The Tom-Tom: A View From The Edge

The Tom-Tom: A View From The Edge


Tom Kelley is a freelance auto journalist specializing in trucks. He is founder of the Southeast Automotive Media Organization and Executive Director of the Truck Writers of North America. Reach him at: tom.kelley@deadlinefactory.com


A View From The Edge

In recent installments here at AWcom, we’ve spent a bit of time looking at what’s next in the craft of automotive journalism. Initially, we discussed the physical structure of the information chain, in which the information consumer is rapidly taking over many of the roles of old-media’s top-level managers.

More recently, we tried to make the case that in a rapidly downsizing market for automotive generalists, the answer is specialization (also see footnote #2 below), not to the exclusion of all else automotive, but rather, to expand on one’s foundation of general automotive knowledge by choosing a specific sub-topic area and really drilling down to the point of becoming “the” recognized expert in that niche.

Autowriters.com: Tom-Tom: Tom Kelley
Tom Kelley is a freelance auto journalist specializing in trucks. He is founder of the Southeast Automotive Media Organization and Executive Director of the Truck Writers of North America.

This next installment was to have been the opening salvo of what would likely be a vigorous debate on which physical elements separate the online practice of journalism from the automotive website of a fan/enthusiast.

However, before I could get to that column, I had the occasion to attend the recent Blog World & New Media Expo in Las Vegas. This year, the two formerly separate shows joined forces to create a single event with impressive attendance growth, especially considering the current state of the economy. This marks my third year of participation, and each year I’ve expanded my knowledge and networks, so this year’s show is clearly an instance of “what happened in Vegas,” shouldn’t be confined to “staying in Vegas.”

Given the number of autowriters from the print realm that have recently re-entered the job search market, and given the foregone conclusion that “new” media is the future of journalism, I found it odd during the first day of the proceedings that I didn’t run into anybody from the autowriting community. Little did I know that it wasn’t just the autowriters from the old media who were conspicuously absent from the event.

On the show’s second day, the opening keynote included a panel discussing “The Death and Rebirth of Journalism.” Moderated by Brian Solis, founder of Silicon Valley PR firm FutureWorks, the panel included Joanna Drake Earl, COO of Current TV; Don Lemon from CNN; NYU Journalism Prof. Jay Rosen; and well-known blogger Hugh Hewitt.

While the entire discussion was quite interesting, and is likely to be fodder for a separate installment in this series, I’m compelled to emphasize an observation that came up midway through the session. A call went out to the room for a show of hands from those who had ever worked as a paid journalist. In a room full of roughly 500 attendees, my hand was among only six or seven that went up in response to the inquiry.

In our own segment of the journalism world, we may be looking at a few hundred people currently looking for work, but if we expand that view to include journalist of all stripes, the number currently in the job market is almost certainly in the thousands.

Again, at this point, the shift to new media is a foregone conclusion, so in a world where thousands of journalists, and as a subset, hundreds of autowriters are looking to write the next chapter in their careers, why weren’t hundreds of old-media journalists, or at least dozens of autowriters attending this event learning how and where to write that next chapter?

Nearly a dozen concurrent session tracks filled the three-day schedule, covering a diverse range of topics. In most instances, the session presenters were not pitching their wares, but instead, were the boots-on-the-ground soldiers of the blogosphere, folks who are out there producing new media content on a regular basis, sharing, or more appropriately, exchanging their knowledge with the session attendees.

As an interesting aside, “boots-on-the-ground soldier” was literal for a portion of the attendees, with one entire session track dedicated to the fast-growing “mil-blogging” segment.

To be certain, some of the sessions were focused on j-school 101 topics, given that much of the blogosphere’s content is generated by folks who didn’t set out to be communicators, but were drafted into that task when they couldn’t find the platform to distribute or consume information on a particular topic in traditional mass-media channels.

Though the bloggers’ path to becoming communicators was decidedly different than that which motivated old-media journalists, the majority of the bloggers who attended this event are just as serious about effective communications as the traditional journalist, and in many cases, more expert in their topic area than many career journalists.

