Are Car Magazines Dead?

Wheels magazine used to be the pinnacle of motoring journalism in Australia. Now it's on life support - priest in the wings; somebody tell the fat lady she's on in five. How the hell did that happen?
are car magazines dead

I posted this report on my YouTube channel, AutoExpertTV >> back in June. The back-story: after many months - if not years - of not buying it, I grabbed the June 2015 issue of Wheels. I started reading, and quickly needed a front-end loader to get my jaw back in place. It had hit the floor so hard that it damaged the pavement.

Wheels, which appears still to represent itself as the journal of record of the Australian automotive landscape, had clearly dropped the ball. Gone was the impartial assessment of the great writers, and in my view it had been replaced in many places by self-indulgent, inaccurate crap. It - literally - was no longer worth the paper it was printed on, and certainly not worth the $9.50 cover price.

The changing face of the media landscape - the move to 'everything online' - has taken its toll. Bereft of advertising revenue, and apparently run by a management culture that appears not to acknowledge that content is everything, the magazine had become a shadow of its former self. At least, that's my opinion. (This report, and the video, is merely one opinion - mine.)

Surely, with online reviews available immediately, for free, the 'secret' (if there is one) to the viability of Wheels and other enthusiast magazines is to add value - provide more (and better) coverage, superior analysis and greater entertainment than that which is available online? They appear, in my view, to be doing the exact opposite.

So I put together the report in the video above. I scripted, presented, cut and uploaded it, and as my finger hovered over the 'publish' button, I paused to consider the tsunami of backlash that was certain to flood the comments feed. I considered again the key questions: Was the report accurate? Had I misrepresented anyone or anything? Did I unwittingly defame anyone involved? I had no wish to do any of those things.

So I hit 'publish' and braced for impact. you know what? Nothing. No blowback. Five thousand views as I write this, 170 'thumbs up' (and 10 'thumbs down') plus 157 comments - none of which started with the words 'you bastard' and went downhill from there. In fact, the comments generally and overwhelmingly represented the views I expressed in the report, and above. It tells me there's a huge potential audience out there for authoritative automotive content.

I guess, if you're a publisher or an editor, that's a bit of free market research. Make of it what you will. But it still saddens me, as a former Wheels contributor over many years, to see such a formerly esteemed institution circling the drain. The internet gives everyone the ability to publish and broadcast at minimal cost, and the challenge for consumers is eliminating the shit that appears to be (at times) neck-deep in the cloud. I always thought magazines would occupy the moral high ground of unimpeachably superior content. But apparently not.

They say video killed the radio star. (Remember the bad 1980s song by The Buggles to that effect?) It appears the web is doing the same to the car magazines you grew up with, and drooled over. I never could have predicted that.

I'd love to know your view on this. Tell me what you think in the comments feed below. 

are car magazines dead


Magazines are rooted. Like a cockroach with its head pulled off. Thinks: It’s OK - minor setback. To the extent that cockroaches are introspective. In both cases, the prognosis is - let’s be kind - poor.

Commercially, the internet keeps having non-consensual sex with magazines - and standards have plummeted. Take Wheels magazine - a once great publication.

The June issue: Editorially and commercially it’s got the dependability of Holden, wrapped up in the reliability of Volkswagen, and served with the arrogance of Mercedes-Benz. $9.50 … It’s got me stuffed why any sane car buyer would bother.

Self Indulgence

are car magazines dead

Glenn Butler is the editor of Wheels. Of all the automotive issues, Mr Butler chooses to waste his column listing the motoring journalists who ride motorcycles. If you’ve ever laid awake at night wondering, there’s your answer. But if you don’t actually give a toss about that (the larger of the two audience demographics, I’m tipping) it might seem easy to categorise the whole thing as a self-indulgent waste of space.

Speaking of self-indulgence, Mercedes-Benz lent Wheels an SL 400 for Christmas. I guess they enlarged the chimney since I worked there. $250,000 - thanks very much. They’ve just taken it back, after six months. Imagine the depreciation. Some poor bastard will buy it as a demonstrator. If it could talk, it would probably demand asylum. (See my report on buying a demonstrator >>.) Mr Butler’s final report on that car is on page 128. Five hundred words of body copy. Apparently bereft of criticism. All I saw was tumbleweeds, critique-wise. Perhaps it’s the perfect car. Finally.

And perhaps this lack of balance assists negotiations about future long-term test cars. And perhaps it’s related to to full page Mercedes AMG GT advertisement on the outside back cover. Big, bad Benz being one of the six car brands (out of 49 on sale in Australia) which have bothered to advertise in Wheels this issue. If Wheels were still relevant, they’d all be advertising. That’s the biggest relevance red flag of all time. Car companies drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on researching relevant places to spend the big advertising bucks...

Find out: Can you trust a car review? >>

I can forgive three pages of motoring masturbation, because, like most forms of pleasing one’s self, getting caught doing it in public is more than an adequate reward in its own right. But I can’t forgive the errors. That’s inexcusable.

Mathematics? Huh?

