Journalists judging the SUV under $35,000 category at the AJAC Car of the Year TestFest commiserate. Click image to enlarge
By Paul Williams; photos by Paul Williams and Arne Glassbourg
www.Autos.ca often receives requests for information from people who’d like to become an automotive journalist. That’s no surprise, as for many people this would appear to be a “dream job,” especially if you are interested in cars and the companies that make them. You also get to travel and meet fascinating people in the automotive industry, so what’s not to like?
The good news is that while there are no programs in Canada that lead specifically to an automotive journalism degree or diploma, there are certainly steps you can take that will help realize this career goal.
But first, a rather comprehensive reality check:
Why are there no post-secondary automotive journalist programs? Because there are very few full-time, permanent jobs available for automotive journalists in Canada, and a graduating class of newly minted auto journalists each year would quickly flood the market. So if you are looking for the reliability of a paid salary with benefits, automotive journalism may not offer the stability you require.
IIn fact, most auto journalists freelance, which means they write their stories and sell them individually to media outlets (newspaper, website, magazine, trade publication). The challenges are to build up a number of outlets for your work (this can take years), and to sell multiple stories to a range of publications on a regular basis. As a freelancer you will be, in effect, self-employed.
Automotive journalists pore over a vehicle at the Toronto Auto Show. Click image to enlarge
However, people do make a living at automotive journalism, and some have done very well for themselves. A positive sign is that new, specialist magazines are offering more opportunities for publication, and the internet has emerged as a venue for many new and legitimate media outlets (like www.Autos.ca). These supplement the “traditional” media of newspaper, magazines, radio and TV. Learning what outlets exist, and how they relate to one another (the Canadian media “landscape”) is an important ingredient in getting ahead as an automotive journalist.
Fortunately, there is a professional association to help. Many full-time automobile journalists in Canada belong to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, or AJAC. There are several benefits to AJAC membership (including networking opportunities, professional accreditation, and participation in the annual Canadian Car of the Year program), but AJAC has tough conditions for becoming a member. Key among them is a history of published work in recognized outlets, and sponsorship by existing journalist members.
So, where to start? If you’re in high school, and moving into college or university, a diploma or degree in journalism is a good place to begin. Many practising automotive journalists came out of a post-secondary journalism program, got a job at a newspaper or magazine (what is called “print journalism”), and were assigned by their editors to cover “automotive.” Once a journalist develops an expertise in a particular field, they tend to get assigned again, eventually becoming an “automotive” journalist almost by default. But if you know that’s your goal, you can focus on “automotive” while studying, and this will certainly help when you graduate. If you don’t enroll in a formal journalism program, you should choose courses that build writing skills (creative and research)..
Automotive journalists get to drive a wide selection of cars, but they’re not all the kind you lust after. Click image to enlarge
And while you’re studying, don’t forget the college or university newspaper (or radio station) as an outlet for automobile reviews or automotive stories. Auto manufacturers are certainly interested in connecting with students and near-graduates, so the university student newspaper is a relevant outlet and a good place to hone your skills. Volunteering as an editor would be a good move, giving you some experience working with text and images for the printed or electronic page (and as an editor, you can establish an automotive section, to which you could contribute!). In any event, you should aim to get your work published as much as possible, and keep copies of your published work.
Another path toward automotive journalism is through a technical specialty. Several automobile journalists in Canada have an engineering background, although not necessarily in automotive engineering. For instance, one noted Canadian automotive journalist was trained as an industrial engineer; others have qualifications in electrical or mechanical engineering. Others (although only a few) are trained automotive technicians who also work in a garage or teach at a community college. Quite possibly, their published work began with a technical orientation (see Jim Kerr’s Auto Tech columns on www.Autos.ca, as an example). In most cases, these individuals started out as working engineers, technicians or teachers, and then supplemented their work by writing automotive articles. Eventually, some made a complete transition from a technical field to automotive writing, while others maintain a primary job, and write as a supplement.
A relevant technical qualification plus on-the-job experience will add credibility to your written work, and can open doors with editors.
