Reflecting on allpar
I started a little web site in 1994, and bought it the domain name “allpar.com” in 1998. Over time, the site grew rather dramatically, reaching over a million visitors per month. It’s been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Hemmings, and all sorts of other outlets. During most of that time, I was the editor, publisher, lead photographer, lead newswriter, lead feature writer, tech guy, ad guy, business manager, and just about everything else. I did have an immense amount of help, especially on the forums, and from people who wrote the articles that raised Allpar's standards and made it, well, credible and famous.
I sold the site in 2018 to VerticalScope because it was too large for me to handle. These are some ruminations from my old blog...
Inventing the news
Every day, news outlets have to report something to prove they’re alive and to pay the bills. When one focuses on a single company or specialty, that can be hard.
There’s a surprising number of people in this situation, including me (at Allpar). Sometimes, it turns out to be a good thing, because it makes you stop and reflect and dig around at things that you wouldn’t point out during busier days.
Sometimes, looking at a blank morning, I go back to past plans, which I learned from other sites after thinking people would just sate their curiosity with our “upcoming products” pages. Other sites do it, as well, e.g. tech sites suddenly asking, “What can we expect from the new Mac Mini? When’s it coming?” without provocation.
We also tend to think more about daft rumors (usually from analysts and “un-named insiders”). Every hundred or thousand times, these turn out to be accurate (Cerberus did approach GM about a merger, but the terms were so draconian that Chrysler’s leaders forced Cerberus to turn around. Cerberus, at the time, was sensitive to public opinion — they wanted to keep Chrysler Financial profitable.)
Thus, we post stories about what would happen if FCA acquired General Motors, or if FCA picked up Peugeot-Citroën.
We can also look at competitors’ moves and their impact on “our” company, just as Mac sites can, when desperate, write about how the new Samsung phone (there’s always a new Samsung phone) will affect the iPhone.
Sometimes, this gives us better stories than the “real news.” Rumors of FCA wanting to take over GM spurred me to compare their model-by-model sales. That’s something we rarely look at and there’s a lot to consider. We can get new insights, looking at old plans. (I posted a crude chart for that story; we had around 100 times as many viewers as I expected, or I'd have formatted it more attractively.) It’s also fun to speculate sometimes.
If you ever wonder about why sometimes you see old plans or old news rehashed, or crazy rumors treated as though they might be real, this may be why. On the bright side, it makes us think — and sometimes, sitting back and thinking is better than most “hard news.”
Frustration of the Web
Many writers have long felt constrained by the limits of paper media. You have this many column inches, no more.
Oh, how joyful it was when we could stretch our legs and write and write and write, unconstrained by length. Text travels quickly even by dialup modem (now I’m waiting for the “do you remember this?” acoustic modem meme).
But, alas, with everyone and their dog writing, and posting photos, and doing automated memes, and computers generating copy, along with underpaid freelancers from around the world... not to mention cell phones and Facebook, ... nobody has time to read all that text.
The irony is that, now that we finally have the space to write, we usually have to constrain ourselves to two or three paragraphs before our readers get bored and move on. It’s not just me; it’s the way the media world is moving.
We’re also tending to get more trivial and polarized, but that’s besides the point.
Now I have to go see what that actor did today, while I play Angry Birds and clear my RSS feeds.
Walking the tightrope
Allpar walks a tightrope.
We have to report the news accurately, regardless of how it makes Chrysler (FCA US LLC) look. If we’re too positive, or even we’re neutral, we’re also dismissed as “fanboys.” Indeed, I don’t think it matters what we write, we’ll be called fanboys, but being accurate and responsible is the right thing to do, and provides us with all the credibility we have.
Then again, if we report things that are “negative” or (and I’m not sure which is worse) tell people about upcoming products, we’re not invited to press events or interviews and/or denied loaner cars. Emails and calls go un-answered or spend weeks in limbo before getting a nonsensical corporate say-nothing response. There are some very good people in the communications department who do not act this way.
There may be a fine line where you get it just right, though I suspect that you are “fair and balanced” when you’re called fanboys by half the people and jerks by the other half.
The ways around this are, I suspect, to get a large following on Facebook or Twitter (having a lot of readers on a web site no longer matters), to cover multiple companies, or to be part of a media corporation with lots of other outlets.
