We Need to (Finally) Discuss That Road & Track Article


we need to finally discuss that road track article

A few weeks ago, venerable car-enthusiast magazine/Web site Road & Track created a mini-controversy with the deletion of an article from the Internet.

The article, which can still be found here, is a feature story in which a journalist who describes herself as a socialist gets assigned to travel from Chicago to Austin, Texas to cover last year’s Formula 1 event at the Circuit of the Americas. Despite the race occurring last fall, the article was published on March 1.

As you might guess, the writer, Kate Wagner, chafed a bit at the insane amounts of money on display at an F1 race. She spends almost 4,000 words doing so.

This article would’ve probably gone relatively unnoticed by all but regular R&T readers and maybe a few others who were inclined to agree — or vehemently disagree — with Wagner’s political view of the world at large and F1 specifically. Pretty routine, really.

But then R&T pulled the piece. This naturally caused observers to raise eyebrows. Wagner was critical — relatively mildly, in my opinion — of F1, Mercedes-Benz racing, and Ineos, the petrochemical company that also is a small automaker. Mercedes-Benz/AMG racing was also involved in sponsoring the trip for media.

So, since Wagner was honest and at times critical in her piece, some observers started to believe the article was pulled because it wasn’t friendly enough to her sponsors.

Ineos and Mercedes deny this, and R&T boss Daniel Pund also denied this in the linked Washington Post article. We reached out to Pund for comment and he did not reply.

Mercedes also did not reply, while a spokesperson for Ineos echoed what the company said in the Post story.

A quick aside — yes, this is becoming old news. Somehow I missed the discourse until last week, and at that point I was traveling and needed some time to read the article and reach out to involved parties before writing this. Also, a disclosure — I’ve met Pund but do not know him well. Any criticism of him here is for his actions/decisions. He seems like a nice enough guy but I think he mishandled this situation.

Finally, despite living in the same city, I do not know Wagner and I don’t believe we’ve ever met, even briefly.

Anyway, I take issue with his decision to pull the piece. He claims that he felt no external pressure and made the decision because he has a vision for R&T, and the article doesn’t fit that vision.

Backing up a second, Pund is relatively new to being in the driver’s seat — he was recently promoted. It seems that he may not have been aware the article was in process when he was in his previous role.

It’s fine to have an editorial vision for the outlet you manage, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I find it hard to believe that he didn’t become aware of the piece between his promotion in January and its publication in March. If he had known about it and didn’t want to run it, he could’ve easily quietly spiked it and paid Wagner for her efforts. Kill fees for freelancers vary from place to place, but generally speaking, a freelancer who has held up their end of the bargain and has an article killed after submission but before publication will get at least some money for their work.

Had Pund not known the piece was in process — unlikely but possible, especially at a large outlet — until after publication, he should’ve let it stand, even if it didn’t fit his vision. When you takeover the head job, you don’t just make it fit to your vision on day one. You do it slowly, over time. You either allow previous approvals of freelance pieces to continue as planned or kill the pieces before publication.

If not, you have a mess on your hands, especially in today’s media climate. Taking down an article that’s critical of a massively popular racing series that is drowning in money is going to raise eyebrows. Doubly so when you regularly cover the series and some of the companies that race in it.

He also inadvertently drew more attention to the article than if it had just run as planned. People tend to notice when articles get taken off the Internet.

I am not saying that Pund bowed to outside pressure — and to be clear, if he did, that would be journalistic malpractice. There’s no evidence of funny business here. I suspect this was just clunky handling by an editor who didn’t, for whatever reason, want this particular piece to be published.

Even if Pund’s reasons for pulling the piece were pure, journalistically speaking, it still created a mess. Had he let it stand, however begrudgingly, he wouldn’t be answering questions about the magazine’s ethics.

Sometimes it’s better to leave things alone.

[Image: Cozine/Shutterstock.com]

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