Just, uh, a few of the cars AJAC members tested at the association’s annual TestFest event in October, 2005. Click image to enlarge
Another route to automotive journalism is through motorsports. Especially in Quebec, many automobile journalists are current or former race drivers. They are regularly guests on TV, or interviewed by other media. Using this notoriety to move into writing or hosting their own TV or radio show is a natural evolution of their skills. In the rest of Canada, several of the veteran “journo’s” are also former competitive drivers or performance driving instructors. Indeed, knowing how to handle a car at speed or in extreme conditions is expected of people reviewing cars. To this end, most journalists have at least taken a number of performance driving courses, and regularly update their skills (AJAC requires members to update their performance driving skills annually, and offers a venue to do this at the annual Canadian Car of the Year “TestFest”).
But what if you lack a journalism degree, technical qualifications or experience as a competitive driver?
An enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of the material and flair for writing can get the attention of editors, even without professional qualifications. Although it’s unlikely that you’ll immediately get a story in a major newspaper or on a website like www.Autos.ca, there is a large enthusiast press that caters to tuning, audio, motorsports, classics, accessories, and specialty cars, and these publications are often receptive to unsolicited submissions by non-professionals, or a pitch for a story (although your work will have to be of a professional quality). Contact the editor of each publication directly (you’ll typically see names listed in a box on first or second page), and be prepared to supply images (high resolution) along with your story. My first automotive stories were published by Old Autos (a Canadian bi-weekly newspaper), Car Collector magazine (a monthly from the U.S.), and the Special Car Journal (a now-defunct website).
While it’s true that the Canadian media are concentrated (effectively reducing the number of available outlets that can pay to publish your work), the editor of your local newspaper may have a discretionary budget for additional automotive stories, and it’s worth contacting him or her to sound out the possibilities. Simply phone or e-mail the newsroom, and ask who is responsible for automotive editorial. If you make a professional impression, you may get a meeting to discuss your ideas (make sure you bring ideas!). Community newspapers may also be a possibility, but don’t expect to get paid. At the least you’ll get a “byline,” which is a start!
Automotive journalists at the Geneva Auto Show. Click image to enlarge
One hint, though: consumer oriented publications (like newspapers, and websites like www.Autos.ca) are typically not interested in enthusiast-oriented stories, and enthusiast magazines won’t want a car review of a base Toyota Camry, for example. You’ll need to target your work appropriately, also ensuring that you target Canadian stories, pricing and models to the Canadian press.
You can, of course, start your own website. This is a lot easier than starting (and distributing) a print magazine, and will give you somewhere to publish. But web pioneer Grant Yoxon was way ahead of the curve when he started www.Autos.ca in 1998. This site has grown to become one of Canada’s premier online automotive destinations, serving over six million pages of information and receiving over 1.5 million visits monthly. The point is, it’s one thing to build a website; but quite another to generate sufficient traffic to make it viable. With websites it’s traffic, or what the print sector calls “circulation,” that’s key.
As a budding automotive journalist, you probably read many magazines and browse the web continuously for car-related sites and stories. Maybe you’ve already written a few articles. Unfortunately, the big American and European publications won’t even look at your work, as they have full-time paid writers on staff. Likewise, www.Autos.ca uses a core group of professional writers and occasional contributors (all of our test drivers are AJAC members). Most newspapers have their “stable” of writers.
Journalists at TestFest track-test a Suzuki SX4 and a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Click image to enlarge
But you can use those writers to your advantage. Identify your favourites, and study their work closely. How do they structure their stories? What type of information is always included? How long are their stories? How do they start, develop and conclude their stories? It can take years to find your “voice” as a writer, and while you don’t want to copy other people’s work, it’s fine to get pointers from working writers. A highly recommended general publication for new writers is the Canadian Press Stylebook. Now in its 14th edition, most journalists and editors own one.
Finally, if you’re not trained as a writer/journalist, a helpful editor is a huge bonus. My own experience entering “mainstream” publications was enhanced by submitting my product review articles (that’s how I started in newspapers: by reviewing automotive safety, performance and appearance items) to a very demanding editor. He would regularly send my work back, with suggestions, before accepting the finished product (most of my previous writing was of an academic nature; quite different from journalism). Even after revisions, he’d still lightly edit my work, and I carefully noted what he did, anticipating and trying to avoid the same criticisms when writing my next article. I basically got an internship in auto writing from Rob Bostelaar, the Business and Automotive Editor at the Ottawa Citizen. You should be so fortunate!
But the key, whether or not you are formally trained, is to produce work, and get someone to publish it. This is how you really get started. The more you publish, the more opportunities emerge. Nothing succeeds like success is a truism that’s completely relevant to automotive journalism. But success only comes from being productive and welcoming constructive criticism when it is offered.