story of Indian auto journalism today, especially auto magazines is one of
disarray and hopelessness. While the automotive print media as well as
television media has seen its fortunes nose dive with the increase in
popularity of news and views viewed through various social media platforms in
the last few years, the current Covid-19 pandemic has only added misery to the
ongoing mess. And the way it looks, the bloodbath has just about started. More
trouble may be round the corner for the profession and by that time Indian auto
journalism may be reduced to the status of a mega circus.
The advent of Print Auto Journalism
the mid-1990s, the trade of auto journalism has grown by leaps and bounds in
India. Initially, everything about auto journalism was confined to the print
arena, mainly magazines. Though Auto India from the Business India Group was the first
major English auto magazine to successfully test the waters of B2C auto
journalism in the country, the year 1998 saw the birth of Overdrive magazine by the Tata Donneley group.
Overdrive set a new benchmark in the field of auto journalism, with its
Founding Editor Adil
Jal Darukhanawala doing a splendid job at the helm of affairs of the
magazine. Adil went on to become Editor
of several auto magazines and he is currently working for a television channel,
besides sharing his expertise with several others.
year or so later, in the winter of 1999 came another monthly auto magazine - Autocar india, an offshoot of the very popular
weekly magazine Autocar
of England and part of the powerful Haymarket Group of the UK. Autocar India magazine
is partly owned by Hormazd Sorabjee, an experienced auto writer who
along with Adil honed his skills in Auto India. Hormazd continues to remain the
Editor of Autocar India even today. Hormazd will be remembered for all times to
come as an extremely capable Editor and a very savvy businessman. He has adroitly
worn these two caps with great élan. Not
many may know, Hormazd is also a skilled photographer, having had his own photo
studio many decades ago by the name of Sorabjee Studios. I am not sure whether
this studio is still operational.
With the birth of these two English auto magazines,
the fortunes of Auto India plunged. I had the privilege of working with Autocar
India for several years as its Delhi Bureau Chief, beginning 1999, though I had
a short miserable stint with Auto India prior to that and had to quit as my
salary never came on time, and even if it did, it came in dribbles.
Standard financial newspaper too came out with its own auto magazine
which it started in 1999. Its Founding Editor Bijoy Kumar was also a prominent
auto journalist. He quit auto journalism several years ago and is now working
full time with Mahindra
& Mahindra. But unfortunately BS Motoring could not sustain
itself and was sold to Delhi Press which rechristened it as Motoring World.
At the time of buying out BS Motoring, Delhi Press was known for its popular
household magazines like The Caravan, Sarita, Champak, Women’s Era, etc.
2000, a lot of publishing companies as well as private concerns, both foreign
and Indian tried their hand in publishing auto magazines in India. The only
person who could actually match his auto journalism skills with men like
Hormazd and Adil, was Gautam Sen, along with his good friend Bob Rupani.
I consider Gautam Sen as the Father of Indian auto journalism. Apparently, all four
had worked together as auto journalists at some point of time in their lives.
Even though Gautam was roped in as the Editor of the Indian edition of Auto Motor Und
Sport (AMS), a powerful and popular auto magazine based in Germany,
he ran out of luck and the Indian edition of AMS shut operations within a few
years of starting publishing in India.
Sen did not last too long in the highly competitive auto publishing industry
because he was not the person cut out to do “business”. He was not the one who could ingratiate
himself before top honchos of auto companies. He was a sincere and cultured
person with a warm smile. I have contributed articles to AMS when he was the
Editor and was made its “Contributing Editor” for a short stint. In the auto publishing industry if you need to
survive, you need to have deep pockets and an extremely shrewd mentality. And
if you are willing to prostrate yourself before all vehicle manufacturers (OEMs),
you can actually go the extra sweet mile.
I guess I have none of the qualities and hence am still struggling to
make two ends meet. But I can proudly say that I have my head held high and
sleep like a log at night!
Another German auto magazine Auto Build
too came into India through the India Today Group and had to close shop
subsequently. India Today now has its own auto magazine that goes by the name Auto Today.
the Indian auto industry grew in stature, especially after 2000, auto magazines
catering to both the B2C segment as well as B2B segment began cropping up all
over the country. Autocar India brought in Autocar Professional. Overdrive brought in Auto Monitor.
