Ann Arbor's automotive journalists chase the mobility revolution.
by Jan Schlain
From the March, 2019 issue
"As I write this letter, reciprocating saws and nail guns are cacophonating in the background, making the sweet, dirty music of expansion." That's Eddie Alterman, describing the scene at Car and Driver in the magazine's August 2017 issue.
Ann Arbor has been an unlikely center of automotive media ever since the late David E. Davis Jr. moved Car and Driver here from Manhattan forty-two years ago. Alterman, then a nineteen-year-old U-M English major, started as an intern in 1991 and returned in 2009 as editor-in-chief.
By then, C/D wasn't the only national car magazine in town. After a rift with the magazine's owner, Davis launched a competitor, Automobile, in 1986.
In 2012, Road & Track arrived from California to join corporate cousin C/D--by then, both were owned by Hearst Magazines. Larry Webster, hired to revive R&T, had told his bosses to "move it to Ann Arbor, because Detroit is the hotbed of automotive journalism."
In a "Top 10" list of automotive publishers the next year, Ann Arbor magazines took three of the top five slots. Car and Driver alone had a circulation of 1.2 million. But like newspapers, magazines were under pressure from the Internet.
The car magazines were online too, of course, but even when they built large audiences, advertising revenue was paltry. Yet price-and-feature guides like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com were thriving. Unlike the magazine sites, they had links that connected buyers who did research there to dealerships for price quotes--each of which generated a referral fee.
In 2014, Automobile left town after the magazine distributor that owned it went bankrupt. (It's now based in Los Angeles, with a much smaller circulation.) Hearst has just announced that R&T is also leaving, for New York City.
If Ann Arbor is such a great spot for covering the industry, why is Road & Track moving? "Well, half of it was in New York," Alterman says: The web staff was already
there, and "it was the right time and the right change to bring the digital and print sides together."
Larry Webster, who persuaded Hearst to move R&T here, might be expected to question the decision. But told about the move and the rationale, he says, "I think combining digital and print staff is a good idea. There are a lot of things we do digitally that don't work in the printed magazine. It helps to have that communication."
R&T's circulation is still strong, as is C/D's. In fact, Hearst has just promoted Alterman to "chief brand officer." It's "a more strategic position," he says, "that gets me out of the sort of day-to-day running of the magazine, but thinking about where the brand should move, in terms of what it delivers to the customer, what are new business opportunities."
One of those opportunities will be on display at South by Southwest this month. On March 9, C/D's documentary about the future of self-driving cars, will premiere at the Austin media fest.
Autonomy grew out of a Car and Driver special section in 2017. It was edited by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, who Alterman calls "one of the greatest social critics and lateral thinkers in the world." It turns out he's also a car nut. He and Alterman are both executive producers and share screen time.
Alterman says he's "ready to ride a different ride at the Car and Driver amusement park." While the movie is its showiest new ride, the most important one was heralded by the cacophony in its office off Eisenhower Pkwy. The expansion made room to nearly double the staff and quadruple the number of cars reviewed.
The added reviews weren't for the magazine but for C/D's own online buyers guide. Hearst is counting on it to wrestle some of those active shoppers--and their referral fees--away from Edmunds and Kelley.
As Hearst was expanding C/D, Larry Webster was pulling up to the junction of journalism and commerce from the opposite direction. He left R&T in 2016 to work at Hagerty, the world's largest seller of classic car insurance.
Hagerty is based in Traverse City, but Webster worked mainly from an Ypsilanti warehouse where local collectors store their cars. (Davis used the same office until his death in 2011). There he produced Hagerty Magazine, a superbly written and produced bimonthly. Though initially offered only to Hagerty clients, it already has a circulation of 600,000--and has just been made available to anyone who joins the Hagerty Drivers Club (dues $45 a year).
Webster now leads a group of about a dozen Hagerty staffers in the Riverfront Building on N. Main. They just took more space to host drivers club events.
"Hearst is usually the Goliath when it comes to media," Hearst Autos president Nick Matarazzo said last year. "But when you think about autos, Hearst Autos is really David."
Former Automobile editor-in-chief Jean Jennings agrees. Hearst is "trying to recreate Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book-- those are the models," she says. "They're just strictly buyers guides, and that's what people want. That's where the money is."
Building something on that scale isn't cheap, and Hearst isn't writing blank checks. Last summer, jalopnik.com reported that C/D had laid off of a dozen editorial staffers, primarily from the digital side. Yet even after the layoffs, the staff is 50 percent bigger than a few years ago.
While C/D remains the dominant car brand in print, Alterman concedes that it's the challenger in online guides. Its edge, he says, is "objective testing capabilities that really nobody else has. C/D really invented automotive testing." Only now, in addition to in-motion tests like zero-to-sixty acceleration, it's also measuring more than 200 "static attributes"--"like where are the cup holders, and what size do they fit?" he says. "Where are the USB ports? Are they hidden?" They're even calculating how well a baby stroller fits.
"Before the Internet, C/D was really used as a pretty crude shopping tool for people who were in the market for a car," Alterman says. "It was almost like a bridal magazine, in the sense that people picked it up when they were looking for a car.
"They would read the preview" when a new model came out. "Then they'd read the road test of a car. Then they might read a comparison test. And that would inform their decision."
Now, he says, "because of the time compression afforded by the Internet, we're able to do that all at once. And because of the unlimited space of the Internet, we're able to go so much deeper and really present a shopper-focused experience."
