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…

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NASCAR gimmicks? Not so much…

ShortAxle is back! Yes I know, it’s a terribly long time since I last posted here. But hopefully from now you should see more regular posts, coinciding with the launch of my new website at www.andrewcharman.co.uk. There will also be a new theme to this page soon to better sit alongside the website.

As I write this we are 24 hours away from the real start of my motorsport year– Mrs C is in the kitchen starting work on meatloaf, mudslide pies and the like, as it’s the Daytona 500 tomorrow and we always have a bit of an American-themed day to mark the arrival of the NASCAR season.

No doubt tomorrow’s race will be described by some as ‘the start of a new era’ for NASCAR, not just because of a new aerodynamic package with significantly less downforce, but the wholesale change in race formats, on which I will go into more detail shortly.

No rest come winter

NASCAR has had a few of these ‘new eras’ in recent times. I used to enjoy my annual catch-up with the sport’s technical types when they came over for the symposium staged each year in January by Race Tech, one of the magazines I write for. But these guys haven’t been able to join us for a while now because each winter they’ve been too busy getting their heads around the latest wholesale rule changes, as NASCAR tries to address a major issue – significantly fewer people are watching the sport.

Personally I don’t think the blame for a decline in spectator numbers over recent years can be completely levelled at NASCAR – the whole world knows Americans have been feeling less than comfortable and when you don’t feel comfortable you don’t spend money. But it’s sad when TV pictures show tracks such as Bristol only half full. Bristol! Where once races sold out to the degree that one went on a waiting list in the hope of getting some tickets in a couple of years time. A place very much on this writer’s bucket list.

So NASCAR can’t simply accept such declines, it has to try and arrest the slump, which is why we’ve got used to major changes between seasons. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe the reaction to the latest changes from one leading US motorsport correspondent.

NASCAR Bristol

When the great bullring of Bristol can’t sell out its race, NASCAR has to take notice – and it is. Photo courtesy Toyota Racing

Three times the winners?

In brief, under the new formula NASCAR has not cut the length of the races, as some suggested, but instead split them into three sections, and made points available to the top ten finishers at the end of the first two sections – along with bonus points to segment winners who make it to the end-of-season play-offs, what we used to call The Chase.

Matters are still very much biased towards the race victory – win either of the first two segments and you get 10 points, win the last segment and you get 40. Each segment is split by a caution period, so the way a race pans out is potentially not that different to previously, except that drivers have a reason not to trundle around until the last 50 laps or so, instead ensuring they are in position to snatch what could prove to be crucial segment points.

Well this did not impress Robin Miller, a lead writer on the series long pitched as NASCAR’s big rival, IndyCar. I’m not one to have a go at the media, especially in America where nowadays they have a President who does that, but Miller, banging home his view that the NASCAR changes were good news for IndyCar, indulged in a level of vitriol towards the stock car side of US motorsport that shocked me.

He suggested the changes could be seen as “desperate, confusing, hilarious or totally necessary to try and keep people engaged for (NASCAR’s) weekly marathons of pit stops, speeding penalties and commercials.” He added that the sport’s management had realised “what many of us have thought for a long time: It’s B-O-R-I-N-G,” and laid into NASCAR’s “phantom caution flag” culture.

Now Miller is not the first to make that last argument, and we’ve all been incredulous at the reasons for some of the cautions before, but it seems too that NASCAR is trying to do something about this – witness another new rule, stopping beaten-up cars returning to the track and dropping bits all over the place.

IndyCar can benefit, Miller says, because unlike NASCAR it is pure racing, where 20 cars can often be separated by a second and the fastest usually wins out without gimmicks such as lucky-dog cautions and such like to aid them.

Well firstly, I think one will struggle to find any completely pure circuit racing these days, apart from club events of just a few laps. All top series use safety cars, and safety cars close up the field. Even in Formula One a driver can build up a massive lead over several laps and see it completely disappear with just a few laps remaining due to a safety car period. In that respect NASCAR is no different in format to any other series, including IndyCar.

NASCAR, however, doesn’t have push-to-pass. Miller glosses over this anything-but-pure feature of IndyCar as “just extra power that each driver has to manage smartly so he’s got some at the end of the race and it helps overtaking on a narrow city circuit”. Hmmm… In NASCAR, each driver knows he has the same car package, the same tyres, as every other driver around him, from front to back. He doesn’t have to think how many more squirts of extra horsepower he has available, when he passes someone he has to do it properly. Which is the more pure?

And while we are describing as ‘gimmicks’, the awarding of extra points, we should remember that IndyCar came up with a double points finale. Score consistently all year and then get overtaken by someone who gets lucky in the final race. Though to his credit Miller does insist that this concept is not needed in IndyCar.

Yes, NASCAR has made lots of changes, but gimmicks? The latest ones, what do they do? They encourage the drivers to race harder to get results, without giving them buttons to help them overtake. Is that a bad thing?

Despite its recent issues, the fact remains that NASCAR still attracts, week after week, significantly larger audiences than IndyCar – the stock car fans that have gone away aren’t going to watch the single-seater formula instead.

This is not really the point, though. I enjoy watching IndyCar Racing, just as I really enjoy watching NASCAR racing, The stage is certainly big enough for both, without proponents of one feeling the need to take pot shots at the other…

Now, roll on the Daytona 500!

IndyCar Series

We like IndyCar but it doesn’t fill the stands either. And its proponents should not have a go at other series. Photo: IndyCar