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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Auto Journalism 3.0 – Specialization In The Digital Age
“I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest.” – Agatha Christie
Earlier this year, we took a look at the “How” of Journalism 3.0, examining the delivery mechanism and how the new structural paradigm compares to the old. In this installment, we’ll take a look at “What” one should consider covering as automotive media evolves.
As a second-generation automotive journalist who’s about to round the half-century curve, I’ve had the unique opportunity to follow the highs and lows of our craft almost since the time it became a recognized subset of journalism.
During what my father sometimes referred to as “the bygone era of byzantine opulence in automotive public relations,” there were rare occasions when not just spouses were invited along to a preview, but offspring of nearly all ages were welcomed as well. While the adults were inside feasting on prime rib and being entertained with live music, my fellow rug-rats and I were outside flogging brand-appropriate go-karts around the parking lot, getting our fill of soda, hot dogs and popcorn.
Although the fog of time may have impaired my memory regarding all of the specifics, the relatively unchanged capacity of some event venues backs up my estimation that the mainstream automotive press corp numbered only in the dozens back in the auto industry’s glory days of the 1960s. If one adds in the members of the “enthusiast” and motorsports press of that era, the total number might have passed the 200 mark, but only barely so.
But then as the baby boomers came of car-buying age, the auto industry and its press corp grew exponentially over the next few decades, to the point where recent auto show statistics quote press registrations in the range of 3,000 to 4,000, not including many of the bloggers and new-media attendees.
Until recently, virtually every metro area in the U.S. with a population of a few hundred thousand or more was supporting a daily newspaper, and with it, their own dedicated autowriter riding herd on no less than a weekly auto section.
Unfortunately, those at the helm of many newspaper organizations confused their actual product with the idea that they were primarily in the business of printing on paper, secondarily acting as pundits outside the narrow constraints of the op-ed pages, and on a barely tertiary basis, serving only a portion of their readers with hard news and useful information. The inevitable result of this market blindness is that many mid-sized daily newspapers, along with a few of their big-city brethren, are currently heading the way of the buggy-whip.
With the demise of a significant portion of the newspaper business, a substantial numbers of auto journalists, hundreds maybe, find themselves looking for a new outlet to distribute their sage words of automotive wisdom. When these ex- or soon to be ex-newspaper auto journalists were “the” car guy at their paper, they had no choice but to be generalists, covering all things automotive, because nobody else at their paper had the knowledge or connections to cover the topic.
When the newspaper business was at its peak, there was a market for several hundred automotive generalists in the U.S. But now that the scope of an automotive media outlet is no longer limited to the reach of the local auto dealers, the market for generalists is drying up, just as many automotive generalists are out looking for a new home.
The obvious answer, of course, is to specialize. Not within one specific media format, and not to the exclusion of all else automotive, but to become truly expert in one, or just a small number of automotive topic areas.
The concept of specialization within the automotive journalism community isn’t new, but it does seem to be nearly unheard of among the more recent generations of autowriters. There are some specialists in the autowriting biz, but with all due respect, most have been around since Henry Ford was learning to drive. Yes, it does take time to become one of the few recognized as an expert in a particular automotive topic, but one never becomes expert if one never starts to specialize. Before the hands go up volunteering to specialize in reviewing luxury cars, how many luxury cars have you purchased new? Before you volunteer to specialize in test-driving sports cars, can you explain vehicle dynamics to your grandmother more understandably than Bob Bondurant or Jackie Stewart can? Realistically speaking, if your goal is to become a sports car expert, start by writing interviews and biographies of legends like Bondurant and Stewart, get your SCCA competition license, build and wreck your first few race cars, and really learn about sports cars hands-on, before you ask to go along on that Lambo ride & drive.
More practically, look for topics that have broad appeal, but are rarely covered. There’s a huge potential readership out there for trailer towing information, but in hundreds of ride & drives, I’ve met less than a dozen autowriters who were capable of backing up a trailer. Everybody who drives will experience adverse weather on the road sooner or later, but little is written about the pros and cons of various features in relation to driving in bad weather (this one is easier to write about in Seattle than San Diego).
If nuts and bolts are your thing, learn enough to be “the” guy/gal for engines, or transmissions, or even engine-cooling/HVAC (yes, Paul really will retire some day).
Just as the physical structure of the news organization is changing, who’s to say that a single car review in 2019 won’t be the collective work of the engine expert, the towing expert, the handling expert, the working mother expert and the resale value expert? Where the mid-sized newspaper never had the budget for this panel of experts, nor did it have local access to this range of experts, the geographic constraints are gone in Journalism 3.0, so an online outlet with national readership can draw from topic experts spread to the four corners of the map.
As noted in this piece http://www.minonline.com/news/11787.html from min Online, “The Web 2.0 ethic of crowdsourcing all information and relying on the purported wisdom of the crowds has natural limits. … The users can’t answer everything. The role of expertise in a Web 2.0 world has been diminished, and people will seek out our experts.” Similarly, users will soon tire of the auto websites that rely mainly on the latest fad in coding and web design to deliver reprinted press releases wrapped around a few obligatory lines of punditry.
The Internet has democratized publishing, everybody has an opinion, and many can express their opinion capably in writing, so much of journalism’s cachet is no longer unique to journalists. What will separate tomorrow’s journalist from everybody else is the depth of their expertise within a specialized topic area.
Speaking of specialization, Kelley asks, does your current beat or area of interest include commercial use trucks? Whether as small as a Class 1 Ford Transit Connect, or as large as a Class 8 Kenworth T2000, if it’s used in a business setting, it’s a commercial truck.
If your job involves communicating about trucks, on either side of the Press/PR fence, you should know about the Truck Writers of North America (TWNA). Founded in 1988, TWNA is an organization of professionals who are involved in gathering, writing and reporting news and information about trucks, trucking and the trucking industry.
TWNA’s membership is composed of writers, editors, freelance journalists, public relations and communications specialists, sales and marketing personnel and others involved in the business of producing information related to the world of trucking.
TWNA also serves as an information source and referral service for the non-truck trade media as it reports on the trucking industry.
To learn more about TWNA, please visit http://www.twna.org on the web.