An Open Letter To My Fellow Automotive Journalists

Editor’s Note: Because of the length of this comment to our Road Ahead piece about forming a National Automotive Journlist Association, we decided to post Jan’s response on its own. Please continue to share your thoughts either on the blog or via email.

Jan Wagner, Automatters
Jan Wagner, Automatters

By Jan Wagner, AutoMatters
I would like to add my voice to the discussion about the shrinking number of print publications available to publish the words and photos of my fellow automotive journalists.
For several years my AutoMatters column appeared on a weekly basis in a succession of community newspapers, as well as online on newspapers’ websites and on my own website. AutoMatters, with its wide range of general interest subject matter (including new vehicle introductions, professional and amateur racing, travel, automotive products, interviews, discussion of hot-button issues and even auto-themed movie reviews), all written in a conversational style and illustrated with my award-winning photography, appealed to a wide cross-section of readers, not just to auto enthusiasts.
AutoMatters was never much of a source of revenue for me but at least I got paid something by most of the newspapers that ran it – at first. That helped to cover my expenses. However, over time newspaper ownership has been consolidating, resulting in sharp changes in editorial preferences.
At first newspapers cut my already meager freelance pay (from a high of $90 per column, to $45, $35 and then to absolutely nothing except for credit on their masthead). They cut back on the amount of content from me that they were prepared to print – particularly in the area of my original photography. They told me that automotive content was available to them for free from other sources. Local content produced by accredited automotive journalists no longer was a priority. I can only guess as to how much the wishes and preferences of their local automotive advertisers figured into all of these cutbacks decisions. I struggled to search out the remaining independent newspapers in my area and offer my AutoMatters column to them for publication, but ultimately that became increasingly more difficult to accomplish.
Society teaches us from an early age that if we work hard and produce goods or services that others want or need, we will get paid for doing so. Our education and experience supposedly prepare us for that. It is how our economy functions. The cycle is that we work, get paid, buy goods and services from others, and so on.
Not getting paid for our work is problematic in several important ways. As a freelancer I need to cover my expenses. I need to make enough money to pay for the other things in my life. Not getting paid for my work is deeply demoralizing and, frankly, humiliating.
My compelling need and desire to earn a living, combined with the negative impact that not making money from my work was having on my self-esteem, led to my reluctant decision late last year to put further production of my AutoMatters column on indefinite hold while I investigated other ways to earn a living. Subsequently my readers wrote to me, asking me to continue publication of AutoMatters – at least online at my website, but I could no longer bring myself to do that. Now, for the most part, I only do automotive writing and photography when someone will publish it (which is not very often) or for my own personal gratification.
The sharply decreased frequency of publication of my work has, not surprisingly, let to my not being invited anymore to cover such things as automakers’ new vehicle introductions. For years I covered major racing events at one particular racetrack, but without a letter from the editor of a particular publication on their letterhead, that racetrack will no longer allow me to cover motorsports events at their facility, even though I had done so for years to their ongoing benefit. It costs real money to travel to events, upgrade my camera equipment, maintain my home office and so on – to say nothing about such essentials as paying for food, housing and health care, as well as entertainment and at some point, the ability to buy another one of the new cars that I enthusiastically write about and show to others, through my photography. Does my work have value? If so, is my expectation of getting paid for such work too much to ask?
The bottom line is that even though I love automotive journalism and continue to receive awards for my photography, I simply cannot and will not continue to do this work for free.
Are my experiences unique or are they being experienced in ever-increasing numbers by my fellow automotive journalists, perhaps including you? Are any of us immune from this trend? What can and should we do about it?
It is painfully obvious that we need new markets for our work. Our audience seems to be shifting towards getting their automotive content from online publications, but it has been my experience that these sources do not pay their contributors much, if anything. Faced with this reality, how long can and will we produce our quality, professional work for free?
I don’t know about you but between covering events, writing them up, and editing photos, I do not have the energy or the inclination to also focus on self-promotion, self-marketing and maintaining a dynamite website. I desperately need an agent to aggressively market my work, and the dedicated staff of publications to publish and distribute it.
If we, as automotive journalists, do not do something constructive to address these needs, I fear that our employment situation will deteriorate further. Are any of us able and willing to step up and lead us towards finding new, paying outlets for our work? I, for one, would be glad to step up and help out in such an effort, if only someone who knows what to do, will sufficiently guide me and give me some specific, as opposed to generalized, directions.
It has been my career experience that when I am surrounded with the best and the brightest, we do better work and we all ultimately enjoy more success because of our collaboration. It is in this spirit that I ask for your help. I encourage you to add your input to what I have written here and then forward it to other associations of automotive (or even non-automotive) journalists. Hopefully, at some point, someone will read it and step up to lead us out of this dire situation.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Gary Grant

