The blight of new age autojournalism

Bertrand D'souza Published: October 09, 2015, 03:37 PM IST

I've had an incredible month, one of the busiest in a very long time. Several time zones, sleepless nights and lots of driving were the obvious highlights. It's, however, taken a toll to the point where I had something in mind about a column I wanted to pen and when I finally sat down to write it, I drew a complete blank. But I know what I wanted to write about and it's the state of affairs in the motoring journalism community as it stands.

I just got back from a trip to the United States where I drove the 2016 BMW 7 Series. I flew 30 odd hours travelling from Mumbai to New York and back, spent close to 40 hours shopping, having elaborate lunches and dinners, exercising and basically chilling out. And through all of this, I spent just about four hours with the 7 Series. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Four days of travelling across I don't know how many time zones to drive a car for just around four hours!

There's a more probing question to be asked, however, was four hours enough time to assess a car that is so state of the art, it took hundreds of engineers, designers, technicians and researchers roughly two years to develop and build? Over my 15 years as an automotive journalist, I have built a fair understanding of how to assess a car. What are the things you need to watch out for, how to quickly analyse and get a first hand feel. And the education is an ongoing process. Everyday there is something new to be learned and applied.

Most of the veterans of this profession I know, have all of those skills, but they do so because they learned it the hard way and over time. They also built a particular set of skills and understanding in a day and age when we had the luxury of spending time with the cars and motorcycles we evaluate. That is why for some of these chaps, getting deep into the analysis of a car or motorcycle instantly isn't a tough task.

Today, however, we are in the midst of something entirely new, a digital age where information is gleaned and disseminated in a matter of seconds. Not weeks or days or hours, but seconds, mind you. This puts a dangerous spin on information which is being confused with knowledge. With easier communication access which costs next to nothing, there are dozens of information providers churning out data in huge quantities.

For these new age media, it's become more essential these days to deliver information at the drop of a hat with little or no attention being paid to the quality of information. The newer guys have had nothing in terms of mentoring and they need to understand that the more time spent with a product results in a better understanding.

Thus, given the kind of time spans motoring journalists are now provided with to spend analysing products, the information that comes out is weak, and often wrong.  Time is a precious commodity on the other side too. Three years ago I was invited to Europe to drive an uber luxury car on a racetrack in Spain. The travel to there alone took me some 24 hours, after which I was given the car to drive for three laps! The exercise lasted no more than ten minutes. I was appalled that the company expected me to understand and analyse a car in that much time. After much bickering, I was allowed another three-lap stint. Not enough but I'd had it with complaining.

The same happens these days, manufacturers invite opinion makers by the dozens and then give them just a few hours to form said opinion. The situation gets compounded by clueless company officials who have little to no knowledge about the products. At a drive event, I don't understand what role does a marketing or sales or dealer development team have to play. Ideally, it should be R&D or engineering dominating the proceedings. Increasingly at these events I see more of the 'we've worked hard to build a class leading product' speech doling types, except what work has gone into the product, they have little to no clue about. Someone from the motoring press recently even overheard someone from a manufacturer's press department chiding the PR agency for there not being enough tweets about a newly introduced product. No questions about the quality of the tweets or whatever information was put out.

It's truly sad to see that manufacturers spend millions and painstaking hours, days, months, years developing a brand new product but won't allow a critic to spend more than a few hours understanding it.

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