It has been almost three years since we launched the Cars Technica section here at Ars, during which time we’ve brought our unique voice and insights to the auto industry. Car coverage at Ars goes back a long way—see this 2000 review of the Honda Insight hybrid, for example—but current tech trends make our coverage more relevant than ever. Car companies are throwing LTE modems into everything with wheels, vehicles are learning to drive themselves, the internal combustion engine has serious competition for the first time in over a century—and that’s before we get to buzzwords like “mobility.”
The question is how best to cover cars, especially new models with the hottest tech. Launching a new automobile to the media isn’t quite the same as introducing a new phone, console, or video game. Cars are big and expensive, and it’s not feasible to send “review copies” out to journalists the way one can with a new laptop or smartphone. Instead, the car companies will do the opposite: find a location (usually somewhere they think will be sunny, which frequently means California), then bring in a bunch of journalists to drive the new vehicle. They also bring along a few of the engineers who worked on the vehicle, so we can ask plenty of annoying questions. Sounds good! But there’s a catch: the car companies pay for travel, and they nearly always refuse requests to pay our own way.
Pay to play, pay to test
Ars has historically preferred not to accept paid travel for auto reviews or stories. This feels like the best way to offer valuable content to our readers, untainted by questions about “cozy relationships” and quid pro quo situations. When it comes to cars, we have taken three of these paid trips—on especially important occasions—after offering to pay our own way and having that offer refused. (Last September’s trip to Munich to learn about Audi’s new car tech is the only one that has been published yet.) Such paid travel is always disclosed to readers. In all other areas of our coverage (IT, science, legal, etc.), we simply never do paid travel, and it is clearly not necessary at all (for instance, there are many gaming junkets, and we simply refuse to go).
This policy has an upside for reader trust in what we say, but it also has a downside that is unique to autos—we simply end up doing far fewer hands-on events with cars. Most other car publications accept paid travel, which means they get time in many more vehicles and with many more engineers. They get more stories that our readers would enjoy. (Traffic stats tell us that these “first drive” articles do very well on Ars.)
Yet, even if junkets are “default” in the auto journalism world, they make us uneasy. So, since our goal is reader service, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how we should proceed. As we see it, there are three main options when it comes to paid travel for auto coverage, outlined in the poll below:
Please vote, then voice your opinion below in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer your questions, and we’ll certainly follow up and let you know what we decide.