Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted June 22, 2010 14:43
A, L & F
But first you have to write. Any T, D & H [Tom, Dick & Harry, if gender sensitive A, L & F Aida, Lorna & Fe] with enough net savvy and street smarts can put up a blogsite and make enough money to leave a decent paying day job. But thats just the means. You still have to write and write and write. Oh many get by with jejemon, engtag or taglish and there are audiences for that. There's the internet forum speak which seem like random unconnected thoughts or rash judgement. Rabble rousing under assumed names, ensure spectacle and violent verbal confrontation. But that's a guarantee that your MoJo career ends before it even begins. Why? The car industry and their marketing arms aren't into armed confrontation and gang bangs. They're into selling cars. Gun fights and controversy don't sell cars.
What it is?
What is a motoring journalist? Some believe that the being able to tell one car from the other is enough. A motoring journalist is part travelogue writer, product [car] reviewer and street interpreter of technical jargon. Its similar to the gadget reviewer, those who borrow a cellphone/laptop/stereo/computer game and render an opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of a it. Movie reviews, restaurant reviews, wine reviews are similar though these tend to be more subjective than objective.
What it isn't
A MoJo's job is not like that of a lifestyle events chronicler who has to make a list of who did what to whom and where and when. Yes a MoJo does have to cover the people, places and events side of the story but the star is always the car or the company that made the car. A MoJo's job cannot be like the job of a reporter who faithfully relays a list of events in chronological order and echoes the facts of the matter - with as little personal color or so-called angle as possible. If car reviewers were like reporters, then a boring technical sheet would suffice for a car review. But cars are dynamic objects and a fair comment should be rendered on how it looks, feels and drive. A car is also a social object, created by its marketeers, so subjective perceptions on social relevance and standing have to enter the picture, even if one doesn't wish it to be part of the car review.
To drive or not to drive
Does a motoring journalist have to know how to drive? Not necessarily but it helps to know how because it expands the point of contact with the product reviewed. This helps in the "reach" of the story to be published. There have been trained journalists who have been with the motoring section of the broadsheets who may not know how to drive but are quick, adept and streetwise in editing Motoring Industry press releases. Besides, being a MoJo means writing about topics related to roads, regulation, traffic, travel, taxes and corporate social responsibility.
With a very competitive local automotive sector, press releases are quite frequent. They are, even with ad copy hyperbole, factual and do pass the elements of a newsworthy story. Problem is press releases pale in significance against other news breaking stories like -oil spills, ambushes, fires - that are vying for attention in a daily broadsheet. Hence many press releases never make it to print. And they are all time sensitive. By default, these non-driving journalists will not make expert product reviews. Nor do they claim to. Note that they are primarily journalists and they are usually so versatile as they can be shifted to another beat, another section when their editor decides. Motoring is just another section in the newspaper, to be covered with the same professional skill.
Motivate or denigrate?
Naturally, knowing how to drive is a big advantage. All car sellers would always want anyone to believe that, beyond the styling, the price and the brand reputation, their car drives better than the other. But like Politics, Religion and bedroom conquests, each man or woman consider their driving the best, and it is with this belief that gives them the onus to judge if one should appreciate or denigrate a car. Denigrate? That's rare and to think our libel laws here are not as finely detailed as in the USA and UK. Besides, anyone who denigrates a product will usually end up a persona non-grata, never to be lent a test unit, never to be invited to a press event. Another short cut to end any MoJos' budding career. This happens even in the USA and the UK. Why? Because advertisers and car makers too have the right to freedom of expression and the right of free association, whatever their motives are. It never pays to be rude.
To like or not to like?
OK, one has to write and drive, but does one really have to like cars? This is where publications have the most problems with those who like cars. That's a very large portion of the population. That's probably the whole field of people who would love to have the dream job that we in Auto Industiya have. Why so? There are probably far far more individuals who like cars than the combined population of those who hate them or are indifferent about them. In a poor country like ours, this is understandable because public transportation is nowhere near as convenient and comfortable as private transport, unlike in the advanced countries. Private transport, symbolized by the car is a dream that has to come true. Those who love cars span from those who just love the ads and magazine photos, to those who would pore over the technical specification comparing minutiae for minutiae, leading enthusiasts to bet their life savings, or their wife's, in creating car magazines.
