One Man’s Road Ahead – William Jeanes has had a distinguished career in automotive communications, a craft which he treated as a profession and expected those who worked for him to do likewise. He spoke out on the need for literary and ethical standards in a field of journalism that often invites and sometimes requires compromises in at least the latter and increasingly devalues the former. His voice will be missed now that he appears to be turning to other pursuits.
Musings from An Automotive Dinosaur
I’ve followed the Blogosphere vs. Establishment controversy as presented on Autowriters.com during recent months. As some of you know, I spent a few decades as a part of the establishment, most visibly as a writer, an editor-in-chief, and a publisher at Car and Driver magazine. I also worked in the world of advertising agencies for ten years and was thus allowed to see car magazines and automotive writing from a second perspective.
I am now 73; my first for-pay automotive freelance piece appeared in AutoWeek in 1972, and my most recent piece is a less-than-serious history of the automobile that will appear in the May/June issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I recently quit an editor-at-large slot at AOL Autos, and I’m now inclined to log off my laptop insofar as automotive writing is concerned. Why? Because I have other interests that I want to explore in the few years remaining to me before the world succumbs to vapor lock. And because I don’t think automotive writing matters as much as it once did.
For years I’ve been convinced that cars have become too good to support meaningful criticism. Hybrids and electrics have provided some diversion, of course, just as they did in the early 1900s, but that does not change my conviction that the industry has improved and refined itself to the point of dullness. I and my peers have been reduced to the undignified picking of nits. Most of all, a decreasing number of publications have the space or inclination to run long features, which is what I enjoy writing. Further, pay for writers has adjusted inversely to inflation.
With the arrogant belief common to all writers – that someone, somewhere, wants to read what you write – I am going to offer up some thoughts and mention some principles I’ve come to value during the past forty years. As I express my thoughts, with any luck I will irritate both sides of the continuing discussion in equal measure.
I begin by saying that I was a writer before I was a car person even though I pulled a wrench for pay from about age 15. I was 34 before I sold an article about cars (about racing, actually). I was a car enthusiast, but not to the point of hysteria.
When Car and Driver offered me a staff writing position in 1972, I had just been accepted to the University of Arkansas writing program. I opted for the excitement of New York, writing on a daily basis, and pay. I’ve never regretted that decision.
After three and one-half years there, the late David E. Davis, Jr. then creative director at Campbell-Ewald (Chevrolet, Goodyear), brought me into the advertising profession. He called me in 1975, before we ever met, and said, “I sure like your stuff. Why don’t you come out to Detroit and let me teach you the advertising business?” I went, and I never regretted that decision either.
Most automotive writers cannot make the transition from prose writing to copywriting; I never understood why, but it’s so. I learned that advertising writing was a business, a complicated one. At some point, it became obvious to me that automotive writing or, more accurately automotive publishing, was likewise a for-profit activity.
There was no need for a Scarlett O’Hara moment (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”). I just came to realize that, writer or not, I had no intention of starving in the pursuit of writing. Rightly or wrongly I liked money and still do. According to our President I’ve made a great deal more than my share.
My late father was fond of saying, “You can tell a lot about a man when you watch him get something free.” I believed that, based only on my pre-magazine years. Imagine my reaction when, on my first press junket as a Car and Driver writer, I witnessed the spectacle of a gaggle of automotive writers fighting over free foul-weather gear provided by Volkswagen during a sail to Martha’s Vineyard. You’re right; my throw-up valve slammed into the red zone.
That sad vignette begs the obvious question, “If you’re so all-fired pious, why did you ever accept junkets, trinkets, and dinners from car companies?”
About the big-ticket item, junkets, the business answer is simple enough. Early access to new products was critical to our success. Couple that with our accountants having discovered that there was a way to avoid travel expenses, and there you are; take it or leave it. The small gift items were easy; just don’t take them, and if you’re the boss, don’t let your staff take them.
