Now it can be told: Three times over the past year, Robert Farago and I attempted to buy Thetruthaboutcars.com, also known as TTAC, from its current owners. We had backers, we had writers. We had a man (me) and we had a plan (Robert’s) and if we didn’t have a canal well we at least had Van Halen’s “Panama” on vinyl. Each time we approached VerticalScope/Torstar, they gave us either a California No or a forthright no. Six months ago, things looked encouraging for a brief moment, but negotiations stalled when it was time to talk real numbers.
Their refusal to sell, however, is not why I’ve left TTAC as of 31 August 2018, and it’s not why my final effort for the site was published today.
Just over four years ago, VerticalScope removed me as Editor-In-Chief and installed Derek Kreindler as Managing Editor. The alert among you will notice that Derek was not made E-I-C. The reason for that is simple: starting on that day, AutoGuide’s Colum Wood became the shadow E-I-C of TTAC, directing Derek on a daily basis but keeping his name off the site roster because he did not want to damage the affable relationships he had with the automakers. It was the end of our editorial independence, made worse because we knew that Derek’s job depended on both of us keeping our mouths shut about the true ramifications of the change.
To Derek’s credit, he fought tooth and nail to get some challenging and original work published. The stress of fighting a 360-degree battle against the automakers and his own management led him to eventually seek work outside the industry. Today he’s making real money in the financial biz; if anyone truly deserves their success, Derek does. It should be noted, however, that Derek’s greatest sin in the eyes of his management was in consistently matching the actual readership of AutoGuide with one-tenth of the budget. They had eight full-timers and an eye-watering amount of freelance money; Derek and I ran our side of the show on the average salary of a Columbus, Ohio police officer.
Derek’s successor, Mark Stevenson, was hired with the explicit understanding that he would make TTAC subordinate to, and reflective of, AutoGuide, something that he expressed a few different ways in a much-edited-after-the-fact piece about butter knives. He did this job very well, eliminating both controversy and the lion’s share of reader involvement.
Mark’s successor, Tim Healey, works for the same autowriters’ organization (MAMA) that Derek and I spent years lampooning. So the writing was obviously on the wall for my involvement with TTAC. In February, Tim called me and said that due to “budget concerns” he was cutting my contributions in half. This surprised me since TTAC had been spending money like never before on a brand-new roster of full-time and monthly-retainer employees. At that point I should have told him to fuck off, but since Robert and I were trying to make a deal for the site I thought I’d stay on so there would be continuity in the event that we were able to make the deal.
On the last day of August, Tim called me again, letting me know that those old “budget reasons” had popped up again and he would have to cut me further. I told him to take me off the roster.
The irony of the situation is that being affiliated with TTAC has cost me any number of opportunities over the years, up to and including a gig with Car and Driver about seven years ago. Any time somebody told me to drop TTAC, I gave them a very sanctimonious (and, in retrospect, laughable) lecture about loyalty and decency. In the end, that loyalty proved to be entirely a one-way affair. I will take some satisfaction from knowing that I wrote the majority of the site’s best-known and most-read articles. I’m also proud of the fact that I brought the site back from the dead in 2013 after the “Subaru dykes” controversy that would have sunk most publications for good. We recorded TTAC’s all-time highest traffic numbers, and largest amount of reader involvement, just a few months after our owners were prepared to close the doors.
I owe thanks to many people in connection with this nine-and-a-half-year adventure, and these are some of them:
Jonny Lieberman arranged for me to follow him from AutoGuide to TTAC. It has been a long time since either of us spoke or wrote a civil word to each other, and I would be lying if I said that I do not remain deeply disappointed in the path that Jonny has chosen over the past decade, but the fact remains that I am grateful to him for this favor among others.
It is odd to think that the world won’t remember Robert Farago for being TTAC’s founder. That was simply the opening act in a play that would see him create the most important firearms-related website in the world, a site that overtook TTAC within a year of its founding. Having sold that site for untold riches, Robert is now working on his novel. He was, and remains, a deeply impressive individual. Seven years ago, he charged me with the task of “continuing TTAC’s authentic voice and mission,” a task that I took seriously to the very end. Robert redefined automotive journalism for the better. His voice and purpose continue to resonate, albeit weakly, everywhere from Jalopnik to… well, almost everywhere but at TTAC.
Derek Kreindler came into the business young and he left it wise. If there was ever a writer or editor in this business who was more passionate about truth and authenticity than Derek, then I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him. Derek fought tooth and nail to prevent TTAC from becoming just another run-of-the-mill blog; the ferocity of his effort can be measured by choosing any random week of his stewardship and comparing it to any random week of Mark Stevenson’s tenure. Derek followed the New Testament advice to be “no respecter of persons”; I continue to treasure every furious and/or intentionally unpleasant email I ever got from him. At one point, when he was completely enraged by something that I’d done to divert some opportunities towards a female writer with whom he was reasonably sure I’d been intimate in the past, he sent me a message that “THE ERA OF CASHING OUT BITCHES IS OVER.” I cannot think of a current automotive publication, regardless of size or prominence, that would not be manifestly improved by placing Derek at its head.
Alex Dykes was an early prototype of the modern car reviewer: devoid of pretense and concerned with the little details that make a big difference to real-world customers. Unfortunately his out-and-proud status as a gay man was offensive to some of the management above me and in the long run I was unable to keep him at TTAC past my own tenure. The same was true for Cameron Aubernon who became the first transgender writer in the game under my stewardship but who was given the immediate chop after Derek and I were unable to protect her. The good news is that both of them have achieved success on their own terms after TTAC. I have to laugh sometimes when I read complaints that I’m a “Nazi” or a “bigot”; I hired more LGBTQ writers than almost anybody else, only to see them canned by “tolerant” editors after me. Maybe the problem was that I never consciously hired anybody for purposes of diversity; I found the most interesting voices I could regardless of orientation. A less “bigoted” E-I-C would have hired people because of their sexuality, not irrespective of it.
Sajeev Mehta and “Murilee Martin” have been critical parts of TTAC for a very long time. I never read their work without being both enlightened and entertained.
Ronnie Schreiber was always worth a lot more than we could pay him. There were weeks when the majority of the site’s output came from his hard work. He remains a historian and author without peer in the business. Were there any justice in the world, Ronnie would be the most famous, and the most highly compensated, autowriter in the United States.
My brother Bark Maruth started with TTAC on a whim, at my express invitation. No writer in the site’s history, self included, has ever matched him for average reader and comment counts per article. I expected no less.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank my freelance and volunteer contributors who made it possible for us to repeatedly exceed 3 million reads per month with a budget that wouldn’t staff a single full-time seat at Gawker. TTAC would not have been the same without you and I’m sorry that the site did not retain most of you in the long run. You’re all welcome to contribute here.
If you’re reading this site, there’s a strong chance that you came here from TTAC at one point or another. Thank you for coming. In the months and years to come, Bark and I will work diligently to bring some of that old-school TTAC mojo to these pages. There are some more stories I could tell about TTAC, and I might tell them in the future, but for now I’ll take some advice from Townes: “It don’t pay to think too much / on things you leave behind.” Thank you for reading.
My final TTAC piece is a review of the C43 AMG.
For R&T, I reviewed the astounding Bufori Geneva.