How Facebook Is Changing Automotive Journalism

April 4, 2011

Facebook new-car reveals are the new way of life in automotive journalism, and it's not all good news.

In just the past few months, we've seen a few major new cars unveiled on the social-media site. Last year's big intro was the 2011 Ford Explorer; this year, before it hits the New York Auto Show, the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu will go live from the Web via Palo Alto.

Facebook helps automakers reach a huge audience of potential buyers, but is it the best way for you to find out about what could very well be your next vehicle? And how are those online launches changing sites like the one you're reading right now?

The Super Bowl, Time and Limbaugh, all at once 

Before I sound too much like a journosaur--"Where's my coffee, dammit?"--Facebook has to get the respect it's due. The world clearly has voted, for now, that it's the best way to spread the word about what you like and don't like in an easily managed, hands-off way--a way your friends can consume without actually having to talk to you, or see you in person, for whatever that's worth.

And for every private citizen that signs up for Facebook and starts liking everything from cute-kitten videos to spambots pushing Russian porn, there's a marketing exec who see it as the Holy Grail that'll create or save their careers while traditional channels dry up and blow away. 

Those execs are partly correct in their assumptions. Facebook is the biggest media player in the Web game, period, filled with millions of fans who "like" things before they even know what they're about, seeding the subliminal buy-me messages that turn into more dollars down the road. It's the online equivalent of the Super Bowl, Time magazine and the Rush Limbaugh radio show, all at the same time.

The new-media Dust Bowl

For journalists, Facebook has the potential to create a new Dust Bowl, to add to the Dust Bowl we're already living in--if only because it could eventually become the ultimate bypass around the media, the easy route for corporations to speak directly to consumers, without any of those niggling questions or pesky objectivism.

For our money, automotive journalism is supposed to help you with what we've learned. We find and filter information that helps you choose a car, make a repair decision, discover the person behind your favorite car or technology, or to get redress when something's gone wrong. But we're particularly vulnerable to the Facebook effect in automotive media, where a few leathery old journals and a handful of Webby upstarts curate the auto-industry talking points on a daily basis. Some do it largely based on what they're spoon-fed. Combined, all our total audiences, on a good day, might measure out at about one-tenth of that of Facebook.

We like to believe we're a critical part of the process of car shopping and car enthusiasm, but really, who needs the media when it's easy to choreograph a viral onslaught on Facebook's shoulders, versus the hard work of informing media, who will just use that source information to write something of their own?

The most insidious way that journalists are vulnerable is when we're forced to "like" coming vehicles just to keep tabs on new vehicles. Sometimes, details dribble out over the course of months, held captive to some social-media agency's whims, and we're unable to get any emails or calls answered about something before it goes live. There's no chance for research or investigation or simple, basic questions that fill out the spaces between the lines of the press release--it's just "like" it or leave it.

Whether or not you believe media is fair, most reporters have a grounding and a base of knowledge that helps them find the stories behind the big glitzy social media efforts. Facebook can cut out that middleman completely. It can even co-opt us.

It's just one more sign today's journalists are modern-day Joads, driven to find something better to subsist on--or to die.

Sold on social media, still?

When it's held in a chokehold, social media is nothing more than pure marketing. We've seen some personalities meld with the Big Logo behind them in interesting ways, but most social-media come-ons you'll find when shopping or following cars online is completely filtered and completely messaged.

That's why, in some ways, Facebook car reveals can feel like a big auto show. They're stagey and scripted, drawn out too long, rich on photos and video but short on detail. But at least real auto shows give real journalists the time to hunt down executives for one-on-one interviews, to find new angles, to vet facts.

Facebook is more like launching a movie without a critic's screening--it can smell like a direct-to-DVD piece of dreck.

There's an uneasy peace between the automotive media and social media, for now at least. Most often, we receive background information on embargo, and we're able to do our legwork in time to publish alongside the big social-media push. That's been the case with the introductions we've mentioned here specifically, and it's probably the way most automakers will choose to handle them for the near future.

There's bound to be a break in that truce, and sometime soon, some brand with a crazy-dedicated following will stop meeting the media halfway, and will go it alone.

You may not be sold on media coverage of your favorite brand or car, but auto journalism has a place in the world. You don't have to follow us all, to follow where we're going here, either. Whether it's on a reputable auto Web site or via some huge sharing site, your takeaway needs to be the same.

You need to ask and know, before you buy into it.

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