I failed at repeated efforts to have our parent company pay all our travel expenses. But I want to add that this was anything but a holier-than-thou act; it was an effort to create a set-apart differentiator with which to beat the competition over the head.
Press cars were another matter. We at Car and Driver drove as many cars as possible in order to maintain a comparison-driven awareness of the market’s products. Was it always necessary to keep on hand enough cars for the entire staff to drive, even those who did no writing or evaluation? The answer is yes, and here’s why.
An independent writer, in his or her conception of a perfect world, can get one press car per week. That’s 52 per year. At Car and Driver, our unwritten requirement for maintaining a useful seat-of-the-pants database was to drive at least 125 cars a year. That is possible only if you maintain and manage a large press fleet at your place of business. I do not think there’s a freelancer or blogger on earth who can do that.
Bloggers and freelancers also do not normally have access to instrumented testing and an engineering staff. At Car and Driver, we emphatically did. So, those of you who routinely savage the establishment, exactly what is it you’re bringing to automotive enthusiasts other than your opinions?
If you say that magazines which take advertising are susceptible to influence by manufacturers, I agree. But the key word is susceptible. Integrity is your choice, and it wasn’t even difficult. If you have 40 automakers as advertisers, you have every reason not to favor one over the other. Doing so, as I’ve said a hundred times, will cause you unshirted misery.
And if you, as I did, forbid staff writers who do road tests from doing freelance work for automakers, your job is that much easier.
Is this a slap at bloggers and freelancers? Not a serious one. A serious one would be to reference the endless stories told to me by public relations folks and fleet managers about “journalists” who are getting by with a single car at home and who are wont to call up and say, “Get a car over here. I don’t care what it is.” I don’t know about you, but if I ever made such a call I would hope to God that a thunderbolt of revelation might tell me that I was in the wrong business.
That “wrong business” thought brings up the question of professionalism. Are you a professional?
Once upon a time, I served an undistinguished term as president of the American Racing Press Association. Its membership was composed of writers and photographers who covered all forms of racing in the United States. Our continuing dilemma was our inability to gain blanket credential approval from the major racetracks. We tried, but we were unsuccessful.
Here’s why we failed: not enough of our members were professionals. I can’t be sure, but it may have been Jim Foster at NASCAR who asked me, “How many of your members make their living covering races?” I do not remember my reply, but it was not “All of them.” Foster’s point was simple: If you don’t make your living at it, you’re not a professional. Never mind your talent level.
When a blogger, or anyone else, requests credentials to an automotive event, it seems reasonable to ask, “Do you make your living doing this?” If the answer’s yes, you win. If not, see us next year. That of course may be oversimplifying.
Assume that an individual blogger has a large audience but does not make much, if anything, in the way of money. Is the press officer not shooting himself in the foot if he refuses a credential? I’d say he was, but I’d say so reluctantly. But my heavens, I read earlier this week that some website or other had set its pay range for an 850-word piece at $25-$300. You do the arithmetic; I don’t want to waste my time. You could make a better living collecting aluminum cans.
Here, I’ll pause and make the distinction between individual bloggers and well-staffed electronic giants such as edmunds.com, autoblog.com, and Kelley Blue Book. And of course the traditional car magazines’ electronic operations.
By and large, existing print media have failed to marshal their considerable horsepower to add compelling electronic executions to what they offer. The reason is simple to an outsider, which I am: Properly done, a hotshot website has the potential to kill off its print sibling. You may not agree with that, but you cannot argue that the reverse is even remotely possible in today’s world of instant, on-demand, information.
Just as certain, no individual one-man or one-woman website can compete, save through copious use of links, with the big guys mentioned above. The individual can’t drive enough cars, do enough – if any – serious instrumented testing, produce enough distinctive copy, or otherwise match the heavyweights. A website that uses many freelance contributors, I might add, faces serious organizational and consistency issues.