Back to page 128: in a flawed attempt to refute the law of diminishing returns and talk up the SL 400, editor Glenn Butler asks, rhetorically, if two square metres is twice the size of one square metre. Another big question. “No,” he says. “It’s four times, because both the length and the width double.”

are car magazines dead

Oh dear. You don’t exactly have to be Enrico Fermi, or Peter Higgs, or even Stephen Hawking to understand this. You just need to be a painter or a tiler. Two square metres is exactly twice as big as one square metre. There’s a whole editorial team on every story - and this glaring clusterfuck has gone straight through. If you double the length and the width, you get four square metres, you bozos. For the record: a one-metre square is one square metre. A two-metre square is four square metres. A 1.4-metre square is about two square metres. How hard is it?

This is the A-team, allegedly. If they can’t do area, how much trust can you hand them on power and torque? They’re all derived from the three fundamental physical units: mass, length and time. One kilowatt is 1000 kilogram metres squared per second cubed - but you’ve probably never thought of it in those terms. I’d contend that it’s essential that the guy giving you advice about which engine is superior has actually thought of it like that.

These concepts are impossible if you can’t understand area. Power is a differential element in the fabric of space-time. A snapshot. It’s the instantaneous time rate of change of torque. Cornering force is the mass times the vehicle’s time rate of change of displacement divided by the instantaneous curvature radius. Another space-time snapshot. If you can’t communicate area, there’s a fair old chance you’ll never understand power or cornering.

are car magazines dead

Getting the facts wrong

There’s an inbuilt systemic bias towards sensationalism and laziness in journalism, but in my view the safety story on page 22 really lowers the bar.

Let’s leave to one side the fact that the whole piece is a sensationalist criticism of ANCAP.

Let’s leave to one side that, without ANCAP there would be no independent barometer for consumers to know which are the safest cars. Sensationalism is what it is. And the audience isn’t stupid.

But a publication that doesn’t understand area should absolutely not poke its snout into the trough of a complex issue like safety. It’s like giving a three-year-old a box of matches and a glass of petrol. Three major problems with this so-called 'investigation':

are car magazines dead

Problem number one: That’s bullshit (at right). ANCAP has delivered six four-star safety ratings since the beginning of 2014. It’s easy to check. Ssangyong Stavic, Tata Xenon, Mini Cooper, BMW 2-Series, Kia Carnival and Suzuki Celerio. Fitting additional SATs would not pump one of those six up to five stars.

However, you’d have to do actual research to know that. (And it would help to understand area.) The first five of those cars failed the offset frontal crash test requirements for five stars. You can do what you want with the SATs; they’ll never be five-star cars.

Problem number two: That’s bullshit, too (below, left). There are no four-star cars that have missed out on five by failing to add add some seatbelt reminder, or daytime running lights. Hasn’t happened. Not that hard to investigate.

Problem number three: What do you know? A bullshit hat trick (above, right). Euro NCAP gave that Suzuki shitbox three stars, and the reason it doesn’t have five is because it hasn’t done the pole impact test. The manufacturer stumps up the vehicle for the pole test. They only do that if they think it’ll get five stars. Two possibilities: 1) Suzuki knows it’ll fail if they do the test. And 2) They’re not going to fit the required SATs - so the pole test is pointless. Or both. But the Celerio will not elevate to five stars without first passing the pole test, so that’s bullshit.

Enter the industry spin doctor

Of course, the editorial masturbation and a bullshit trifecta alone might not be enough to nauseate you fully. If you want the full barf bag experience, flick to page 38. Ladies and gentlemen: Tony Weber.

Mr Weber is the car industry’s principal barrow pusher. He’s the CEO of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries. Sounds grandiose, but it’s really just the car industry’s lobby group. So there’s a free page of content, which is always good when ad revenue is circling the drain.

Funny thing in journalism. We call it newsworthiness. This is the exact opposite, in my view. Mr Weber shovels the car industry’s agenda on an issue that first blipped in the news six months ago: parallel imports. Dear Wheels, this train departed six months ago.

(I reported on the exact same grey import issue >>, six months earlier.)

The car industry hates parallel imports. Government looks like opening the floodgates - which is great news for consumers but bad news for Tony Weber’s mob. If you are ever writing a thesis on breathtakingly indefensible bullshit then page 38 is a goldmine, in my opinion. A complete black hole of balance. But hey, it’s some free content.

And publishers love that.

are car magazines dead

Shooting yourself in the foot, implicitly

I’m going to leave you with this: What Jon Stewart would call a moment of Zen. Not only is Wheels perched on the event horizon of car buyer irrelevance. Here’s the proof that the publisher knows Wheels is A) dead, and B) it was murdered by the internet. Page 40.

Such a gift.

If I were the marketing manager of Wheels I would A) kill myself, and B) definitely not design an ad campaign based on the premise that your $10 copy of Wheels is dead without the internet. All you have to do to resurrect Wheels, apparently, to breathe life into the old, dead girl, is download an app, and use the internet. That’s exactly what that alleges.

Of course, you can’t bring something to life unless it’s dead.

So let me get this straight: Drive to the newsagency, spend $10 on a magazine, download the app, and resurrect this third-rate crap by unleashing the might of the internet. Alternatively, you could just grab your mouse and use the internet. It’s an option.

What’s the bet that whatever you’re looking for, Google will dish it up quicker than you driving to the newsagency? Not to mention cheaper. And probably more accurately. If you need advice on how much paint you’ll need for the house, you could 'resurrect' and ask Wheels.

You might get twice as much as you need, or half as much, but that’s just a detail.