Feel good, make me
There's so much to like in being a MoJo beyond what we said in our introductory paragraph. There is so much at stake too with a car manufacturer or event organizer or public relations agency. That's why they have no choice but to be nice to the MoJo. As the Press or the Media, MoJo's are treated like a prime customer. Its all part of making the customer, in this case, the MoJo, feel good. Its honest to goodness marketing. Why would anyone invite you to a party if they can't ensure you have a good time? Have a good time, you leave with pleasant memories and hopefully, a positive story on the event, if not, the product. The only expectation is that the MoJo does his/her job which is to write a story that should be published sometime soon or sooner. So little is demanded of the MoJo for so much given, right?
The problem with
Unfortunately, to the chagrin of all the car makers, marketeers, events and PR groups, this is where the problems begin. Car enthusiast have more emphasis on the car or motoring part, than the writing part, perhaps in emulation of the great Top Gear presenter, Jezza Clarkson. But Clarkson is Clarkson and no one can instantly be as recognizable as him. Clarkson got there by hard work. And he didn't get to where he is by writing like high school students out on a first date. Or try the reverse snobbery thingy by trying to sound been-there done-that jaded. In both cases, nothing objective comes out of the story and seasoned readers, expecting new insights will tune out. Or, in the case of car lovers who are undying fans of a brand, they either get too impressed or become too emotionally critical for fear that their life long idol has, deep in their hearts, been beaten. There is nothing wrong with being a fan, but by being a fan, one cannot hide his/her bias and is, ergo, not capable of impartiality in analyzing a car's strengths and weaknesses. It cannot be an impartial review if the story is written by someone who professes undying loyalty to the brand. True, it can be done, but only with great finesse.
They're all over the place now, writing about their favorite brands or their favorite motoring activity, whether public or club. Racing, off-roading, rallying, drifting, owning. Make no mistake, these stories are legitimate special interest stories and if projected as so, every magazine, fanzine, blogsite and motoring section should welcome them. But as car review experts? Their passions and biases do get the best of them. Worse, being adored by fans, hubris and its attendant blinders accumulate, fogging perceptions further. This wastes the many car review opportunities open to them as they start thinking like unassailable deities. The more they are quoted as received knowledge, the more myopic they become.
Moreover, motorsports and events celebrities in particular, are beholden to their advertisers and marketing sponsors. And if one has a racing sponsor from one brand, it already excludes the other brands. Would it be easy for a racing driver to be publicly critical of a brand that sponsors his/her racing or hires and pays him/her for a press driving events? How can one criticize the very product he/she endorses?
Biting the hand that feeds
Between the odd rich gentleman racer and/or car collector, the most expert car commentator one can approach are the engineers and officers in the product planning [not marketing, for obvious reasons] department of car companies. But then we get into the same conundrum as the sponsored racer: will these engineering experts be critical of the hand that feeds them?
Old wives tales
There are a lot of old wives tales out there too. Owning a lot of cars and driving a lot of them doesn't always guarantee an interesting insight apart from some horn blowing statements of how "expert" the reviewer has been on the sheer frequency of being able to drive such a huge number of cars. The same goes for those who think their expertise just because they drove a pre-launch vehicle. Even local racers who believe the saying that racing improves the breed, forget that this only applies in first world racing. Racing cars that are 3 generations old with surplus parts doesn't contribute to improving the breed because the street ready car is far more modern and advanced in consumer related technology. Remember the time when a small car with 120hp was already highly modified? Today 120hp is middling par for the course of a production car.
Its in the presentation
The quality of the car review is all in the presentation. There has to be proof of assertion as many charlatans pluck out cliches from their favorite Brit and Yankee car magazines and dish out the jargon as if they have degrees in engineering. There is nothing wrong in using technical jargon, for so long as you can explain it in layman's terms. Remember, it is the layman the MoJo is reaching out to so that the breed of car enthusiasts, the motoring public, can grow and expand, justifying the very existence of being a MoJo.
