Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Covering The Auto Industry: An SPJ Event

 (left to right: Mike Michels, Chris Woodyard, Richard Saxton, Jeremy Anwyl, Chris Hosford)

The Society of Professional Journalists - Los Angeles Chapter went up against the NBA Championship Lakers-Celtics' Game 7 on June 17 with an event entitled “Covering the Automotive Industry.” Panelists were Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl, Hyundai Motor America Communications VP Chris Hosford, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. VP of External Communications Mike Michels, and USA Today auto writer Chris Woodyard. The panel was moderated by SPJ secretary yours truly.

Anwyl provided attendees with a look at how recent automotive trends from the Edmunds.com data team indicate a possible so-called "double dip recession" because fleet sales have been unusually high due to spending triggered by the federal stimulus package. He warned that when these purchases slow down soon, a sales downturn is inevitable. Many news sources will then report that the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) has fallen without noting the actual buying behavior that caused the sales decline. Unseasonably high incentive offerings and other unusual offerings that shift consumer psychology also undermine the accuracy of the SAAR, but reporters tend to cover SAAR as a simple black and white picture of industry health – a practice that is often misleading and potentially damaging to consumer confidence. We'll keep a close eye on June sales numbers this week.

Hyundai's Chris Hosford made the point that like cars themselves, the industry is quite complex, so there's rarely a simple answer to issues that may seem basic. He also pointed out that journalists shouldn’t forget the importance of current technologies despite the allure of future technologies.

Toyota's Mike Michels presented the audience of journalists and educators with a list of ten points worth knowing about the auto industry, including “Autos are everyone’s business” -- meaning the auto industry affects the economy in many more ways than the average person – or reporter – may realize. Michels also discussed recalls, and acknowledged that government regulations regarding timing often result in a recall announcement taking place before a fix is determined, causing potential confusion and uncertainty for consumers and dealers.

USA Today's Chris Woodyard, the only writer on the panel, expressed that a critical part of being an automotive writer is taking very complex issues and breaking them down for readers so that they can understand and draw value from those issues. Woodyard who had covered other beats like retail, says automotive reporting brings you much closer to the executives and also provides the widest variety of story choices because cars are involved in almost everything. He cited a stories about going through the contents of trunk of a car to the latest industry trends.

The key message was use the resources available to research your story - from Edmunds.com data compiled from 14 million views per month to those provided by the media reps like Michels and Hosford.

My thanks to Edmunds.com for hosting this event which ended with 4 minutes left in the game so that many of us could dash upstairs to the big screens to see the Lakers capture another NBA title. I'll be sure to schedule the next event when the L.A. Dodgers or Kings are in a crucial  play-off game to bring them luck, too.