Currently reading: Matt Prior's Tester's Notes - on the independence of car reviews
The independence of car reviews is under increasing pressure. Now, more than ever, it needs a strong media to push back against it.
Matt Prior
News
3 mins read
30 March 2015

Can I talk shop? I don’t very often, because motoring hackery is, after all, a pretty straightforward and lighthearted business,mostly developed around providing impartial, independent reviews of cars to people who like ’em.

That’s a pretty simple premise and one you wouldn’t think was so hard to get right, would you? And yet there are parts of it that feel rotten to the insides.

An email lands. It asks if I could spend an hour on the phone with a client – a car maker – talking about cars. Of course I can talk to them.

But: they want to pay me for my time. Ah. Now, they can’t do that, I say, because three weeks later I might be reviewing a car these people built, while their pounds sit in my bank account. That’s a non-starter.

They say they understand entirely but – and here’s the thing – it’s the first time someone has declined because of a conflict of interest. It’s only a phone interview, after all.

It is. But if you don’t draw the line there, where do you? I’ve been asked to do some benchmarking before, and even to drive a prototype, to provide feedback to aid development, with my valuable time recompensed. Sure, sometimes car makers want outside expert advice, but it’s hard to believe there’s no other agenda.

It’s not just individual hacks, either. The Geneva motor show wasn’t just a festival of fast new metal, but also of sharing concerned stories. Whether someone can get their car featured on a front cover for a certain amount of money. Whether some video content is sponsored, and by who. That one US car magazine is actually presenting a TV car advert. And how advertorial features – which would once have been flagged to the hilt as manufacturer-paid content – slip into print with barely a mention of it. Although none at this publisher, I’m happy to tell you.

But the hard truth facing all publishing is that, when you are giving away so much content for nothing, the money has to come from somewhere. Accompanying all of this is a legion of content bypassing the ‘old’ media and brought to the consumer direct. There are videos, billed as ‘reviews’ of the Peugeot 308, presented by a bloke flagged as a ‘motoring journalist’, produced and paid for by the car maker. You can watch a ‘review’ of the Range Rover Sport SVR presented by a bloke who consulted on its development.

Sometimes days like these, where some reviews are neither as impartial nor as independent as you’d hope, feel like dark ones. Not the end. But past the beginning of the end. Maybe the middle of the beginning of the end. And now more than ever, this business needs a strong media to push back against it.

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RobotBoogie 31 March 2015

While the economics of online publishing...

...and the rise of content marketing present new forms of this problem, it has ever been thus. Anyone remember the days when road test cars were clearly fettled in all kinds of ways? Or when every car launch included a sizeable gift for the journalist?
bomb 31 March 2015

I welcome the post but it

I welcome the post but it hasn't stopped me binning my subscription, and not for the reasons covered in this post. My beef is that so much of the magazine content is now available online (often BEFORE the magazine) that I cannot justify paying for a hard copy of something I've already read.

Even the single big feature story now appears on the website a day or two after the magazine is out, only the stuff aft of the road test is now magazine only. Perhaps website clicks pay more than subscriptions? If not it's something you need to address pronto. Perhaps printing on something better shiny bog roll might help too.

PRODIGY 31 March 2015

bomb wrote:I welcome the post

bomb wrote:

I welcome the post but it hasn't stopped me binning my subscription, and not for the reasons covered in this post. My beef is that so much of the magazine content is now available online (often BEFORE the magazine) that I cannot justify paying for a hard copy of something I've already read.

Even the single big feature story now appears on the website a day or two after the magazine is out, only the stuff aft of the road test is now magazine only. Perhaps website clicks pay more than subscriptions? If not it's something you need to address pronto. Perhaps printing on something better shiny bog roll might help too.

Same here, Bomb.

I guess it's a case of 'having to', but Autocar seems to be all about trying to be first with the news these days rather than focusing on quality content. I miss the days when Autocar used to be a thick, hard edged publication with lots of opinion articles, lots of facts, commentators like Russel Bulgin (R.I.P) and just a general feeling of being a special magazine. It always cost a lot more than its rivals, but it was worth paying the extra.

Don't get me wrong, Autocar is still the best mag out there. It just seems to have lost some spark. Plus, as you point out, a lot of the content is online (I guess it has to be) which makes the case for buying a physical copy hard to justify.

Simono 31 March 2015

SVR Review

I hope the reviewer mentioned is not Harry Metcalfe - he's been pretty clear about working for JLR, and good on them for hiring him!

Maybe I am biased, as I actually worked for Landrover SVO back in the day. I now live in the US, and the reviews here are worthless, except for Consumer Reports. They are like some anodyne dirge from the UN trying to please all parties when the product is junk - maybe that's why bloggers get so much traction.

Just rode 11 miles in the snow into Manhattan to pick up Autocar and other UK magazines for honest journalism. Very Sad