Car blogs zoom in on auto industry
By JOE GUY COLLIER
Detroit Free Press
By JOE GUY COLLIER
As Detroit's automakers struggle to keep market share and make money, a new breed of watchdogs is emerging on the Internet. They post regular columns on Web sites and send out e-mail newsletters providing blunt, and often colorful, analysis of the auto industry.
They blast corporate strategy, single out top-level executives for failed projects and provide their own thoughts on what the automakers should do to turn things around. Several of the sites have developed a loyal following with thousands of regular visitors.
Whether the companies like them or not, the Internet sites are increasingly pushing information to the public, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. They quickly circulate news and ideas about the auto companies.
"There are no secrets," Cole said. "You can't hide anything."
The sites have caught the attention of the major automakers. General Motors Corp. monitors the Internet daily to see how its brands and the company are covered, said Michael Wiley, GM's director of new media.
The Internet has become a powerful force, Wiley said. An independent Web site, www.solsticeforum.com, attracted enough attention last year that GM invited its members to Detroit for a special preview of the new Pontiac convertible.
If people at GM see an error on a Web site, they'll contact the site's publisher or post the company's response on the site itself, Wiley said. Many of the sites allow for feedback from readers below stories or commentary.
GM also is increasingly including writers for Internet sites in its media events, he said.
"Quite frankly, I think they're both good and bad," Wiley said. "Some of them are excellent reads. Some of them provide value to consumers. And I think there are some that are just plain mean-spirited."
Several of the most popular alternative Internet sites on the auto industry have been started by people who left the traditional system, whether it be media groups or the companies themselves.
Peter DeLorenzo started www.autoextremist.com in 1999 after more than 20 years in automotive advertising and marketing. He grew up in metro Detroit, the son of a GM public-relations executive.
The site, which he says gets about 45,000 unique visitors a month, is free but helps him land consulting jobs in the auto industry. DeLorenzo declined to give the names of his clients but said it hasn't created a conflict of interest.
He said he started the site because no one was being openly critical about the auto companies. Industry insiders and executives would talk about problems in private, but the real story wasn't being told to the public, he said.
"I've influenced the (mainstream media) coverage of this business," he said. "It's gotten tougher."
Robert Farago, the Providence, R.I.-based publisher of www.thetruthaboutcars.com, has a popular series on his site called "General Motors Death Watch" that provides commentary about GM's money-losing slide.
His site can be honest about the companies and their products because it doesn't solicit advertising from the auto companies, Farago said.
Farago makes money through freelance writing but plans to start taking advertising, as long as it's not linked to the major automakers, for his Web site. "I still hold that there is room in the world for crusaders," Farago said. "The Web is showing us that there is."
Despite their harsh criticism, several of the sites actually say they're trying to help the major automakers.
Bad news might drive traffic to his site, but DeLorenzo said he runs www.autoextremist .com because he wants the U.S. automakers to rebound. They need outsiders to give them a fresh perspective, he said.
"I've been critical because I want them to do better," DeLorenzo said.