How automakers buy reporters

It's the American dream: plucked from obscurity to live the pampered life of a rock star, starlet or, er, an automotive journalist? Two automaker-sponsored contests, from Hyundai and Nissan, promise amateur hacks trips to the New York auto show and press credentials. It's a double win: publicity and free content. What could possibly go wrong?

Nissan's contest, which the company posted on Facebook this week, solicits video-clip submissions by Nissan owners, who can win a trip for two to be a reporter at the New York International Auto Show — complete with a press credential. Jessica Reed, an account supervisor with the Zocalo Group, the social-media agency running the contest, clarified what the winner gets. "It's for a community member to be our 'Facebook reporter' (loose term)," she wrote in an e-mail. "We'll be walking with them and create content with them to feature on our Facebook page at a later day, just from their Nissan-owner perspective."

Hyundai's version has a built-in pretense of objectivity, which it gleaned from sponsoring the contest with the SEO-hungry High Gear Media. High Gear has already made finding writers willing to work for free part of its business model, so the contest isn't that much of a stretch. Editors of High Gear's The Car Connection will judge submissions from writers, and pick one writer to attend the show and "cover" it as a guest of Hyundai, High Gear and the NY auto show.

So Nissan's paying for someone to attend the show, and calling them a "reporter"? To be fair, there's enough wiggle room in that definition to accommodate whatever public relations goals the company's setting out for the winner. (At least they didn't say "citizen journalist," the media-industry con of the decade.)

Hyundai/High Gear's scheme doesn't invoke the "R" word, but as GM happily found with the bloggers and tweeters it's been bringing to the Detroit auto show, tagging someone a "guest" puts them in a natural position of deference. For amateurs and blog acolytes who don't have a cranky desk editor with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow haunting their office to watch over their copy, it's a relationship that kills objective reportage deader than Katharine Graham's mink stole.

But who cares, anyway? What, should we muster muster sympathy for the auto journalist who rides his dubious talents all the way to exotic locales, where he's fed, soused and let fly on Estoril or Laguna Seca or Ascari in the world's great sports cars. Please. Now we have to feel sorry that he's being squeezed by automakers that would rather route around media middlemen, or media brands that would rather he worked for free? What's a poor hack to do, enter a contest?

We guess so.

[Hat image courtesy of Zazzle]