These were B2B magazines. A lot of B2B as well as B2C English magazines were
introduced into the Indian market by different groups and individuals. Car India, Bike
India, Auto X, Evo India, Motoring World, xBhp, BBC TopGear, Zig Wheels,
Quarter Mile and not to forget Motown India. Motown India was started by me in
2010 and is owned by Delhi-based Motown Publications Pvt Ltd. Home grown brands
which have withstood the foreign brand invasion include the likes of autoX,
Quarter Mile, xBHP, Motoring World and Motown India, among others. Brands like
Evo India and BBC TopGear India are foreign brands and work in India under a
license agreement. BBC TopGear India that began its stint in India with a
strategic alliance with the mighty Times of India Group, has already changed
license holders in India a few times and is not as steady as it is supposed to
be. Evo India is run and operated by Sirish Chandran
and he has till now handled the affairs of Evo India quite remarkably. He is
another journalist besides Hormazd Sorabjee who has donned two caps, one of a
journalist and the other of a businessman, quite effectively. Dhruv Behl,
the founding Editor of autoX is yet another person with a similar role. Behl
comes from an extremely wealthy background and has effectively steered autoX
to fortunes, it will be unfair to compare my magazine Motown India with the
others, because while many of the other magazines were started by big groups
and powerful entities backed by rich companies, Motown India was started by an
old-school newspaper journalist (P.Tharyan) and that too with my own money.
Though many big ticket auto magazines have come and gone, Motown India continues to chug along
like the proverbial tortoise in the very popular ‘hare and tortoise’ story. .
to the B2B world of auto journalism, here too a lot of auto magazines came to
life but several others died. Though Motown India covers both the worlds of B2C
and B2B, exclusive B2B magazines include Autocar Professional, Motor India (published from
South India), CV,
Auto Parts Asia, Auto Components India, to name a few. While Auto Monitor
downed shutters a few years ago, it is reliably learnt that another prominent
B2B magazine from Germany’s Springer Group- AutoTech Review has stopped printing
in India since September 2020. Thanks to the after effects of the prevailing
COVID-19 pandemic, many of the leading English auto magazines have shut down
their regional offices across the country and have also pruned their staff
as auto magazines gained popularity in the late 1990s and post 2000, the
popularity of auto shows on television too soared. Auto related news and shows,
especially B2C news, began to be exclusively shown by channels like NDTV, ZEE, CNBC,
Times Network, etc. Both B2B as well as B2C magazines thrived in the
country as the Indian auto industry grew in stature in the country and around
Lucrative Auto Journalism
me personally, moving from mainline newspaper journalism to auto journalism
came as a huge shock on the ethical front. I always thought journalism meant treading
the unbiased path of honesty and integrity, without taking favours from
industrialists, bureaucrats and politicians. Let me give you an example. If a
reporter were to write about a monument situated in one end of the city, he
would travel down in his car or bike, or hire a cab to reach the spot and then
either interview the concerned person and observe everything about the monument
and come back and file a report. Auto journalism is different. Here, I noticed that everything was extremely
I was in Auto India, I was asked by my Editor to go to the US on the invitation
of Visteon. I flew business class along with a bunch of other Indian auto
journalists. We visited their plants out there, ate and drank plenty and told
the entire world that we had been to the US. Boy, I realised there was a sea of
difference between the professional life of an auto journalist and any other
journalist covering subjects like Sports, Medicine, Law, politics or Crime.
an economic reporter with newspapers, whenever I was invited by companies, both
government undertakings as well as private companies, we were either put up at
the company guest house or a simple hotel. Political journalists covering
out-of-state events would usually stay at the government circuit house. And if
we were to cover an out of state assignment on our own, we made ourselves
comfortable at the cheapest hotel, using the paltry amount given as advance by
the newspaper management. Luxury was minimal and our greed, typical prevalent
in any human being, was restricted and limited.
more I dug my heels into auto journalism, the more I realised the lucrative
side to this trade. And again, between a B2B journalist and a B2C journalist
within auto journalism, there is a sea of difference when it comes to so called
“enticements”. Initially, as a B2B auto journalist, I was thrilled meeting the
senior management of different auto companies, getting a close look at their
plant assembly and production lines. I was equally thrilled to learn about new
auto technologies and writing about them.
was only when I started wearing two hats, one of an entrepreneur and the other
of a B2B as well as a B2C journalist in Motown India that I got closer to
reality. Auto magazines or even auto channels cannot survive if they are not
supported through advertisements and advertorials by OEMs. And in order to get
advertisements, one has to pander to the advertising agencies who insist on
something called an official circulation certification. But if one were to befriend
these advertising agency blokes and even bribe them with expensive gifts and
money, you can see a few advertisements coming your way for the magazine.
circulation is a big joke in India. The weekly Autocar magazine, one of the
most popular auto magazines in the world, printed by the Haymarket group in
England has a circulation which is bound to baffle you. In India, every other
auto magazine claims to be selling hundreds of thousands of copies every month.