There are times I am tempted to sell out, so Allpar won’t have to be treated as an unsuccessful blog or social media wannabe. The money would be nice, too. But I keep on doing what I do, and Allpar’s schizophrenic relationship with (Fiat) Chrysler continues
Keeping the plates in the air
There are few, if any, major auto sites left that are not part of large networks or corporations. Many forums and sites are owned by a single guys with strings of forums or news sites covering a wide variety of cars (each one “dedicated just to this one car!”), who sit back while his “techies” and writers do the work.
So what’s it like for the kind of person who started out from passion and never left or sold out? We have to handle...
Dealing with ad agencies, which involves a varying amount of headaches. They all pay on different schedules, and have different payment schemes, and sometimes disappear without warning.
Taxes with quarterly payments so you have to stay on top of the accounting. It’s impossible to get the estimates right, there’s too much fluctuation, but underpayment penalties are small if you pay early. Some people (not me) pay an accountant but you still have to keep all the records.
Paying the bills, which includes price shopping for servers, decals, and such.
Related but not really “money” is the legal end — contracts, copyrights, and such. Don’t even ask me about how I feel about the US Copyright Office or Congress’ decision to not let them update their rules to include web sites.
Security updates, mostly but not all automatic. They tend to break things. The forums and kernel don’t update themselves.
Malware alerts which require investigation.
Anti-hacking devices and systems which tend to lock me out as often as anyone else.
Spam, which is why whole countries are locked out of registering for the forums.
Layout and fashion changes, including testing to see which links are used and what menus are good, and dang it, now people are using phones and I have to figure out a way to cut image sizes in half and hide parts of the page and change the styles so things fit, and now you come out with Retina displays and you want the images to be larger? What the heck are you trying to do to me?
Weird errors that come up when browsers or operating systems change have to be fixed, or when I screw something up.
New features require programming, and I have to go through code ven when I don’t write it, because I don’t want to have 100K of code when 1K will do. Does everything need JQuery now?
I need to link the parts of the site and things don't want to work together, and even when they do, the software keeps changing.
Did I mention security updates and the effect they have?
Disputes on the forums.
I really do enjoy some correspondence but there's only so much time and so much I can do. There are legit questions (can I use this photo/story?), odd ones (how many 1942 Dodges were made with Fluid Drive?), and ones I just can’t answer (how many 1942 Dodges were made with Fluid Drive?).
News tips come in and we have to verify them, and often run them by Chrysler. Sometimes that’s easy and fast and sometimes we send six emails and finally get boilerplate replies after a couple of weeks. Some things we can verify and some we can’t. Some things slip through the cracks while we wait.
Corrections are always welcome and we do get them and they take priority. Sometimes they need to be checked and that can take a while. We do strive for perfect accuracy, but nobody ever achieves that, as far as I know, especially when history is so tattered.
Every day we have new news, and every week we have new features. I don’t write it all, but I edit most of it. We have a style sheet but nobody seems to notice or care (regular writers get the URL.) Later, I'll write about how we do features.
It’s a full time job, all right. It’s good that I only have one other job.
Note: If you ever wonder how I get through the day, despite being on mind-numbing drugs and having a moderately full medical schedule, the answer is, I type 100 words per minute. This page took 14 minutes to write and adding photos took another 2 minutes; editing again took four more.
Mild to wild: the nuttiness of ’net comments
I started out as a writer in the print days, and have run web sites devoted to cars, computers, business, and statistical software. Like everyone else, I’ve seen a massive range of commentary.
The smartest, in general, has been on the highly technical sites, where the “general population” doesn’t go — even if everything is understandable. The dumbest, generally, is on mass-media news sites, and I suspect quite a bit of that is due to “bots” — automatic software that squirts bits of hate on command.
For email feedback, I’ve never seen anything beat MacStats, where I’ve had one crank in twelve years. This is Joel West’s Macintosh statistics software site, which I’ve been maintaining since 2005. Joel himself handed it over happily, because he wanted it to be continued but didn’t have the time for updates. There’s no forum on that site — there really should be, but there isn’t.
The next best isn’t my own site — it’s Macintouch. (Ars Technica is probably similar, but I rarely see the comments there.) Macintouch is cheating, though, because it’s moderated — every comment has to be approved. I think just knowing that prevents people from posting insane things. MacRumors, which reaches a similar audience but is flasher and a bit more clickbaity, has a good mix of thoughtful and foolish.
And then there’s my main site, allpar.com, which has no less than three paths for commentary — the forums, instant feedback on the news (via Disqus), and comments on Facebook. All three are semi-moderated, in that if I see (or am warned) of something straying over the line, it will be deleted, and I can ban individuals. The forums have an entire moderation team — people who warn, talk down, delete, and such, as needed.
