How To Succeed At Automotive Journalism: A Primer For Neophytes

how to succeed at automotive journalism a primer for neophytes

Since I started my career, I’ve been asked countless times, whether by acquaintances, friends, reader emails and just about every male with a pulse and a drivers license; how do I get your job (or, for our readers, how can I start writing for TTAC). I’ve seen a few lame, generalized articles about “how to be an automotive journalist”, but this one will tell you how to actually make a career out of it, rather than simply spending your days as an “independent blogger” while working at the Verizon store to pay the bills.

1) FORGET ABOUT CAR REVIEWS

Literally every single hack with a Twitter account, a dubious blog with three-figure monthly traffic, or some kind of “diversity” angle that can be used to shame OEMs into getting press trip invites, can write car reviews. And they do. Badly. Here’s a little known fact: all the trips to France and open bars and all the PR ego-massaging is meant to disguise the fact that car reviewers are the peons of the automotive journalism world, the lowest on the totem pole. Car reviews get the lowest pay from publications (in many cases, they won’t pay at all) because they are the most fungible content. Unedited car reviews, even by “name brand” journalists that you know and look up to, are usually written at a level that a 3rd grader would find embarrassing. I know this because I’ve spent years editing them.The participants of the press trip circus are often times the “useful idiots” who can get the OEMs message out there, not necessarily the best writers, or drivers or nicest or brightest people. It’s a little like the real world. In any case, real press trips, usually to far-away places like Indianoplace, are rare. More common are car keys handed over by an agency. With that in mind, don’t give up because there’s a way to actually make a living out of this…

2) Have a skill that has nothing to do with reviewing cars

This year, I’ve ignored a whole bunch of pitches and sought out two people, because they bring something to the table that the TTAC crew can’t necessarily do to the best of their abilities. Andrew is an engineer, and when he’s not repairing dangerously dilapidated infrastructure in rural Canada, he’ll be writing about automotive technology in layman’s terms. Tim is the sales guy and he makes a living at it. If you’re not good at math, well, look at it this way: Steve knows the used car business inside out, Sajeev has a lot of real world experience (something that few have and counts for so much), Jack has a racing license, Murilee is the only person in the world who has tons of knowledge about obscure vehicles and automotive trivia that don’t condescend to the uninformed, Michael owns and operates his own business in the auto industry and Bertel…well, start here and figure it out for yourself.

Corollary: Being a “social media expert” is the only qualification more worthless than “automotive journalist”. Good content gets traffic, not Twitter, not link spamming, not SEO.

3) If you insist on doing car reviews, you better be good. Or a hard worker. Or not…

If you’re going to review cars, your pieces need to either blow the reader away with superlative prose or focus on an angle that nobody else has seen. We have both here at TTAC. You can figure out where Brendan sits on that continuum. On the other hand, we have Alex. He’s no Brendan, but Alex isn’t interested in the “dab of oppo” British-style faux-hooning review. Alex will do a video about the BMW 650i’s technology features when most hacks will use it to try and impress whatever sex they’re attracted to. Alex will pour his heart and soul into a commercial van comparison when most writers couldn’t even muster half the effort to write about the Scion FR-S. Forget what you see on the Facebook albums and Instagram profiles of other established writers. Driving an Aventador in the desert is glorious but fleeting. They can be replaced by the next over-enthusiastic individual willing to eat the requisite amount of excrement the moment they run afoul of whatever agenda is set out for the publication. You can not afford to be expendable.

4) Read and network

The two most important things you can do. Reading is the gym for your mind. Read everything. Stop reading the buff books. You will develop a myopic, uninformed and stubborn view of the auto industry known as “ManualDieselWagonItis”. Buy a subscription to “Just-Auto”. Get a copy of Arrogance and Accords and take copious notes. Stare at monthly sales figures until you are literally bored to tears.

Then go out and network. Meet everyone. Social awkwardness never stopped me, or the most egregious weirdos from succeeding in this business. Every job (including this one) has come from somebody liking me more than someone else who may or may not have been more qualified than myself. At the lowest point in my career, Ed threw me a lifeline because he not only thought I was capable, but he liked me enough and more importantly trusted me enough to let me come onboard and help steer his ship while he went away.

Corollary: you will not get along with everyone. You will dislike some people. They will dislike you for any number of reasons. Your personalities may clash. You may have different values. They may feel threatened by you. Whatever. The right person will recognize your talents, and if they don’t, maybe you just have no talent.