Now as an entrepreneur, I figured, this is absolute bullshit. Barring just one
or two magazines, though I am not sure here too, no auto magazine can afford to
sell as many magazines as they claim to be selling. It would be a financial
hara-kiri for anyone to actually print the numbers they claim to be printing.
If one were to
take into account the numbers which several Indian auto magazines claim
they are printing and selling, then Autocar of England should be selling truck
loads of magazines since its is among the most
popular auto magazines in the world. According to a UK press release
dated early 2019, “The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures show that
Autocar’s circulation rose from 30,753 to 32,253 in 2018. In 2017 its ABC
recorded circulation rise was 0.3%. The rise in 2018 was driven predominantly
by growth in digital magazine subscriptions.” Is this not interesting? People
and businesses abroad are more honest in their dealings, I gather.
For me, it was only when Motown India primarily became a
B2C magazine that I got to learn more about the B2C world of auto journalism.
As a B2C journalist, my talents make no sense if I am not given a car or bike
to review. Since I did not have the ability to pander to many OEMs and its
corporate communications teams, I lost out big time when it came to drives and
rides. As for driving a car or riding a bike abroad, I never got an invite. Now
looking back, in hindsight, I am grateful that I was not invited for foreign
junkets; at least I have that many reasons for a clear conscience.
It would be unfair
to paint all OEMs and their teams with one harsh brush, so let me specify,
there are several out there among the OEMs who can be hailed as fair players.
Thus, becoming a B2C publication was exciting but I got closer to see for
myself the decay in the industry. Everybody seemed to be like a puppet on a
string. The strings are tightly controlled by the OEMs. Whether it is getting
an advertisement from a company, or whether it is getting a product for review
or whether it is being invited for a drive in India or abroad, unless you
pander to the whims and fancies of OEMs, you cannot budge at all. Life as a B2C
journalist meant I had to get used to a terrible level playing field.
As an entrepreneur I got the cold shoulder from many
OEMs. They did not care two hoots whether I was a journalist with more than
three decades of experience or that my magazine was decent enough. As a B2C
journalist too, I got the cold shoulder, especially from big foreign auto
companies. I wrote to them for cars and bikes to review. A few responded, a few
did not even bother to reply. It went on, year after year. I thought I was a good journalist, but then I
also realised I was a bad businessman or that I was too obsessed with morality
and ethics. I never could lick anyone’s shoes; neither could I exaggerate beyond
a point about a product in my reviews. OEMs wanted me to dance to their tunes.
But I realised I was born with two left feet.
OEMs are clear about one thing. They want to befriend the
correspondent from the mightiest newspaper, the mightiest magazine, the
mightiest TV channel and the mightiest news agency. It’s good for their ego and
the ego of the top man in the organsiations. And in today’s world, the majority
of the boys and guys working there are directly or indirectly eating out from
the hands of OEMs. OEMs give them cars and bikes for a very long term. It could
be six months to more than a year. Fancy cars, fancy gifts, fancy junkets,
chocolate cakes and pastries on your birthday or anniversaries, exclusive
interviews, cars and bikes for review much before the ordinary mortals get to
review them not only for a longer time but also more than one so that you can
shoot and talk as much as you want with your entire team, and so on and so
forth. Well what more do you want? Journalism can go to hell, let’s party guys!
As for the rest, they are jokers in the pack. And if your
organisation can give out awards for the best looking automobile, the best
performing automobile, the widest automobile, the most compact automobile or
any other award that sounds mighty, then you can be in the good books of the
OEMs. Unfortunately the COVID-19 has halted some of the lucrative trade for
some time, or else the unethical practice was spreading like a festering wound.
The situation in the automotive journalism world turned
even uglier and messier when internet speeds picked up and social media
platforms started controlling everything, from your views and opinions to your
profession. As an auto journalist and an entrepreneur, I am today left with a
The Digital world of Auto Journalism
auto magazines, newspapers and television shows began to gain popularity, the
first seeds of a digital world were sown with the launch of websites. Each
magazine or newspaper needed to have its own website. Initially, the websites
could be accessed through computers with the help of a slow speed internet.
