Lighten up, guys!

I’ve been doing this a fairly long time now — this business of writing about cars (and a fair bit about bikes). Over the years, the different brands I’ve worked for helped me develop different writing styles. It ranged from casual flow of words where I’d make the readers feel like they know the team well, to the really serious writing on matters relating to business affairs and very straight-forward product reviews. I’ve had a parallel work life, too — one where I’ve been an industry analyst and prepared research papers. That’s as fascinating as it is mundane. Mostly mundane.

But what kind of writing do I enjoy most? It’s the one that I’ve done the least — and mostly for my own pleasure. The problem with the Indian automotive community is that we take ourselves too seriously — manufacturers, media professions and PR folks alike. We’ve forgotten what it is like to lighten up. The joy has been missing in this business since the longest time. 

BS Motoring — now called Motoring World  — was the epitome of perky publishing. The team at BS Motoring headed by a fabulous guy — Bijoy — was a silly bunch of boys simply having fun. And everyone in the industry loved it. Overdrive, Top Gear India and us at AutoX also had some moments of naughtiness every now-and-then. 

AutoX

Not much of it exists in the industry now — which is sad. And the reason for that is the ‘industry’ itself. Till a decade or so ago, there were a handful of print players, a few TV folks, the early digital people and the community was fairly small. Everyone knew each other and their naughty stories. Folks on the other side of the table — manufacturers’ reps —  too had a great relationship with the journalist fraternity. This allowed for beautiful scoops, stories, spoofs, and above all, bonding to happen. Yet, there was always that thin line that wasn’t crossed by either of the communities. That kept the balance intact.

Sure, every manufacturer had a favourite or two and the same was true for the media titles as well. But largely, everyone got along just fine and the tolerances were high enough to afford great relationships. 

I’m not against digital media at all; in fact I’m forever encouraging of the younger lot — they bring a unique set of skills that at least I find a bit hard getting comfortable with. And credit where it is due: some of them have built extremely strong digital content products which have taken the battle to long-standing warriors of motoring journalism from the decades past. This resulted in everyone getting serious about digital as a platform and that’s a great thing. 

But — and I say this with conviction because I’ve had elaborate chats about this with people of authority at the PR and manufacturers’ end — the emergence of blogs, and later social-media personalities, kind of brought things down. They were “easily influenced” and it required simple tactics to make them mouthpieces for brands. This reduced healthy criticism around any automotive manufacturer and because these upstarts were very efficient at cracking the digital code of logic, they ranked well enough to drive consumer perception. The ‘traditional’ players were rather dismissive of this new wave initially — what could such individuals who had no real standing in the fraternity do to them after all? Quite a lot, as it soon became clear. 

As the game intensified, the wry smile on the faces of the manufactures became ever more confident. They have been known to arm-twist content producers for their benefits and have been able to easily manipulate some of these independent blog-owners. Don’t imagine — even for a moment — that I’m applying this to every single new-age digital motoring content publisher. I find some of them to be quite steadfast, but they are far and few. 

This deviation was needed to enforce the central point of this rant — the joy is missing from this industry. All this muscle game and manipulation has erased the essence of excitement and spirited banter from the industry. Yes, there are still some great stories and naughty expressions being heard — but they are limited to fraternity gatherings and often in silos. 

Manufacturers have become too stiff about themselves and that’s a terrible sign of things. You can’t have praises being doled out in sacks all the time. The younger folks coming in the world of motoring journalism are not going to learn the ethical and balanced views of the trade. They are not going to be able to express creatively. The words are going to be as high on excitement as a man facing the gallows — much like how press releases are written. In fact, most of the time, that’s what they are — glorified press releases.

From the outside, motoring journalism looks like a glamorous industry and that’s the draw for a lot of people. I’ve got texts from guys saying they want to ‘drive fancy cars and travel the world’. Yes, that’s true — you get to drive someone else’s fancy car, ride powerful bikes, visit beautiful places and collect endless immigration stamps and air miles. But how many join for the sheer passion and the joy of learning, the charm of writing and truly ‘getting’ a car or a bike? There aren’t too many of this kind. 

Words — they are the foundation of storytelling. For example, to be able to convey about the suspension of a car in an exciting way is pure art and that makes a writer connect to the readers and form an emotion with them. And the more you connect with a product — the more you love and / or hate it — the more you’ll connect with your readers. 

And that’s where I want to come back to the manufacturers. It’s okay for a product to be criticised if it is with reason. And it’s the writers right to write the way she / he wants so long as it is written in an innocent and fun way and isn’t insulting. So lighten up — take it in your stride, laugh it off. You have taken your KRAs a bit too seriously, and trust me, a little fun is something that even the ‘management’ understands. 

It’s not ‘producing content’; it’s storytelling. And it’s best when done with emotions and a spectrum of opinions — best done with a little spice. So, to all you storytellers — stop taking yourself too seriously, too. Go on, have fun with your writing.

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