, we live a little in fear of the future, because we know the clock is ticking. And that’s no way to function frankly. So if I do disappear one day – don’t be too surprised. Just be sad.
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