Internet speeds were as dismal as 50 to 100kbps, which were not only
pathetically slow but erratic too. Service providers of internet were
government owned bodies which never really bothered to serve the needs of the
customers. Highly specialised businesses like the stock markets etc, bought for
themselves leased line connections which provided high internet speeds but
these were very expensive.
the time internet speeds were low and everybody had their own websites, auto
journalism maintained its dignity to some extent. The print media made its
money through advertisements and advertorials, and depending on one’s exaggerated
circulation, advertisements were placed by auto companies and other related
the worlds of B2B and B2C, the latter is known for its glamour and appeal.
Nobody really wants to know whether an auto company has set up another plant in
some God forsaken part of the country. But when it comes to a new car or bike
launch, a lot of people are interested, especially the young. Thus, auto
magazines were subscribed and bought by youngsters generally who craved to see exciting
pictures and read about the latest products. In order for an auto magazine
correspondent to get hold of a car or a bike to drive or ride, he or she needed
to be real close to the companies. Each OEM has its own corporate communication
team and unless you are close to them or share great relations, you may not get
a vehicle to review. And that is where auto journalism slowly starting losing
its sheen. And to add to their woes, there is a battery of public relations
firms who hound you till the end of the world.
are PR guys good or bad? If you were to ask me, PR and auto journalism today
are two sides of a coin that is getting rusted. Both have reached its nadir
when it comes to professional services. I don’t blame the boys and girls
working in PR firms. They have been given a mandate to deliver, at any cost.
They can beg, they can scream, they can bribe (yes they take out journalists to
dinners, lunches and booze under the garb of networking. I also know of
instances where desperate PR persons had to pay newspaper journalists to get
reports printed!), they can implore, they can cry, but their client insists
that they want coverage of a superhuman kind.
it was crystal clear even before the digital wave began, that in order to gets
vehicles for reviewing, you need to be real close to the people who provide the
vehicle. It became very evident, that this stream of journalism (mainly B2C)
could never be of an independent nature.
Social Media Influence on the Rise
double whammy came in the form of the various social media platforms. Whether
it is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube, unless you have adequate likes,
hits, views, or whatever, you mean nothing to anybody. Thus all the hard work
which I had done in the past, all the rules I had learnt to follow and respect in the past, all what I had learnt
from my seniors, everything came to a crashing end with these social media
first to stick their heads out were the bloggers and vloggers. Without any
experience, without any rules and decorum and without any professional conduct,
a new breed was born. They were known as the Influencers. OEMs loved them. They
were like the Baba Ramdevs and the notorious gurujis with hundreds and
thousands of followers. Like the way politicians love them, the OEMs loved the
influencers. Since they had no rule or decorum to follow, they blasted their
way into limelight. Suddenly they began to be respected, loved and wooed. Good
old journalism did not mean a thing and OEMs did not care.
school journalists like me and those who did not have the penchant for sucking
up to people, were left baffled by this transition. Are we supposed to discard
our good habits and everything that we learnt in the past and adopt the new
world nonsense? It is confusing. Slowly and steadily, it does not matter
whether you worked for X publication or Y publication or whether you are a
journalist with 30 years experience or
just 3 months, everybody is an Editor, Associate Editor, Assistant Editor,
Video Editor, Editor in Chief, Executive Editor or whatever. It looks as though
there are no rookie correspondents.
it is quite apparent that if you are able to influence, either with your
twitter account, or your Instagram account, or your YouTube account, you can go
places. OEMs will pay you big time and all you have to do is to endorse the
product. OEMS, on the other hand, are so obsessed with the social media
platforms that they can give an arm and a half just to get noticed in this
space. So what’s wrong with this, you may ask? It’s perfect, I would say,
provided you do not mix this with journalism and do not call every social media
champion a journalist. Let’s just call it entertainment. Let me give you an
example. In the Indian army, soldiers wear olive green uniform while on duty.
Now as a civilian, if I were to buy an olive green uniform, does that make me
an army man? Of course not!
such is the clout of social media today that OEMs are not interested as to who
is doing what. They want publicity for their products at any cost and the views
and likes should be in millions. And quite interestingly, the unethical part of
this social media hoopla is that you can pay your way towards a million views
or hits. The more you pay these platforms, the more you would be seen, read and
viewed. This sadly goes against the basic principles of journalism. And to make
matters worse, even OEMs themselves have got into this rat race. A few CEOs in
the automotive world too are obsessed with their social media accounts with
millions of followers, many of them bought out rightly. It is like an honour
plaque for them. They are paying tons of money to have an exaggerated presence
in the internet space where millions are watching their products and commenting
on them. Surprisingly, no one is buying. How is it that despite so much money
spent on various social media platforms, no company was able to sell its
vehicles during the initial Covid days?
