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Is the auto industry not able to support the local motoring media?

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Don’t Drink And Write

Motoring journalism was born out of the automotive industry’s need to promote its products. We members of the motoring press can act cool all we want, but the reality is that our gig originated from the automakers’ marketing requirements.

Over the years — decades, even — a few good men in our trade have done their very best to give their craft a semblance of legitimacy and professionalism. Even as newspaper owners willingly prostitute their publications for much-needed advertising money, I know a handful of editors and writers from our ranks who work hard to prioritize their readers over revenue or perks. God bless ’em.

Still, the truth is that the companies that pay the salaries of motoring journalists need advertising support from the very industry that they cover. This is particularly true with car magazines and automotive websites. It’s a quid pro quo world out there.

The best motoring writers, in my opinion, are those who are able to find that delicate balance between helping car brands communicate their news and helping readers see through the BS in said news. Even so, the most brilliant editors, columnists and reporters are nothing if the space they use to get their message across ceases to exist — whether that space is a physical entity or a digital one.

Last April 11, Summit Media — which had built a virtual empire publishing the country’s best magazines — announced that it was finally killing its six remaining print titles. One of those was Top Gear Philippines, the undisputed number one car magazine in the local market. The website will soldier on, but the glossy, concrete version is gone after the May 2018 issue.

As the owner and editor of another motoring website, I admit that this development makes competing with Top Gear easier. Still extremely tough, for sure, but easier — as the brand essentially lost half of its bargaining chips. Then again, it also seems somewhat alarming. Why did they have to fold the magazine? Was this a result of declining advertising support?

The answer is no. In fact, Top Gear was probably the lone bright spot in Summit’s gutted print portfolio. I actually never thought I’d see the day when the automotive title would one day have more ad pages than FHM. But yes, that day did arrive.

With our car industry selling half a million brand-new vehicles last year, it’s safe to say it can support at least three car-centric magazines (the actual number in current circulation), let alone the leading one that boasts 20,000 copies a month (at least when I was there) versus the competition’s couple of thousand pieces. I’ve always held that one could immediately tell how robust and vibrant a country’s auto market is by the number of magazines dedicated to reporting about it. Thailand, I was once told, used to have more than a dozen, reflecting the size of the market.

So what happened? Why did Summit Media shut down a magazine that was still functioning as a reliable cash cow?

The move was a company-wide business decision, nothing more and nothing less. Summit management had simply determined that going exclusively digital was the way moving forward. For three or even four years now, the audience shift to digital has been drastic. Readers have simply abandoned the physical magazine en masse. With ubiquitous smartphones and accessible data connectivity, people now prefer to consume their news, entertainment and communication on the go, without the need to make that single trip to a newsstand and pay P175 for a magazine whose content is nearly similar to stuff offered free online.

And with readers shunning print products, it is only natural for advertisers to withdraw their support and follow where audiences go. Right now, that place is the digital space. Or websites and social media. Which explains the preponderance of sites and blogs — even so-called influencers — at the moment.

Top Gear the magazine may have still been healthy advertising-wise when Summit decided to shut it down along with the others, but from a business perspective, it no longer made any sense to keep it. Summit couldn’t possibly sustain its print business with just one or two profitable magazines. Those products would need to be supported by a production staff and a distribution network. They would be too costly to maintain.

And so, to answer colleagues who ask if Top Gear Philippines’ surrender as a print product is any indication of the car industry’s fiscal situation, I say the automotive business in our market remains strong and continues to be willing and able to support media outlets that help automakers publicize their efforts. But the medium has changed. Those who can adapt well under the prevailing circumstances will come out on top. You can take that to the bank.