If you want to understand the cars that end up in a dealership you don’t need to know how internal combustion works or the difference between a camshaft and a crankshaft. You need to understand the business of cars and to do that you need to understand how to read an article about the business of cars.
Unless this specific article is being read to you, I’m going to assume you have basic literacy skills. I’m also going to assume you have a basic understanding of economics, and some idea of what a reporter does.
I’m also going to assume that you believe in objective journalism, which is not a thing that actually really exists nor something that you should desire, but I’m not going to break your brain that much and will maintain this illusion for now because most business reporters also believe that what they’re trying to do is be objective.
The first thing you should understand before reading anything is the actual publication and what kind of bias you’re going to get by reading it. The easiest way to do that is ask this question: Who is the audience?
If you’re reading Jalopnik, for instance, you know that we have an obvious and transparent enthusiast bias. We always strive to tell you the truth, but it’s a truth tailored for our reader.
Bloomberg has a huge corps of reporters covering the auto industry and they are, in my experience, top notch. But their bias is towards the markets and investors and the 1 percent of wealthy readers who get their news from the Bloomberg Terminal. Their bias is not towards the enthusiast.
Automotive News is another great source of news about cars, but their audience tends to skew less towards institutional investors and more towards dealerships, automakers, and suppliers. Their stories will often include the impact this might have on automotive retailers and manufacturers.
Again, “bias” in this case is not a pro-market or a pro-dealership perspective, merely a bias towards including certain information.
The second thing you should understand is how a news article is formatted and how reporters use this format to try to telegraph to you what they’re really thinking.
Basically, most non-magazine news articles follow a format invented for newspapers that works quite well for the Internet and embraces the idea of the Inverted Triangle wherein the most important information is at the top and the more detailed information is explained within the body.
This starts with what is called a “lede” at the top of an article. This is the “who/what/where/when/why” and it’s written both to inform the reader as to what’s going on in the article and to entice them to read more. In my experience, about 80% of readers never make it past the lede.
Next, is the body of the article, which generally follows a “QT” format of “quote” and “transition.” I.e., the reporter will present an idea (Crossovers sales have grown while car sales have diminished) followed by a quote backing it up (“Boy howdy, people sure love crossovers,” said Random Analyst).
A lot of Jalopnik stories come from reading these articles and finding the “buried lede” within the body that has the information that’s actually important or interesting to us.
I’ll give you one example. This Road & Track article from our friend Travis Okulski takes a Hollywood Reporter article about why Top Gear took the Amazon deal and unearthed a key point, which was this: They’re not going to publish all the videos at once.
However, we found a buried lede within the R&T article, which was that the show isn’t streaming until Fall 2016 at the earliest.
This is information bias at work, but I don’t mean that in a bad way here — just a means to show different perspectives. The Hollywood Reporter cares about the business side, Travis chose to focus on how the episodes will be meted out, we focused on “when.” Nobody is wrong here, but you can see how the same information can be perceived and presented in three different ways.
Finally, we get to the “kicker.” You’re always reading two articles when you read a business article:
- The article that the reporter has to write to meet the standards of his or her publication and the expectation of that publication’s readers.
- The point the author is actually trying to get across.
In an article written by a good journalist you can usually discern the second article when they either directly or indirectly tip their hand towards what they perceive to be reality.
For example, Hans Greimel at Automotive News wrote this strong piece about Suzuki and Volkswagen’s doomed relationship that implies VW mostly wanted to fix its problems in emerging markets and didn’t listen to their Japanese partner and tried to help them much.
It has this killer kicker:
Even as Harayama incessantly demanded an end to the alliance at their meeting, Demant instead insisted on leaving a door open.
“There were misunderstandings between VW and Suzuki,” Demant said, before adding with seemingly little hint of irony: “VW wants to understand what kinds of misunderstandings they were and the thinking process that led to them.”
Those words “with seemingly little hint of irony” pretty much says it all. Irony is a condition that exists when the actual meaning of something doesn’t align with the intended meaning, and Greimel is making clear that VW’s near obstinance in trying to understand Suzuki is the underlying and persistent fault.
Another example is in this Bloomberg Businessweek piece on the California Air Resource Board that pits FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne against CARB’s Mary Nichols and ends with this:
Asked about the comments from the Fiat Chrysler CEO specifically, Nichols pauses and then says: “There’s a reason Chrysler is the perennial No. 3 of the Big Three.” When asked a follow-up, Nichols stops the line of questioning. “That’s my answer. Take it or leave it.”
The author of that article isn’t necessarily siding with Nichols, just like Greimel isn’t necessarily siding with Suzuki, but both writers are consciously or subconsciously leaving an impression of who is right and who is wrong.
Articles have to end somewhere and, because of the way our brains work, we tend to have a bias towards who has the last word.
This gets to my last point: Truly objective journalism does not exist.
Objective journalism is a standard and it places on the reporter and the publication the onus of presenting two (or more) sides of a story with equal weight. In practice, this doesn’t actually happen.
Most reporters accept that not all sides are created equal. For example, in a story about lynching no one should expect that a racist will have as much time talking about why they think it’s justified. But if you setup the expectation that all sides get to tell their story, that’s sort of what you’re asking for.
Even in what they choose to cover, or how, journalists and publications are having to use subjective judgment. Maybe we choose not to report on a story because we think it’s boring or because someone else did a better job than us. Maybe we think the source of full of shit.
This isn’t just for business articles, either. A car magazine may keep a car out of a shootout test if they’re mad at that particular automaker (or, vice versa, a car may not be there because the automaker is mad at the publication).
What I think most people should demand, and what they really want, is disclosure.
When we write about something we try to disclose all we think is relevant to readers. When Jason writes about a new Volkswagen Beetle, he often mentions that he owns a Volkswagen Beetle and is a bit of an enthusiast. It provides the reader with the understanding that Jason knows something about what he’s reporting on, and it also let’s the reader know why he may be excited or upset about a certain decision the designers made when creating the car.
In the Automotive News article above Griemel does a good job of explaining that the source of information for his article is largely drawn “from Suzuki documents that were reviewed by Automotive News.”
By disclosing this we know that the perspective in the article will is gleamed from what Suzuki felt was happening. It allows us, the reader, to judge the article that way. If we wanted a truly objective article we’d demand similar documents from Volkswagen (which, I’m sure, we’re requested), however, it’s unlikely VW would turn those over.
The article is interesting but as a reader of business news (or any news) you should ask yourself this final question: What’s missing and what does its absence tell us?
What’s missing in this article, of course, is the question of who provided the documents to Automotive News. I’m guessing Griemel isn’t going to divulge his source, but it would be nice to know. Was it a bitter Suzuki executive? A supplier? A disgruntled VW employee?
It’s a nice scoop without that information, but there would be something to learn if we had it. Again, this is just speculation (which, if disclosed, is fine), but from the article itself I’m guessing that someone at Suzuki wants it to be clear that they’re not hard to work with. They are not the problem.
Suzuki has all the same problems it had before and still would benefit from a partner and they don’t want to scare anyone off.
Now that I’ve written all of this I suddenly feel the pressure to have an excellent kicker, so I’ll end with an act of disclosure: This isn’t the article I wanted to write today, but I was too busy eating BBQ this weekend to finish what I was really working on and just came up with this an hour ago. I hope it doesn’t suck.
Business Time is Jalopnik head honcho Matt Hardigree’s regular column about the business of building and selling cars. He can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org.