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AutoWeek's "Virtual Green Car Show": How Print Pubs Are Chasing Digital Dollars

The shift of advertising revenue from print to online is moving apace -- earlier this week, the New York Times said its digital take was up 14 percent in the third quarter of 2010, but its print ads had declined. That same trend is illustrated at the "buff books," car magazines that are looking a bit skinnier on the newsstand but more ad-laced online. The trend has sparked some creative thinking on auto magazine websites.

AutoWeek, which launched in 1958 as a newsletter, claims it has pioneered an industry first: a "Virtual Green Car Show" (with an exhibit hall (featuring booths from many major manufacturers), an auditorium, a networking lounge and a resource center. Registration is required, and the "show" will be up until December. Auto shows are more or less advertising in the guise of objective information, so the transition to an online forum is relatively seamless.

I've been traipsing to car shows in distant cities for 30 years, making the rounds lugging heavy plastic bags laden with press kits and promotional baseball hats. So the idea of doing all this in my pajamas from my computer has a certain appeal. And it's also a nice little revenue generator for AutoWeek, which has shown some distress in print. It went from a weekly to a bi-weekly at the beginning of 2009, at which time editor Dutch Mandel said, "The changes demonstrate our commitment to evolve in an ever-changing world."

Putting the best face on it, Autoweek declared itself "America's only fortnightly automotive enthusiast consumer magazine." They didn't change the name, though, so it's not AutoBiWeek.

Tony Foster, advertising director of AutoWeek, told me that a quarter of the magazine's ad revenue now comes from the website, and the trend is in that direction. "Advertising dollars are going more to the digital side," he said. "That's definitely a shift in the last couple of years."

Foster said that there will always be a print version of AutoWeek, though. "It's a magazine for enthusiasts, and they will always want to have something in their hands," he said. Although a new iPad app is on its way in two weeks, he said, "I don't believe the magazine will ever go away."

AutoWeek wasn't willing to say how much automakers paid to exhibit in the virtual halls. According to spokesman Patrick Mahoney, "AutoWeek negotiated rates with each individual exhibitor under a private agreement. Unfortunately, those agreements can't be disclosed."

The online auto show was produced by a major developer of online content, ON24, whose spokeswoman, Tricia Heinrich, told me, "Green benefits are a primary advantage for our clients. The prime positioning is to save time and money, but green benefits are in the top three. Companies want to be perceived as green companies, and the entry into virtual events helps them to do that."

AutoWeek has published an annual Earth Day issue for 20 years, but green hasn't been its primary focus. (There's Green Car Journal, and a host of online sources for that). But the car industry is clearly trending green, with a major push into hybrids and battery EVs, and auto magazines (which traditionally lean heavily on performance, routinely putting Ferraris on the cover) don't want to be left behind.

According to Foster, the virtual auto show is green in itself. If 2,300 people "attend" each one, the online version saves 3,300 tons of greenhouse gases.

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Photo: AutoWeek