Bloomberg News Oversells and Underperforms on Toyota’s Decline

Bloomberg News has a good idea to do a step-back on Toyota and how it’s faring a year after its devastating recall of millions of cars. But it doesn’t pull off a good story.

First, it oversells what it’s got with this headline:

Toyota Hegemony Fades as Damage Brings Sony-Style Decline

You can shoot down that hed without even reading the story, which is fun for a critic but bad for a news organization: Nobody can know, in the course of just one year, whether Toyota is facing the long-term eclipse a once-dominant firm like Sony has seen over the past two decades. Sure, it might be the beginning of a long-term slide to mediocrity in product and in customer perception for Toyota, but its current tumble might also be something of a blip. I don’t know and neither does Bloomberg.

Then there’s the actual story, which is one of those editorial jumbles that are something of a Bloomberg trademark. For instance, I like numbers, but there are way too many of them here. This, for instance, breaks up whatever narrative exists and probably should have been in a graph or something:

Owner loyalty, or the likelihood that current owners will buy the brand again, for Toyota fell to 57 percent last year from 63 percent a year earlier, based on data from Strategic Vision. Future consideration, or the rate at which buyers said they included Toyota on their shopping lists, dropped to 40 percent from 48 percent, Strategic Vision said.

Future consideration for vehicles from Dearborn, Michigan- based Ford, which boosted U.S. sales 17 percent in 2010, rose to 37 percent from 29 percent. The measure rose to 17 percent from 14 percent for models from Seoul-based Hyundai, whose sales in the nation surged 24 percent.

And the problems with this piece are too bad, because it’s got some interesting stuff on why Toyota might be facing a longer decline—and not all of it is due to the recent PR damage. But even that is marred by the editing:

Toyoda’s job is likely to get more difficult this year. A resurgent General Motors Co. has emerged from bankruptcy and targeted Toyota’s Prius hybrid with the Chevrolet Volt while Nissan Motor Co. has introduced the all-electric Leaf, for which Toyota has no equivalent. Hyundai has climbed up the quality rankings to seize market share and in China, the world’s biggest market, GM’s and Volkswagen AG’s manufacturing capabilities and sales dwarf those of Toyota.

“Toyota’s real challenge will be in the coming years as new buyers, who do not automatically assume that Toyota is the safest and most reliable vehicle, put the Toyota products up against competitors,” said Alexander Edwards, president of San Diego-based market researcher Strategic Vision Inc…

Toyota pioneered the hybrid car with the Prius. It hasn’t yet brought out an electric vehicle, falling behind Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. If the technology proves successful and Toyota doesn’t keep up, it will be similar to Sony’s failure to dominate the transition to compact discs from cassette players, according to Yuuki Sakurai, who helps oversee the equivalent of $8.4 billion as chief executive officer at Fukoku Capital Management Inc. in Tokyo.

So is Toyota developing an electric car? We don’t find out for another forty-two paragraphs.

This is also good, eye-opening reporting:

In June, Toyota’s namesake vehicles, which accounted for most of its recalls, scored below average in J.D. Power & Associates’ study of new-car quality for the first time in the survey’s 24-year history. Defects rose to 117 per 100 vehicles, up from 101 a year earlier.

The Camry ranked near the bottom among 34 models in new U.S. crash tests released in October, trailing the Sonata, Ford’s Taurus and GM’s Chevrolet Malibu.

Consumer Reports has found a decline in the quality of interior finishes in Toyotas for the past three or four years, including the 2011 model year, said David Champion, the magazine’s director of automotive testing.

But why is Toyota having these problems? What’s behind the quality declines? Bloomberg doesn’t attempt any suggestions anywhere in this very long story. That’s ultimately the biggest problem with the piece.

These things don’t just happen without a reason. And while it may be impossible to know exactly why Toyota has fallen down at automaking, but there have to be plenty of investors, analysts, competitors, and ex-employees who have good ideas about what happened.

It’s relatively simple to report that something is happening. That’s fine for a news story. Telling us why it’s happening is harder. But and if you’re going to expect readers to sit down with a 2,300 word piece, you’d better try.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,