I suppose it would be possible for an individual to carve out a niche, such as the absolute best instant photo and video coverage of all auto shows. But, after all, how many of those are there? And could you make a living? You’d be lucky to make travel expenses, although your credential would at least put you in the Eat Free or Die buffet lines and keep you from starving a few weeks each year.
For the past three weeks, I have been cleaning out a building I own. It was filled with more relics than you can imagine, and among them was a copy of the first issue of Automobile Magazine, April 1983. Its founding editor, the aforementioned David E. Davis, Jr., wrote in his opening column that he was proud of the first-rate writers he’d assembled (among them Dean Batchelor, P.J. O’Rourke, Jean Lindamood, Kevin Smith, and even this writer) because, as Mr. Davis went on to say, “…second-rate writers attract second-rate readers.”
Consider the blogs in light of Mr. Davis’s statement. In a recent issue of Autowriters.com, bloggers demonstrated what appears to be utter unfamiliarity with their native tongue (e.g. “…newspapers have went under.”) I find this depressing almost beyond endurance. And if you think that’s a sad example, you should read the comments.
Here again, save for the most unusual individual, the biggies at least have the budgets to ensure decent copyediting if not sparkling writing. Whether they do this with any real enthusiasm I do not know.
Something not in question is that bloggers exist, and that there are lots of them. If you were an automaker or an event manager, what would you do with them? Paul Brian and the Chicago Auto Show allotted a whole press day to bloggers. And they let the manufacturers select who came, handing off the difficult question of who deserves (as opposed to wants) credentials. The day was considered a success by most of the manufacturers, and one and all got a better handle on the situation, albeit a hazy one.
Comparing the starting of a blog with the starting of a traditional career in print media, I say that the single most important difference is that the traditional guys had to earn their way into the business. A blogger can just peel off the pajamas, open up shop and proclaim that he or she is a credible source. Credibility, when you get down to it, is everything. You can succeed without it, of course, but you are a fraud. Not that your intentions are evil, but you do not in most cases have enough resources to allow you to know what you’re talking about.
Do I wish that celestial lightning would strike down all bloggers? Of course not. I believe in free speech even if its syntax and spelling are substandard. And there are some entertaining storytellers and commentators out there. Joe Sherlock comes to mind. There are a few others. Very few, led by Peter DeLorenzo whom I consider to be the father of the automotive blog (and who came with established credibility).
What I do wish is that I might be spared endless whining about credentials, press cars, unfairness, and general mistreatment from would-be automotive “journalists” who are demonstrably hard put to write much beyond their request for something free and who dress as if they shopped at Third World yard sales. And who couldn’t get, let alone hold, a job at any professional publication, electronic or otherwise. When your blog’s posted comments, most of which appear to be sent from planets where correct spelling and punctuation constitute felonies, are better than your articles, it’s time to consider retraining. Or, if your enthusiasm for cars is pathologically uncontrollable, suicide.
I will say that there is at least one good quality about all blogs, even the most illiterate: Reading them is voluntary; the same is true for the existing magazines, most of which are well down the road to obsolescence. Bloggers don’t bring much that’s new to the party, and the establishment won’t let anything old escape from the festivities.
Those are my opinions, and I’m sticking to them. It occurs to me that writing none of the foregoing paragraphs gave me any pleasure at all, which reinforces my decision to say goodnight and good luck to the world of automotive writing.
William Jeanes is the former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, Classic Automobile Register, and AMI Autoworld Weekly. He was publisher of Car and Driver and Road & Track. His automotive writing has appeared in more than two dozen publications, and his non-automotive work has been seen in Sports Illustrated. The New York Times, Playboy, Playbill, American Heritage, Journal of Mississippi History, Over the Front, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He co-wrote the book Branding Iron with Charlie Hughes and was a senior vice president at two major advertising agencies. He was Writer in Residence at Northwestern University in 2005 and serves on the board of trustees at Millsaps College and on the board of directors for the Eudora Welty Foundation. He and his wife, Susan, the creative director of five automotive magazines, live in Ridgeland, Mississippi.