On Allpar, the most intelligent conversations tend to be on the forums. We have some idiocy there, and it gets deleted, which I think sets a tone — if you must, reinforces cultural norms of minimal civility and rationality. There’s a lot of straying, too, generally from people with very strong opinions and newcomers. Arguments get heated easily. There’s much more emotion with cars than with statistical software, though I can get rather heated on the topic of SPSS.
Disqus attracts the wildest, rudest, and dumbest comments — though many are quite intelligent and rational, many are also simply insane. It is here that readers suggest killing all employees of the EPA, and used to say we should jail the last President for various specious reasons (such as not allowing any drilling, though he presided over record drilling numbers, or wanting to ban cars, though he never said or did anything that would lead to that).
This is where I need to have a hundreds-of-words-long list of words that will cause a comment to be held up for review. This is where politics are most readily brought in, even when wildly inappropriate. For example, when FCA issued a voluntary safety recall because airbags might not deploy in one car — something they discovered and fixed without any government intervention at all — the system auto-moderated numerous comments slamming the “witch hunt,” insisting that we shut down the federal government and/or NHTSA, and going after “mindless power-mad bureaucrats.” All because FCA found a software error and fixed it, on their own. (And if they hadn’t fixed it, I suspect there would have been a class action suit because “we paid for side airbags that we can’t use.”)
The news is also where I get people copying and pasting the same comment up to ten times, because it doesn’t appear right away (Disqus puts in a comment noting that it’s under review and will not appear just yet.) Some people get very angry if it takes any time to approve their comment.
Incidentally, I’ve set both Disqus and our internal forums to only allow comments from registered users — if you don’t do that, you get flooded in hate and spam very quickly indeed.
Facebook is a mixed bag, largely because it gets the fewest comments. The main distinction of Facebook is that most people never read more than the headline of any story, which is hard, because many headlines are mild clickbait — not untrue, but also not telling the whole story. That’s largely due to length limits and, well, my desire to have people leave Facebook and go to my site. I don’t get a salary from Facebook, after all.
On all of these, I (or we, in the case of the forums) are frequently harassed about over-moderation, political correctness, and such.
Someone could use this as a starting point for an experiment to figure out how to foster civil discourse. (It could be me, if I had the time.) In the meantime, I’ll just leave the data here and let you draw your own conclusions... then go off and catch up on what’s been going on at macintouch before returning to do some moderation.
Oh, the skills I’ve gained
I went through seven years of higher education to learn how people work in groups and organizations, and how to do research — to summarize a huge body of knowledge in one phrase.
Then I ran Allpar for, let’s see, yes, twenty years. What did I learn from that?
- Maintaining positive relationships with people on the things we hold in common, ignoring the areas where we would fight like cats and other cats
- Advertising management, some tax accounting, and freelancer management
- Bringing the systems approach that was part of my formal education to bear in my writing and understanding of how cars are made and sold
- Linux server management, through Webmin, CPanel, and the command line
- Dealing with people who are extremely dedicated and convinced of their points and positions, so they don’t alienate and drive away everyone else but still contribute positively to the discussion; and with people who are just jerks; and knowing the difference
- PHP, Perl, html, and batch-file coding, not to mention all those configuration files (not many people know that Allpar was originally hand-coded, and that much of the site uses php code I wrote myself through trial and error — not just the random/new features systems but also various caches and the responsive/adaptive headers and footers).
- The rudiments of journalism, including the odd relationship reporters have with the people they cover — nothing like what you’d expect from movies, TV show, or the journalism classes I’ve taken (I have to say, this is where I’ve made the most mistakes)
- Figuring out which sources are real, which are fake, and which are real but mistaken
- Knowing what has to be run by the company and what doesn’t, and where (and how) to push back
- Developing the emotional maturity to deal with people who don’t have any
- Being able to create news from dribs-and-drabs when there isn’t anything really new out there
- Developing a good working knowledge on how engineering and product design works, in general, and how the automotive world works, in particular
- SSL, SSH, and how to detect and avoid bots and script kiddies
- Photography, photo editing, and high-speed photo editing
- High speed writing and editing; and editing to keep the original writer’s flavor
- Layout, first by html elements, then by tables, then by CSS, with input from analytics to find the best bounce and click-through rates
- GREP — searching for and replacing text by regular expressions (looking for patterns) for extremely high-speed conversions
It’s been an interesting ride, and I’ve learned a lot — most of it, without intending to.