Paul Eisenstein affirms there’s life, challenge and satisfaction in freelance auto writing as he relates the back story of his journey from dispirited radio reporter to www.DetroitBureau.com partner and busier-than-ever work for hire.
I truly believe that you make your own luck. Much of life is simply beyond your control, so it’s important to know when to go with the flow and when to try swimming upstream. It was an unlikely string of events that landed me in Detroit, perhaps the last place this New York boy ever expected to settle down, but once I got here – for what I truly believed would be no more than a couple year detour – I found there were plenty of opportunities to be made out of even the worst circumstances.
The job I’d come to Detroit for, working at a local radio station, didn’t work out as planned. The news director was of the old blood-and-guts school and, to be honest, I just couldn’t deliver the sort of stories he wanted: “High speeds, rain-slicked highways, and death…” began one of his favorites, and, “Little Tommy Tucker sang for his supper, but there’d be no supper tonight, his mother was dead.” Ouch. I would have quit, but he offered a nice severance, enough, I thought, to get me back to New York. Then the calls started coming in.
It was both the best of times and the worst of times. The latter for the auto industry, anyway, as the second oil shock sent the car market into what was quickly to become its worst downturn since the Great Depression. Plants were closing, almost by the day, jobs were being cut by the hundreds of thousands, and even the 10-day automotive sales reports were suddenly making headlines. I’d been fortunate enough to make some good friends among the local media and when they couldn’t handle the flood of freelance assignments suddenly coming in, many would refer them to me.
In October 1979, National Public Radio put me on contract, and within months, what with Chrysler desperately seeking a federal bailout, I was logging more hours of airtime than any but a handful of the network’s Washington correspondents. Meanwhile, I began freelancing for a wide variety of other outlets: radio, TV, newspaper, magazine, newsletter. Heck, I’d have written copy on the men’s room wall, had the pay been good.
Five years later, I severed my contract with NPR, rather than going staff and leaving Detroit. I had come to enjoy the beat far too much, especially as it gave me the opportunity, as a full-time freelancer, to call my own shots. One thing I quickly realized was the increasing globalization of the auto industry – which meant that a reporter who could put the stories together from places as far flung as Berlin and Beijing would stay in demand.
A good friend and an early mentor hammered into my head that no matter how good, a reporter was always at someone else’s beck-and-call unless they also owned the means of distribution – which led me, in the early ‘90s, to explore new avenues of production in the emerging online world. In 1996, I created The Car Connection, one of the Internet’s first serious automotive news sites. I’m proud of the work I achieved with this “e-zine,” but realizing it needed more resources than I could provide to keep growing, I chose to sell it, in late 2007, and move on.
Or so I thought. There really is something addictive to having your own outlet; one of the reasons I launched a new magazine, www.TheDetroitBureau.com, in early 2009. Now, with partners like Ken Zino and Joe Szczesny, we’re out to prove that solid journalism remains a cherished institution online. Not to diminish many of our colleagues and competitors, but far too much of the Internet has become dominated by sensationalism, with “me” bloggers knowing or caring little about the who-what-when-where-how-or-why, never mind accuracy and integrity. All of us who value good journalism need take a stand for what we believe in.
While I’m putting more time and effort into TheDetroitBureau.com than ever before, I still freelance extensively, for outlets ranging from The Economist to MSNBC.com. I am a contributor for a range of clients as far-flung as Cigar Aficionado to AAA and AARP, as well as international outlets like AutoCar and Auto Motor und Sport. And I’ve continued my relationship with public radio, on outlets like Morning Edition and the new show, The Takeaway.
If there’s one other thing I’ve learned, during my more than 30 years in the Motor City, it’s the likelihood that if you hang around the auto industry long enough you’ll experience what Yogi Berra once described as “déjà vu all over again.” That’s certainly been the case these last 18 months, with not only Chrysler but General Motors surviving only with the government’s assistance.
Once again, the news generated a flood of headlines – and plenty of assignments. Add the crisis at Toyota and I’ve been happily hammering away at the keyboard as much as at any time since I arrived in Detroit with a beat-up old Plymouth, an out-of-date suit and a sticky typewriter. I couldn’t be happier, especially when a new client with a new assignment dials my number or, these days, drops an unexpected e-mail into my box.