Then there are the journalists who think themselves as the guardian of the motoring press. These people try to project themselves as the guardians of their values, values that are only known to them, double standards that are only in their favor. They are the judge of their own work and think their tenure in being a MoJo gives them the authority to berate others who have an opinion to express. Being a MoJo doesn't grant one the right to ram down his/her opinion on anyone else's throat and dismiss others' opinions. This is a violation of man's right to freedom of speech and association. Thank the discerning car enthusiasts for supporting a diversity of opinion which means that these bogus gate keepers of the press did not thrive and prosper. If they had their way, we won't have so many more car websites and magazines today.
Do we need 'em?
But do we honestly need more car reviewers? That is the question frequently asked by publishers of the big broadsheets in New York, San Francisco, London and the great capitals of the world. Many have contracted car magazine contributors, Internet blogosphere and popular TV commentators, who have syndicated their reviews to the broadsheets. This may be more a function of the waning interest in cars in a world of strict speed limits, car free zones, pollution problems, parking limitations and where public transport is comfortable and convenient. Which characterize prosperous countries where the long love affair with the car has finally waxed and waned. But on the other side of the World - Brazil, China, India, Russia, Middle East - where car sales are multiplying like rabbits, there has never been a better time to be a car reviewer/motoring journalist. With car sales also on the up here, there is no better time to be a MoJo.
The two kinds
The journalists that compose the motoring press as I know it belong to two income classes. One, are the regularly paid employees of the publication they serve. They carry the brand of their media wherever they go and their exposure has to be consistent with the image of their masters. And sometimes, the masters themselves; car enthusiast owners and publishers who take a direct hand in the crafting of their car reviews. They protect their product as an extension of their personal reputation. Of these regularly paid employees, some are bona fide car reviewers with good access to technical testing expertise. Others belong to the marketing staff who definitely benefit from the fawning press treatment in their pursuit of paid advertising supplements and ad copy. The latter have been professional enough never to pass of their work of as independent car reviews. At least they clearly identify themselves as endorsers and not as some "independent" expert.
The other kind
The other set are contributors. Mostly paid on a per article basis, these have other sources of income other than being contributing motoring journalists. While there are others who are rumored to be moon lighting with the car and event companies for extra pay, it is a testament to their writing skill that their writing persona as an independent journalist is totally undetectable when they do "consulting" work for their "friends" in the industry. Like in many things, the "Don't ask, won't tell" rule applies.
Starved of insight?
Is today's motoring reader starved of broader and deeper car or issue review alternatives? Its a given that there will be as many opinions as the number of thinking individuals multiplied by the number of changing thoughts in each person's mind every minute of the day. Its up to the public at large to validate them, even if publications do survive or even thrive out of their shallowness. Its a business and for long as the customer is happy, the business thrives. Again, freedom of expression and association.
Is the practice of motoring journalism corruptible? Nothing is exempt from incentive. There are stories of "Japanese Press room" practices of "back scratching" - a reciprocal cycle of treat-good feel-good. The company treats the press well so that when negative news come, they can be relied to quash it. There are advocacy's against smuggling and sales records cheating. All of them newsworthy in themselves and just like anything newsworthy it can either go subjective or objective. But the media business is a very competitive one. Reporter's instincts are looking for that scoop that will get them the headlines that will be their 15 minutes of fame. So far the only stories that I have seen quashed are those that do not have a shred of truth, unless falsehoods qualify as headline news. It doesn't pay to be rude.
What about the payola in white envelopes? In my ten years as contributing motoring columnist of a business newspaper, I do not deny receiving the odd white envelope from time to time. These occasions, both here and abroad, are when we go on a managed convoy driving event and we have to pay toll on the several expressways we will pass. The white envelope has an accounting of the tolls to be paid and my obligation is to replace the cash with the accumulated official receipts handed at the manned toll booths. Speeding fines, which can be crippling in France, are not included.
Words of advice
So for those who want a job like mine, words of advice: 1.] look for someone else to put food on your table. 2.] Remember, the product of your work is what you write about and not to bash cars, carry on a personal crusade/vendetta/fan club and show off to your friends. 3.] You are not a celebrity car endorser and if you are, don't bother applying for this job - just submit a story on how fun your life is. 4.] If you bash a test unit, own up to it - never blame the car no matter how good a driver you think you are and, 5.] make sure of what you take and put in those white envelopes. Sure you can indulge your passions, but don't advertise it. Credibility is what you bring to the industry so be careful that you nurture it and keep it pure. Unless your becoming a MoJo is only good for a one night stand.