On the other hand, there were several sessions covering topics that are just now beginning to be offered in j-school, and leading-edge topics that by the nature of technology, will be obsolete by the time they’re offered in j-school, if ever.

So for those who believe that “all I ever needed to know, I learned in j-school,” you couldn’t be more wrong in today’s rapidly evolving media marketplace. Continuing education, while not a regulatory requirement in the journalism trade, is an absolute necessity for those who are serious about remaining relevant as a communicator beyond the next few years.

Granted, in the autowriting community, it may be outside the comfort zone to spend one’s own money on travel, lodging and conference fees to attend an event such as the Blog World & New Media Expo in Las Vegas, but regardless of where and how one does it, continuing education is no longer optional.

With the need for ongoing education in mind, we’re asking for your feedback on the possibility of restarting the “conference” segment of the International Automotive Media Award program, now held each year in June, in Dearborn, Michigan. If we could assemble a schedule of relevant educational sessions, would/could you attend, and what are some session topics you’d like to see offered?

Nearly a decade in the making, online media is finally getting ready for prime time. If you thought the past few years have had a dramatic impact on the media world, you haven’t seen anything yet. The purveyors of new media are getting serious, and the technology is quickly catching up with its promise. Where will you be?

As a footnote, here are a few of the most poignant quotes from the event:

Tweeted on the projection screen during one of the sessions – Drop the “social,” all media will be social.

Chris Brogan, Thursday’s closing keynote and author of “Trust Agents”:

With regard to new media’s evolution into a serious business – “The days of Kumbaya are about over.

On succeeding in business – “Lots of companies have gone out of business by relentlessly pursuing a number instead of a relationship.

On having an audience vs. having a community – “The difference between an audience and a community is that community members will fall on their sword for you, while an audience will watch as you fall on your own sword. The difference between an audience and a community is which way the chairs are facing.

Leo Laporte, Friday’s closing keynoter and tech legend:

On the state of media technology – “We’re getting closer to live two-way media.

On advertising effectiveness – “Advertisers are beginning to figure out that the attention of new media consumers is far more engaged (due to the specialization of topic matter) than that of (generic) mass media content consumers.

On new media vs. old media – “We’re about to become ‘the’ media, save the ‘new’ for whatever comes next.

And one more footnote from the “They must be reading Autowriters.com” department. Echoing our earlier advice regarding specialization, a recent Time magazine Q & A with author Malcolm Gladwell contains this gem (emphasis mine):

Time Magazine: If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be?

Malcolm Gladwell: The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. “A call went out to the room for a show of hands from those who had ever worked as a paid journalist. In a room full of roughly 500 attendees, my hand was among only six or seven that went up in response to the inquiry.”

    Some of us laid off auto journalists are struggling to make mortgage payments. A trip to Vegas for a three-day conference, which I doubt was free, was out of the question.

    1. Bob,
      Just for the record, $350 for the flight, $575 for the room, $300 for the event registration, and probably another $250 for meals and ground transpo, so that’s nearly $1,500 from somebody who is struggling right along with you.

      Even in good times, getting travel expenses paid as a freelancer has been rare, so I’ve always had to weigh the investment of getting to a trade show against the potential for future income derived from the knowledge and contacts gained at the show. In most cases, the investment was worth it.

      In this case, the takeaways were more about technique than topic matter, but not wanting to still be struggling a year from now, I found it necessary to make the investment — not unlike spending $10-15K/year for j-school tuition in advance of the expected income.

      With that said, if you could piggyback a few extra days in Detroit on the back of a full-line preview event to take in some educational sessions, would you take the time, and what subjects are at the top of your list?

      Sure, you might have to cover your lodging for a night or two, but if the preview-hosting OEM covered your flight and the conference sponsors cover the meals, would you spend the time and a bit of money?

  2. Tom, I was pleased to see your report. I had planned on attending but as I’d just spent three days in Vegas at SEMA, where I barely broke even, I wasn’t about to spend more money.
    It’s good to read a report from the perspective of a traditional print guy. Until now I’d only read reports from those in the blogging community.
    The future of publishing for people with the drive to create their own “publication” online is tremendous — it’s so much easier than it was just 15 years ago..

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