Being more shopper-focused doesn't mean abandoning the verve and character that keeps car nuts coming back to the magazine every month. "We actually call it more of a shopping experience," says Nathan Christopher, executive director of PR at Hearst Magazines. Along with facts and figures, they want to communicate the intangible experiences that make people want to drive in the first place.
"We've taken on the challenge of guiding the person from inspiration into the seat of the car," Matarazzo says--"and not handing them off to our competitors" for the purchase.
Alterman thinks emotion will always matter. "People have these very, very strong attachments to their cars," he says. "It's like a pet. This is a very emotional purchase. The car says a lot about who you are to the outside world. It's your avatar.
"We always like to say if cars were solely a rational purchase, everyone would drive a tan minivan. But people want to express themselves through their cars. I don't think that's going to change."
While Hearst had strong magazines scrambling to find new revenue, when Webster arrived two years ago, Hagerty had the opposite problem: the business was flourishing but lacked the car magazines' emotional connection to its clients. At the time, CEO McKeel Hagerty told the Observer that he wanted Webster to build a sense of community among the company's nearly one million clients in North America--"to help create the magic."
As Hagerty's vice president of content, Webster says, "I'm editor-in-chief of the magazine." He also oversees video and digital content, "and sometimes I do spokesman duties and stuff like that."
Why does Hagerty care, since he already has a thriving business? "McKeel believes very strongly in serving the community," Webster adds. "First and foremost is maintaining automotive enthusiasm. We see our mission as 'never stop driving.' We want to ensure that there are autonomous and driven cars" in the future.
That mission statement is about to be embodied in a book. Never Stop Driving, which Hagerty will publish this spring, is a collection of smart, moving essays on everything from how people fall in love with cars to what road they'd choose if they knew their next drive would be their last. McKeel Hagerty wrote the afterword.
"The pleasure of driving cars is one part of it," Webster says, "but one of the things I wrote about [in the book] was a lot of the mechanical aspects. Fixing, tinkering, working on your car turns out to have some very positive benefits."
A psychologist he talked to at the U-M "calls it incubation. What a lot of people are discovering is you need to deprogram from the digital world and be present. And a lot of times when you have a cantankerous problem ... and you do something very physical and repetitive--like working on a car--it sort of lets things work in the background. They're finding more and more that's an important part of creativity.
"So the car is just one aspect of it. You can talk about it like an Amish barn building, but it's just one of those gathering points for humans. A car--it's an exciting object, it's a physics lesson, it's big enough for a lot of people to contribute and it forces you to be present. Driving forces you to be present. Working on it forces you to be present. And it brings people together."
Webster lives in Ann Arbor and, as he did with Road & Track, he pitched his new bosses on locating here for its proximity to the industry. "And that's why Hagerty is setting up operations here," he says. "Or partly why ... they realized that there's a lot of other talent beyond content that we can leverage here." That includes techies working on various Hagerty projects. "I think we have about ten," he says. "They come and go and sometimes work from home."
The downstairs clubhouse, meanwhile, will be a gathering place for Hagerty's growing automotive community--another plum for everyone who signs up for the driving club.
"We want people to be members," Webster says. "We're trying to make sure we have that recipe of goods, services, and products that make it a worthwhile addition to their lives.
"If we do it right, this can be the hub of the automotive world around here," he says. "We could watch the Formula One race together, or bring in an expert to explain a VW engine. We can have webinars with valuation experts.
"We really want to be not just a resource, but a fun connection to the community."
The automotive community is understandably ambivalent about the prospect of driverless cars.
"Initially I took a very contrarian point of view on the driverless car, and Malcolm [Gladwell] did, too," Alterman says. "And the world has sort of come around to the way we see it. And that's been pretty gratifying, and it also shows the great power of his brand and the great power of Car and Driver, and the two of us working together. Because we really have been beating this drum very hard.
"We're really believers in a couple of things. The human-piloted car, or human-driven car, will continue to exist; the human-owned, human-driven car is not going away. And we really do believe that the so-called Level Five purely driverless, purely autonomous car is more of a substitute for public transportation than it is a substitute for a personal-use vehicle.
"There are a lot of reasons for that. But they are not technical. The reasons are primarily psychological--the way people think about and approach the act of driving."
In a car, Alterman explains, "you do feel like you're in control. What you're talking about [with driverless cars] is going from a voluntary risk--where you feel like you're in control and you're actually steering the car and braking and going as fast as you want--wherever you want, to an involuntary risk, where something else is in control. It is almost akin to getting on an airplane. And in that scenario, it really does matter who is doing the crashing.
"We tend to accept a high level of crashes and fatalities when humans are driving, but when the machines are at the wheel, and their motivations and their moves are opaque to us, it's a far scarier thing ...
"So I think you're talking about a much, much higher standard of safety than we have with human-driven vehicles. And that's going to lead to all sorts of different solutions for the driverless car."
The technological challenges and philosophical complexities only feed Alterman's enthusiasm. "It's the greatest time to be an automotive journalist," he says. "There is so much happening. The car's been stable since the Model T, kind of, until now--it's all been hardware. But now the car is software, too."
Because C/D understands both, he says, "we have an advantage over the tech bloggers and the people who are approaching the cars solely as a piece of consumer tech.
"We understand the context. So I think we are really well-placed to comment on this revolution."
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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