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Chrysler's "Comeback" Claims Its First Victim: A Detroit News Car Critic

Chrysler had all Detroit and even a lot of America at its feet after its stirring Eminem Superbowl commercial, but more recently the sailing has been anything but smooth. Scott Burgess, the car writer for the Detroit News, just resigned because his editors toned down his slam of the Chrysler 200, apparently after someone associated with the automaker expressed displeasure.

This is bad for the paper, which initially offered a feeble defense of its decision. Later, the paper's publisher admitted deeper errors in its ways. But this also bad news for Chrysler, even though it doesn't appear to have actually done anything wrong itself.
I spotted the Burgess news yesterday when he tweeted it (@AutoCritic is his handle). He didn't comment, but other tweeters did, because the car blog Jalopnik had run the news of his resignation, along with an analysis of what the Detroit News had deleted online from the print version of the 200 review. The Jalopnik post was later updated with a rather appalling comment from the newspaper's business editor, blaming the changes on the editing process, then updated again when the publisher offered something verging on a real apology.

What should Chrysler do about all this?
Details are sketchy at the moment, and Burgess isn't talking. But it appears that Chrysler itself had nothing to do with demanding the changes. Right now, reports indicate that it was a local dealer and Detroit News advertiser who requested the ex post facto edit.

Editors face this sort of pressure all the time, and standard journalistic practice is to politely but firmly decline to change anything short of a factual error. But for Chrysler, this sort of public airing of the dance between media and advertiser doesn't bode well. Chrysler was on the road to becoming America's sweetheart, but now it look like a strong-armer. As of today, Chrysler hasn't posted any comment at its media site.

The only industry that's doing worse than autos is newspapers
The car industry is on the comeback trail, but the newspaper business seems to be in terminal decline. It's almost unfathomable that a newspaper editor would send a response like the Detroit News did to a scoop-hungry outlet of Gawker Media. Jalopnik wanted proof that the paper had sold Burgess down the river and got it, almost as if on command:

We made several changes to the online version of Scott's review because we were uncomfortable with some of the language in the original. it should have been addressed during the editing process but wasn't. While it was too late to edit the print version, we were able to make changes online. The changes did not fundamentally change the thrust of Scott's piece.

A car dealer raised a complaint and we took a look at the review, as we would do whenever a reader raises a flag. The changes were made to address the journalism of the piece, not the angst of a car dealer. We left the print version alone, but the the online environment offered the flexibility to rework language that should have been caught in the editing process.

So ultimately while Chrysler doesn't exactly look good in l'affaire Burgess, the Detroit News looks much, much worse. People don't generally like journalists all that much, but they have a passing familiarity with the ethics of the profession and tend to assume that editors and the papers they work for will get behind their reporters and critics. Caving to advertisers and them spinning the decision to blame the writer is usually rewarded with canceled subscriptions.

But that doesn't excuse Chrysler from getting its act together
Chrysler is slowly losing control of the very positive story it created with the Eminem commercial. Last week, an employee of its social media agency dropped the f-bomb on Twitter after having some problems with Detroit traffic. Burgess was particularly disappointed by the 200 (a quickie retread of the unloved Sebring), but he's hardly alone. Opinions of the mid-size sedan have been mixed, so Chrysler needs to figure out a way to salvage the story it started telling a month ago.

At this juncture, it could probably use another flashy TV spot, sort of its version of President Obama giving a landmark speech -- but featuring a different car. The bad stuff that's happening online is damaging the brand and taking on a life of its own. This is a company that wants to pull the trigger on an IPO later this year, after all.

From a business perspective, Chrysler needs to up its communications game significantly. Of the Big Three Detroit carmakers, it has been doing the worst job at this. Understandably, given its smaller size and the bailout/bankruptcy it went through in 2009. But the goodwill won't last forever.

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Photo: Chrysler Media
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