Media Mangle

August 10, 2005
When I first started covering the auto industry, back in 1979, during the second energy shock, it was easy to pick me out of the local line-up. There weren't many new folks on the beat those days. Most, like Newsweek's Jimmy Jones and Ward's Dave Smith, had been covering Detroit for decades. There were more than a few beat reporters who could still claim to have tipped back a beer or two with Henry Ford, and I don't mean "Hank the Deuce."

Things have changed in this town, however, and not just on the manufacturers' side. Just consider what's happened in the Motor City media over the last week. It started with last week's newspaper shuffle: Gannett sold the Detroit News and bought the Detroit Free Press from long-time owner, Knight-Ridder. Now, I'd never use a phrase like, "rats abandoning ship." Most of the subsequent personnel changes involve good acquaintances and close friends. But whatever term you prefer, the local automotive press corps is undergoing a massive shake-up. Eric Mayne has left the News for Ward's Automotive, where he previously reported. Ed Garston has been lured in by the big bucks snagged on Chrysler's PR department hook. Norihiko Shirouzu is leaving the Wall Street Journal's Detroit bureau for a Western posting. He'll be replaced by Jeff McCracken, last seen filing stories for the Detroit Free Press. And the New York Time's Danny Hakim is off for points East, where he'll cover politics. And these are just the changes I've confirmed so far. I hear a couple of others are in the works.

I'd be surprised if we didn't see still more changes in the coming weeks. Folks in the newsroom aren't especially happy with what has happened. Now, lets face it, can be good to get some new blood. Things us old vets take for granted can look very different to a newbie. On the other hand, there's something to be said for keeping the veterans around. I recently called out a senior PR person for an erroneous interpretation of corporate history during a news conference. "We didn't think anyone would remember," he admitted, "because it happened so long ago." And indeed, there were only one or two of us in the audience who could have kept things honest accurate.

There's an irony here. A number of us in the media have criticized carmakers like Ford for frequently moving their executives around. When you're reassigned every two years, you're never really accountable for past actions. Yet the same seems to be happening with the media. More and more often, national publications, like the Times, and wire services, like Reuters, shift talent every few years. The avowed reason is to keep them fresh. But they're often likely never to learn a beat with any sense of depth. So I have to say I was very happy by one recent personnel change: Mike Ellis, who has done a solid job during his tenure at Reuters, decided not to accept a transfer, jumping over to the Free Press instead. We in the Detroit press corps can use his institutional knowledge.

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