NOBLE Prize in Automotive Journalism: Reality Check

Saturday Sarcasm: By Syed Shiraz

“How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?…
…The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” – Bob Dylan

The noble pun in the heading is very much intended, and please excuse me if you’ve had enough of Dylan posts lately, but something equally astounding happened in our line of work just a fortnight ago which compelled me to draw a parallel. Well, dear readers, it gives me immense happiness to share with you that, last month, BikeAdvice became the FIRST IN INDIA to ride one of the recently launched premium motorcycles. I am also unabashedly celebrating the fact that, with it, I happen to be the first automotive reviewer in India to have tested this motorcycle. Yahoo!

The reason for being so elated is simple: the unsaid norm in our industry is that the print (magazines and newspapers) and electronic media (TV channels) chaps get to ride/drive a new vehicle first, and ‘online media’ gets to sample it in the end. Even at media rides/drives we get the last slot, which is generally the second or the third day of the ride/drive, provided we get invited at all. But that’s majorly the scenario with some car manufacturers; the bike companies are increasingly getting more accommodating by the day. Except one motorcycle company, whose PR team not only conveniently forgot to invite us to the media ride of their most important product yet, but even gave a lame excuse (“not enough media bikes”) when we tried to have a conversation with them. They apparently forgot that social media is a powerful thing, and we got to know in little time that they had invited fashion photographers, gadget reviewers, lifestyle bloggers, socialites, ‘Instagram celebs’, and a few plumbers too, I guess.  That is why we have not been able to bring out a review of that motorcycle despite repeated requests from you guys. And that’s one of the reasons behind this write-up – we did owe an explanation to you, dear readers, and had to tell you exactly how it is. But, no worries, if the zillion reviews of that bike have still not been helpful, please bear with us just a little more as I would soon pick up a bike from a dealer and test it for you all. The quote, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”, fits here beautifully. So, yes, we’ll let such PR chaps do their thing; we’ll continue to do ours.

Coming back to that special motorcycle we rode, well, it’s one of the most beautiful motorcycles on this planet and it’s a CBU – the details of which I can only divulge on the 25th of this month as the manufacturer has put an embargo on it until then. Such an embargo means that, forget a review, one cannot even put a picture of the bike’s rear view mirror on social media until the embargo is lifted. That’s the way to go and other companies can learn from it as embargoes not only allow the manufacturers to choose the exact period for media coverage of their product(s), they also prevent all of us from putting half-baked articles within minutes of the said rides/drives in order to get the ‘maximum’ hits. Of course, a couple of bigger media houses keep breaking them, but, since ‘ethics’ mean a lot to us, we do honour embargoes.

The bigger picture (and the main reason for writing this piece), however, is that this ride is a victory for Indian automotive journalism as a whole. And let me say this at the outset that the biggest factor responsible for this change is YOU, the reader. Of course, had we been writing crap you wouldn’t have frequented the site, but the fact remains that it’s YOUR bouquets that keep us motivated; it’s YOUR brickbats that keep us honest.

But I didn’t call it a victory merely because an online blog got to test a motorcycle before any magazine, newspaper, TV channel, etc., could. Far from it, in fact. I said that because it’s probably the first time a manufacturer in India has not bowed down to the conventional (and silly) approach of succumbing to the bloated ‘reach’ of big media houses. I said that because it’s the first time a manufacturer has properly gauged the competency, and not given preference to someone with ‘better reach’ (perceived or actual) despite the latter’s inability to tell a belt-drive from a chain-drive (yes, it has happened!).

Speaking of which (the blunders arising from one’s overconfidence), how would you feel, as a reader, about a journo/blogger giving you ‘expert’ advice when he does not know the difference between a Jeep and a Jonga? Or seeing a review where the tester expresses disgust on the lack of ABS in the Indian Scout (the bike has had ABS from day one in India!)? Or hearing the editor of a prestigious magazine / TV show speak with fervour that the BMW Z4 has a V6 engine under its hood (it has an inline-six motor, folks!)? Or seeing the principal correspondent of the same publication write that the Abarth 595 Competizione comes with quad exhaust pipes (it has dual pipes; the quad Record Monza exhausts are not even available as an accessory in India)?

I, for one, would be (and I was) utterly dismayed. Everyone makes mistakes, but no one should be absolutely unapologetic about it. But, personal traits aside, what is the credibility of a reviewer when they can’t even check the brochure of the car to determine the engine configuration (forget about opening the hood to check it)? Or revisit the photos at least (instead of blatantly copying the international test reviews; those cars were equipped with the quad Record Monza exhausts) to check how many pipes are jutting out of the car’s behind? And if you have not been able to test the brakes of the vehicle, please either skip that section or clearly write that you were not able to test it due to XYZ reasons; you just can’t provide incorrect information like that!

And I am not even going to talk about the gent who had prophesied the birth of a single-cylinder Yamaha R25 in India. He also had a vision where he saw the twin-cylinder model never getting introduced in the country. The YZF-R3 curses him…

Anyway, the point is that it definitely leaves the most passionate ones aghast to see manufacturers segregating ‘types of media’ solely on the basis of the medium of publishing, and not on the level of expertise. Although, if memory serves me right, companies like Nissan and Ford have actually had altogether separate and quite elaborate events (read ‘international tours’) specifically for online media in the recent past, but that’s again not the best approach. Because not only does it look more like a consolation than genuine engagement, it makes that line, which differentiates the types of media, even more prominent, and that’s something we have do away with completely. It might take time, but, going by the initiative taken by this particular manufacturer of big motorcycles, it would not remain a Utopian thought anymore. I can now hardly wait for the 25th