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.
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 www.AutoMatters.net 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.