Machine Design

What happened to Detroit's passion for the product?

Editorial Comment
August 9, 2001

Maybe it is a stretch, but I see a certain similarity between the magazine business and the automobile industry. Namely, you can't put out a good product if you don't have a passion for what you are doing.
For example, after I got out of engineering school, I first worked for an aircraft company, then eventually was hired to write for a technical magazine. Unfortunately, my boss at the magazine was pretty much clueless and incapable of training people. So I was left on my own to discover how to write for a publication.
My job was to reach readers who were engineers much like myself, so with no meaningful direction from above, I simply began to write the kinds of articles I wanted to read. The formula must have worked because over the years my career has gone reasonably well. Today, I supervise a group of top-notch engineering editors, and I ask them to do the same thing I did when I broke into the business. I tell them to maintain a keen interest in engineering, and then write the types of articles they want to read.
This doesn't work, however, unless an editor is also interested in magazines. Any editor who doesn't enjoy reading a variety of them is rarely good at writing interesting articles.
That brings us to the topic of cars. From time to time I attend automotive press conferences. At these events, editors routinely get a chance to talk with engineers and product managers who are actually responsible for vehicles. Almost always, I get the feeling these guys are just putting in a day's work. In talking to them after the formal presentations, rarely do I get the impression they have any enthusiasm for their products.
In some cases, product managers don't even drive the cars they bring to market. At one press event, I not only found myself driving a clone of the Buick I had just bought, but I was also pleased to learn that my host sitting beside me happened to be the car's product manager. The Buick was a model designed for mature, conservative people who value luxury over flair. But the product manager was a young family man whose demographic profile didn't come close to the car's target market. It came as no surprise that he didn't seem to have an inborn instinct for what customers would want in the product he managed.
The automotive people at these events also frequently ask magazine writers privately what they think of the cars being introduced. That is a natural question, I suppose. Yet it always strikes me as somewhat inappropriate. If I were in their place, I would make sure I was confident the product was right. I wouldn't have to ask a bunch of schlemiels from the trade press what they thought. In all, there is too much of a focus-group mentality in automotive circles, reflecting not only a lack of confidence, but also a lack of passion for the product.
Of course, with the constant drumbeat for cost cutting in Detroit, I can see why automotive people lose enthusiasm for their work. Also, I am guessing they must get anesthetized by the mind-numbing dictates of safety and environmental zealots. Nevertheless, publishers can't put out good magazines if their editors aren't interested in their work, and automobile companies are waging an uphill battle if their people managing product development aren't passionate about what they are doing.
-Ronald Khol, Editor

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