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John Rettie: Living Content is Quality Content

John Rettie is a freelancer, with the emphasis on being free to pursue his light. Going on staff when it works and leaving when it doesn’t, he has been on staff for Meyer’s Publishing, Ward’s Communications, J.D. Power and Associates and The New York Times among others in an auto writing career that began in England in 1971. He also writes on photography, has designed and built auto parts, raced cars and originated the Automotive PR Survey conducted by MPG.

Like many of you, I’ve enjoyed reading the ongoing debate about the future of auto journalism, especially as I am now one of those “old and bald” journalists. Tom-Tom: John Rettie
John Rettie

Almost 40 years ago I was a fresh-faced writer who started working on a small magazine in the UK. I had no degree in journalism but I was enthusiastic and realized how lucky I was to be in my dream job. My salary was poor — you know the rest of the story.

A few weeks ago someone told me there was an opening listed on CareerBuilder for an automotive writer in my hometown, Santa Barbara. It looked promising. It read as if a major newspaper or magazine was looking for an experienced auto journalist. Only this was for

Several established auto writers are indeed writing for Examiner and a few are making some money but I don’t know of anyone making a decent living doing this.

Writer’s forums have been full of discussions about content mills, the derogatory name given to websites that seek writers to crank out copy on every subject under the sun.

In fact just as I was on a final edit I read the following, penned by Nik Usborne, on

“Most web content is barely alive, even when it is first written. It is pumped out by content mills, optimized and uploaded. This kind of bulk content is often referred to as backfill content. I prefer the term “landfill content.” Dead and rotting from day one. In sharp contrast, living content is quality content. It is shared quickly through social media—because it is worth sharing—and takes root across the web. Better still, true living content is updated and added to on a regular basis.”

I’m sure everyone echoes this sentiment.

It’s true that Examiner appears to be a cut above these sites it has nonetheless been included in the discussions at times.

Traditionalists see a relentless downward push on the quality of writing and the rate at which writers are paid. It’s perhaps even more worrisome to read that Fortune magazine is now accepting articles for which it does not pay.

It’s sad.

Some call it “SEO marketing of content for dummies.” As long as content shows up well on search engines and enough people click on them the content generators will make money. Some of these content mills supposedly make millions of dollars a year yet their writers, sorry content producers, are not making much at all.

Nevertheless, there are many young writers, and even some seasoned out of work writers, who are happily producing features for these sites despite the low pay. And it appears there are plenty of people signing up to produce content.

I think this confirms there have always been thousands of people who relished the idea of writing and seeing their prose published. Of course, in the “old days” it was only a few who were fortunate enough to land gigs that enabled them to see their work in print.

Now anyone can start a publishing company at virtually zero cost. However, the chances of making a lot of money are still slim. Perhaps these content mills are currently a better way for new writers to get started – at least they make some money.

Despite all these dramatic changes nothing has really changed. Pretty much every one of us “old farts” started at ground zero as an unpaid intern or an entry level cub reporter before making anywhere near a living wage.

Since it’s now so much easier to get started we have thousands more trying their hand at writing, photography, and even movie making. Pretty soon we’ll reach saturation and hopefully the best sites with the best content will grow and the weak ones will wither.

Within a decade, I bet we will return to seeing the best content producers making a decent living. We will then look back on the massive changes going on at present and realize that every trade and profession has been radically altered by the digital age. Heck, by then even the healthcare industry, which is one of the last to be “digitized” will surely be undergoing transformation.

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  1. Terry Parkhurst

    I sure hope John Rettie is correct about the best writers and photographers being able to make a living, by at least the next 10 years. As for, I just don’t know.

    A friend of mine, Rachel Hawkridge, who writes a politically oriented blog for, recommended me to that site as a contributor, last summer. The response to her recommendation – an invitation to contribute – is still within my e-mails from then.

    I know that John Matras, a fine automotive writer who used to be a regular contributor to the Escape Roads section of AutoWeek, is now a regular contributor to; and does fine work, reviewing new autos, trucks and other vehicles such as SUVs or crossovers. I’ve never asked John what he’s paid.

    Rachel told me she was getting one cent, for each time someone clicked on something she’d done. If that’s the same rate of pay for all contributors, John Rettie is correct about where things stand now for we auto journalists, in regards to

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