Geneva Motor Show 2017

Geneva Show? It’s great, except for…

I am convinced the woman sitting directly behind me on the plane has The Only Way is Essex series-linked on her Sky box. From the moment we sit down she is talking, loudly, ostensibly to the person sitting next to her but effectively to everyone for three rows either side. She constantly name drops various supercars she has ridden in, not driven of course, while adding repeatedly how “very very excited” she is.

Clearly Essex woman has not been to the Geneva Motor Show before, whereas for a moment I consider ruefully that my visits are now well into the twenties. You will struggle to find anyone on this crack-of-dawn departure from Gatwick who is not connected in some way with the motor industry – myself and fellow journos, some recognised and greeted with a knowing smile, interspersed amongst manufacturer execs, PRs and the litany of hangers-on that always manage to get into Geneva’s press day.

It does amuse me that the one airport that allows me to make the most effective use of my limited time at the show is the one I used to live half a mile from, and which I now live 230 miles from. But the trip south on the previous afternoon and the overnighter at the in-laws is time well spent – I really enjoy Geneva and am just glad to be here, having had to cancel my trip to last year’s show at the last minute when I discovered just before setting off from home that my passport had disappeared, never to be seen again.

Geneva Motor Show Audi

I wasn’t sure but I think Audi had some new metal on its stand…

Small show, large importance

Why do I love Geneva? A combination of its importance and its practicality. For the global auto industry the show ranks above just about all others and the new metal on display runs into three figures. But all of this is squeezed into a compact exhibition centre that one can easily traverse several times in a single day, especially as said centre is a mere 10-minute walk from the terminal of Geneva airport.

So I enjoy my day of door-stepping all the new stuff, even though this year as the representative of a news website I’m rushing around with more urgency than usual to picture the relevant metal and feed the shots back to the office for our coverage on The Car Expert.

Even while ensuring I capture the important if ordinary mainstream metal I can find time to gaze at the good stuff. The new McLaren is simply gorgeous – I no longer lust after McLarens in vain hope, having finally got to drive one last year (story here), but oh I want to drive this 720S. The Kia Stinger – in the metal it is every bit as good as the pictures we first saw from Detroit in January. I finally get to see the Alpine, and it’s one cute little sports car, and while Land Rover stuff doesn’t normally float my boat I admit the new Range Rover Velar looks impressive.

Geneva motor Show Citroen

All glitz and glamour as this year’s stars make their grand entrances…

Not what you see…

For a freelance like me Geneva is also about that horrible word ‘networking’ – it’s a chance to remind some manufacturers that you are still around and working. And it’s always good to catch up on the latest industry gossip, which on this occasion is dominated by the announcement just a day earlier that Vauxhall-Opel is to be taken over by PSA Group, parent of Peugeot-Citroën (or if you read the BBC business twitter feed, Peugot Citron. I kid you not…). I just about get away with asking PSA’s UK head of PR whether he’s been to Vauxhall at Luton yet to measure up for curtains, while wherever I go at the show PSA boss Carlos Tavares seems to be there already, popping up at every press conference, including the Citroën one I’m dragged into.

I normally avoid such press conferences like the plague. They usually involve a huge scrum of media scrabbling to hear an industry boss say nothing new which in any case one can download from the press website within minutes, then quaffing the offered champagne coz one feels duty-bound to while trying to photograph the newly unveiled car whilst everyone else is trying to – far better to come back later, when the scrum has moved on to the next conference.

Photographing the cars does expose the darker side of Geneva, however, basically the sheer breadth of people who are allowed in on press day. A volley of complaints a few years ago has at least resulted in fewer children wandering the halls amongst the media horde, but an ever-present are the Far-Eastern spies.

Geneva Kia Stinger

The new Kia Stinger, a super car. But what’s happening on the left?

Geneva Motor Show

Yes, it’s a spy!

Spies? Basically it seems that manufacturers, particularly those from Japan, China or Korea, send a legion of staff to press day, armed with clipboards and compact cameras. They then proceed to touch, operate, caress and photograph every bit of each new model, from boot catches to door trim panels, making copious notes to no doubt take back to the team designing their own rival contender, and totally frustrating the ‘normal’ photographers who just want them to get out of the bloody way so we can photograph the whole car!

This year, however, your correspondent noticed a new pest in the halls, and it comes from our own ranks – or at least those who consider themselves among us but who probably aren’t really…

Geneva motor Show spy

“Oh look just how sexily the trim flows into the corner of the screen…”

I’m on the phone…

These are the ‘Vloggers’ – video bloggers, who arrive at the show with the aim of producing coverage just like they’ve seen on the TV, and more importantly to try to convince people, mainly themselves, just how vital a part of this circus they really are.

Their weapons are the video function of a smartphone and a microphone on a lead, like one sees commuters using when having animated conversations on London stations without that tiring aspect of actually holding the phone to one’s ear.

Geneva Motor Show Vlogger

“Wow that’s some high-tech equipment you are toting there…”

Armed with this combination, they proceed to march across the Geneva halls, staring and talking loudly into the phone screen that is held in front of their faces and therefore not caring who they knock out of the way in the process, and then panning across to focus on bits of cars before striding purposefully onto the next one.

They then take these films home and slap them onto the worldwide web, because anyone with a laptop or even a tablet can have their own website these days, and settle back in contentment, thinking because they have done this they really are the same as those guys on Top Gear and oh so important. In reality, they are a menace, and just one more of the less agreeable aspects of covering the Geneva Motor Show.