    Jan, first off, I have to say I feel your pain. But….

    I’m not even sure where to start here.

    Up here in Canada, the automotive media scene is exclusive to the point of being exclusionary. Of course, I understand that there are few jobs and all a newcomer is going to do is take away work from someone else. Again…I get it.

    The problem is that when a newcomer with a true automotive background tries to break in, he or she doesn’t stand a chance.

    My personal experience around racing spans a full 40 years. I have 21 years of industry experience. I can string together a few sentences and I’m looking for a way to exit my chosen career path in a graceful manner.

    6 or 7 years ago, I guest hosted on a local automotive radio show (for free) which led to a few requests to write articles for car club newsletters. Bingo, I thought I had found a way to put my experience to good use. A few naive letters to local editors went unanswered. As did the follow up phone calls.

    During that time, I discovered blogging and in the spring of 05, the seed was planted that would become

    The learning curve was steep and the growth curve has been rocky to say the least. Joining IMPA was a definite factor in the local media seeing me as legitimate. Due to potential conflict of interest, I can’t join AJAC until I no longer work in the industry. While I disagree with it personally, I also understand it.

    By creating The Garage, I had in essence created my own online automotive outlet that had the potential to generate income. Not only that, but I own my own content. Me, and nobody else! We have had a rotating team of writers who have worked on a volunteer basis, usually to strengthen their own personal brand online.

    Have I been able to create a full time income from it? Well, not yet, but it isn’t too far off as the numbers increase monthly.

    Traditional media moved at a snail’s pace when it came to the internet and in many cases, the traditional media outlets were left in the dust as some of the new media grew exponentially. There are many, many reasons here that we don’t need to go into right now, but suffice it to say that traditional media were asleep at the switch.

    It is very true that most bloggers/online journalists do not answer to an editor. I’m sorry folks, but I read traditional media daily and if the quality of crap that is published in print is any indication of what having an editor does, then I’m not impressed. Hmmm….would that be a run on sentence 🙂

    There is no question that there are a lot of hacks online who have portrayed themselves as automotive experts whose opinion isn’t worth the keyboard they are typing on. Then again, who says that someone who graduated from journalism school but has never worked with cars or raced cars has an opinion that is worth anything more?

    I agree that many of you are going to have your work cut out for you in redefining your career and I truly sympathize. Where I object is when traditional print types discredit all online types as being the root of all their problems. Some of us are just like you, trying hard to create our own niche and earn a living.

  2. Joe Casvin

    I feel the same way about the shriveling industry that we automotive journalists dedicate ourselves to. For the most part, it’s a total joke. I mean you have some lackey who hasn’t the faintest clue about passion or what cars mean to our culture. Then the douche bag has enough balls to ask if we will work for 2 cents per word, or worst, free. That’s why I see crap writing, crap photography, and most of all, crap ideas in the first place. The industry panders to those who have no self-respect and will work for nothing. My advice, widespread firebombing. Ahh, just kidding. Use your knowledge and passion to break into TV. That’s where the money is at anyway.

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