It’s been a tough year for the world’s most popular car magazine. In the past twelve months, Car and Driver has shed its longtime Ann Arbor location, some veteran staff members, and its editor, Csaba Csere.
Csere (pronounced “CHED-ah”) started at C/D in 1980, eighteen months after the magazine moved to Ann Arbor from Manhattan. Editor since 1993, he led last year’s move from Hogback Road to the Eisenhower Commerce Park, where the car-crazy writers finally have their own garage. But Csere didn’t stay to enjoy it—he stepped down in December.
“It’s a fabulous job,” Csere says. “But I’d been doing it for a long, long time, and that was combined with the real downturn in our business.” Between the car sales slump, the financial crisis, and Internet competition, he says, “profitability was way down.” When the magazine’s longtime receptionist and associate art director left soon after Csere, parent company Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. (whose publications also include Elle, Woman’s Day, and Road & Track) decided not to replace them.
Hachette sent group editorial director John Owens to Ann Arbor as interim editor for a couple months, but an insider says the staff was relieved that he didn’t get the job permanently. Instead of writing for Car and Driver’s traditional audience of car aficionados, this source says, Owens wanted the magazine to be completely “in market”—aimed strictly at people currently shopping for cars.
Csere explains the tension. “Car and Driver’s circulation was 1.3 million,” he says. “On the one hand that’s the world’s largest car magazine . . . it’s a nice big, fat circulation. On the other hand, compared to [200 million American] licensed drivers, it’s less than one percent market penetration. . . . So the readers at Car and Driver, and at most car magazines, are the lunatic fringe.”
Advertisers have always paid well to reach that lunatic fringe because other car buyers turned to car nuts for advice. Now, though, more are doing their own research using online guides like edmunds.com.
Csere was glad to see Eddie Alterman take over in March. Raised in suburban Detroit, Alter-man, thirty-seven, is a second-generation car buff—his dad taught him to drive at age eleven or twelve, and encouraged him to apply at Ann Arbor’s car magazines when he was a student at the U-M. Starting as a gofer at Automobile, caring for test vehicles, he rose to senior editor before leaving to edit a couple of online car magazines. Neither flourished, but “without that online or digital experience, and understanding the way you have to tailor your editorial content to each medium, I don’t think I would have gotten the job” at Car and Driver, Alterman admits.
“In some ways an enthusiast’s magazine is a great bonfire,” he says. “People can gather around it in a sort of loose community. But online people are actually able to interact and talk to each other and get ideas and tips and advice from each other. It is a very powerful thing.
“One of the things that I have sort of discovered in the online space is that people are not reading as much,” Alterman adds. “It is very difficult to do features online. People want quick hits and they want rumors and they want photos and galleries, and they want to talk to each other.”
That still leaves plenty of room for print. Car and Driver, says Alterman, “really puts people in the driver’s seat of the car—it explains what’s good and what’s bad in witty, fun-to-read language. . . . The magazine has this great heritage of outrageousness and irreverence, and I like to bring that out a little more.”