Thankfully, however, the good bits of Geneva still very much outweigh the bad bits, and I’ll be back again next year…

Geneva Motor Show

“They wouldn’t let me fly a drone…”

A man, filming himself carrying an enormous Swiss horn down the stairs at a motor show – at Geneva this is normal…

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An alternative to the digital dictator?

Followers of my social media feeds will recall that a couple of weeks ago I shared a quote I’d forgotten about from the late, great motoring writer Russell Bulgin, comparing the role of a freelance to that of a jobbing actor.

Discovering said quote encouraged me to read again the book documenting some of Bulgin’s finest work, published after his tragically early death from cancer in 2002 with proceeds going to the Royal Marsden Hospital where he had been treated.

Russell was just 43 when he died – I didn’t know him well, encountering him mostly, as with so many of my associates in this business, on car launches. We only ever shared a car once, a Vauxhall Omega, and I recall that we broke it, driving it back towards Glasgow airport with ominous noises coming from the rear end.

So having extracted the slim but packed tome from the bookcase in which it had slept undisturbed for a few years, last night I settled down for a good read. And as I again so enjoyed Bulgin’s writing, his ability, so eloquently summed up in a tribute by colleague Gavin Green, to like all great artists paint such grand pictures with so few words, a chilling realisation came over me. Bulgin would not have enjoyed writing for the Internet…

He passed away before ‘Online’ as a specific area of journalism really took off, before the emergence of a new phrase for the dictionaries, the ‘Blog’. To make Blogs possible we gained the Internet equivalent of the printed page, clever pieces of software called Content Management Systems (CMS), of which the best-known today is probably WordPress. And within each CMS rose a dictator that today affects the working life of myself and so many others on virtually a daily basis – SEO.

It’s all about the rankings…

For those of you who are unaware, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation, what the truly net-savvy would call ‘guidelines’ but which are virtually rules, governing the way one writes online copy. These rules help such copy to be more easily found, and therefore sit higher up, those pages always turned to when we want to find out anything on the net – basically Google, Google, and errr, Google…

CMS systems vary in the way they work but most are quite similar. While allowing you to produce and format your work, they also insist on telling you how SEO-friendly the finished prose is, and, guess what, how well the CMS thinks you have written a piece!

The big problem with SEO, I reckon, is that it turns everything formulaic. A typical motoring story, for example, will generally focus on a particular car – let’s say manufacturer Fandango is launching a new model dubbed the Night Out. As far as this correspondent understands (and my crash course on internet-friendly writing has come in the most recent year of a career stretching back more than 30 so I’m probably getting it all wrong…) CMS works around a ‘Focus Keyword’. This doesn’t have to be a single word but can be a phrase, and in our example would likely be ‘Fandango Night Out’.

The problem is, SEO then demands that you use the full focus keyword in the heading and often the first paragraph of your copy. And don’t think you can be witty and post a heading along the lines of ‘Fandango goes for Night Out’ – in the eyes of SEO, splitting up your focus keyword is a very serious crime. While the online journalist is being neutered, the headline writer is becoming a skill of the past…

Don’t believe me? Take a scan through any of the leading motoring news websites – the headings and first paragraphs of each story follow a disturbingly similar pattern…

Welcome back to journalist school...

Welcome back to journalist school…

As for readability – you might have been writing for years, you might have won every award going, but paste your copy into a CMS and it will instantly tell you that your sentences are too long, that you are using too many ‘passive words’, not enough ‘transition’ ones… It may tell you this in a friendly, patronising way – “Try writing fewer words…” but you are still being told.

Now this would all be very well if the admonishment was being dished out by a grizzled old sub-editor who had seen it all before, and who had read your copy, understood its context and where perhaps it could be sharpened up. But no, in the online universe, the quality or otherwise of the work you have slaved over is decided by nothing more, when one gets down to it, than a load of binary numbers…

Why print still matters

Thankfully I don’t think a truly great writer such as Bulgin would have had to endure such insults to his talent, to have some young digital geek tell him he needed to turn commas into full stops and flowing prose into staccato bullet points. Had he survived into today’s world he would have been the leading light on one of the top-level printed motoring titles, his words a major reason why readers bought each month’s issue.

The thing about print media is that it is a very good filter. On a print title, with one or two glaring exceptions, the truly good writers will rise to the top, while those that think they are brilliant wordsmiths but clearly aren’t will eventually get found out, and go and do something else.

The Internet isn’t like that. Anyone with a computer, even a phone, can in a very short time live out their dreams as a journalist, posting what they like with the only supposed quality monitor the dumbing-down exercise that is SEO. They don’t necessarily have to be able to write well – if they learn to follow the rule set laid down by SEO, they could very easily find themselves ranked on the online billboard of Google alongside or even above true talents such as a Bulgin.

This problem is not going to go away. As print titles slowly but surely decline in number while the Internet continues to mushroom, something is needed to sort the few grains of wheat from the millions, perhaps billions, of words of chaff added to the information superhighway each and every day. SEO is currently that sorter.

So am I a dinosaur, a throwback to the slowly dying print world, to even suggest that the direction we are going in is wrong? Or can there be a better way? Answers on a postcard please – yes, proper hard copy required, so that SEO can’t get at it…