Is Journalism a career option
was a fairly decent profession till recently. While journalism has still
retained its sanctity in a very small way, a major portion of it has slipped
into shame. Look at political journalists on television screens screaming their
hearts out on various Indian TV channels. You wonder who would be the first to get
a brain hemorrhage.
for auto journalism, it was never an ethical profession. It was always a free
trip to a distant land, a free meal, a free gift, a free plane ride by business
class, etc. Ever since I have been an auto journalist, I have realised I am a
misfit in a world dominated by unscrupulous characters, ever ready to please a
company and its products. You have got to lick everything that comes you way---
the product, the company, its bosses and its corporate communication guys. Unless you do that, you cannot get your share
of advertisements, your share of long term vehicles, your share of new vehicles
for reviewing, your share of foreign junkets and your share of interviews.
Today, the social media platforms have cast
such a strong grip around you that you sometimes confuse it with your employer.
Are you working for your publication or are you working for Facebook, Instagram,
Twitter or YouTube? It’s like these platforms are tightening their noose around
your neck, very slowly but very smartly. But if you were to detach yourself
from journalism and use these platforms, then you will find it brilliantly
innovative. You can be your normal self, upload anything you want, follow
anybody you want, be creative, be smart and be adventurous. But the moment you
try bringing these platforms and the profession of journalism together, you
realise you are undermining the importance of journalism or whatever is left of
it. With your social media accounts, rather than trying to report news and be
analytical, you would be searching for stardom. You want that little blue tick
mark against your name on your twitter handle. You want your YouTube account to
have a million odd followers; you want a million followers on Instagram and so
on and so forth.
advice to youngsters is to look at jobs beyond auto journalism or any kind of
journalism. Because, at the end of the day if you are pursuing B2C auto journalism,
you will have to be 100 per cent dependent on OEMs for their vehicles so that
you can write about them, drive or ride them, shoot them, etc. That’s when you
realise there is no level playing field. You may get the vehicle for an hour,
another publication or journalist who is better at sucking up to the
organisation may get it for a day or two days. Obviously the output will vary.
Some OEMs may not even call you for their drives and rides. That will leave you
miserable. You will wonder why they are being so partial. There is no answer to
any of that. It’s the wish of the OEM. The OEM corporate communication team
decides on everything. You are at their mercy. And if you have a stubborn
demeanour wherein you refuse to wag your tail in front of all and sundry, then
I guess, journalism is a wrong profession for you today.
journalism based entities, especially in the political arena have made a
success of social media platforms to air their news and views. Similarly, many
stand-up comedians have made a very successful career solely with the help of a
social media platform. Take the example of ‘The Wire’ on YouTube which is into
political journalism. The interviews conducted by Karan Thapar are top notch
when it comes to adhering to the finest standards of journalism.
is galore in social media and so are abuses. In a newspaper or magazine, views
expressed by the viewers/ readers are vetted by qualified journalists.
Fuddy-duddy mails are either discarded or corrected. Grammatically incorrect
sentences are rectified before it is published. No hate mails are ever
entertained. Civility is given top priority too. But when you are on the social
media platform, the moment you activate the comments sections, you will be
flooded with a barrage of abuses and thumbs down, either through artificially
generated groups and people or through bots that have their origin in some
place in Russia or China. Social media has become so dangerously powerful that
you wonder who really controls your account, whether it is you or some machine
if you are naïve and you still think that journalism is a great profession,
then I can vouch with my experience that you are really mistaken. Like I
mentioned earlier, yes, journalism is still alive in some form or other and in
bits. But it is “Entertainment” that is the new mantra and it’s a free slug
fest out there. As for auto journalism, the sooner these two words are replaced
with words like Car Entertainer or Bike Entertainer or Auto Comedian, the
better it is. Let us give a quiet burial to auto journalism or journalism as a
whole. Let our lives be dominated by the various social media platforms and our
views be expressed by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, et al. More
platforms are being churned out on a daily basis. Maybe software coding is a
good career option for youngsters! After all, are we not living in a world
dominated by algorithms?