5) If you STILL insist on doing car reviews

Take whatever money you’d spend on buying a brown Citroen SM with a Stratos V6 swap and LEARN TO DRIVE. There are many ways to do this. Go to racing school (expensive). Get coaching one on one (also expensive). If you’re fortunate like me, sign up for a karting series. Although you run the same track every time, nothing teaches you fine control of a vehicle, or how to sense how much traction you have (or don’t have) like karting. It’s also cheap (at low levels) fairly safe and most importantly, good fun. Chances are, you will never be a race car driver. As a child, I was found to have exceptionally poor spatial sense, which will prevent me from ever becoming a great racer. If you’re the kind of person who is more inclined with words than numbers, chances are you may have a similar ailment. The good news is that if you learn to steer smoothly, squeeze on the brakes and look ahead, you can savage most of your fellow junket participants, over-priced sports car buyers and both types who also attend the same track days as you. The downside is you may “ …never be able to out of your window net and simply [destroy] another man’s confidence on the entry to a critical corner…” but I’m sure most of us can live with that. Or …

… simply forget about car racing. It is beyond me why would-be car racers end up as would-be writers. The OEMs that hand you the keys to that car roll their eyes at reviewers with racing ambitions. They are scary, they cause accidents. People don’t want to read about your heels and toes. They want a car to drive to work.

6) Here’s surefire advice on how to get a gig at TTAC, or any other North American publication. Or a book deal.

Go get a job in the industry. Working at a dealership is ok, but may not get you too far. Working at an OEM is also good. Working at a car factory is better. Working at a UAW plant is the Mount Everest. Even if it’s just sweeping the floors. You will have years of original content, insights that no professional “journalist” will ever have and the kind of life experience that will make you an interesting person to talk to at parties. Most importantly, you will have a story to tell. One that doesn’t involve how much better the Eden Roc is than the bullshit Mandarin Oriental that the OEM has dared to put you up in after flying economy. We desperately need new blood in this business. If you’re already out there, have an itch to write and are willing to break any NDA’s you’ve signed, write to editors@ttac.com and enclose 400 words of your prose. If you don’t hear back from us, we weren’t impressed.

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  • Josh Josh on Jan 24, 2015

    As a former journo at a weekly, this is a solid article and sad at the same time. Unless you have a connection to the auto industry, it is hard to break in. I have a photographic memory and an obsession with obscure, base-level models and other things. However, the Internet has started a race to the bottom and the gatekeepers are gone. In the '80s the autowriters had a lucrative, great future: Great cars coming out and no Internet at the time. I would advise anyone on here with kids considering journalism to tell them NO right away. If they do go into journalism, have them find a spouse with a fair wage.

  • Carsumo Carsumo on Aug 30, 2016

    CarSumo is always looking to bring on automotive journalist interns. Check them out.

  • Kurkosdr Someone should tell the Alfa Romeo people that they are a badge owned by a French company now.The main reason PSA bought FiatChrysler is that PSA has the technology to enter the luxury market but customers don't want a French luxury car for psychological/mindshare reasons. FiatChrysler has the opposite problem: they have lots of still-respected brands but not always the technology to make good cars. Not to say that if FCA has a good platform, it won't be used in a PSA car.In other words, if those Alfa Romeo buds think that they will remain a silo with their own bespoke platforms and exclusive sheet metal, they are in for a shock. This is just the start.
  • Arthur Dailey For the Hornet less expensive interior materials/finishings, decontent just a little, build it in North America and sell it for less and everyone should be happy with both the Dodge and the Alfa.
  • Bunkie I so wanted to love this car back in the day. At the time I owned a GT6+ and I was looking for something more modern. But, as they say, this car had *issues*. The first of which was the very high price premium for the V8. It was a several thousand dollar premium over the TR-7. The second was the absolutely awful fuel economy. That put me off the car and I bought a new RX-7 which, despite the thirsty rotary, still got better mileage and didn’t require premium fuel. I guess I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction because, two years later, I test-drove a leftover that had a $2,000 price cut. I don’t remember being impressed, the RX-7 had spoiled me with how easy it was to own. The TR-8 didn’t feel quick to me and it felt heavy. The first-gen RX was more in line with the idea of a light car that punched above its weight. I parted ways with both the GT6+ and the RX7 and, to this day, I miss them both.
  • Fred Where you going to build it? Even in Texas near Cat Springs they wanted to put up a country club for sport cars. People complained, mostly rich people who had weekend hobby farms. They said the noise would scare their cows. So they ended up in Dickinson, where they were more eager for development of any kind.
  • MaintenanceCosts I like the styling of this car inside and out, but not any of the powertrains. Give it the 4xe powertrain - or, better yet, a version of that powertrain with the 6-cylinder Hurricane - and I'd be very interested.
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