The 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.
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 Auto Journalism 3.0 – Specialization In The Digital Age Tom-Tom: Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley

“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 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  on the web.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. John Rettie

    Good article Tom…

    I agree with your sentiments. Ironically, I used to be more specialized but have become less so as the years have gone by.

  2. paul weissler

    Tom. For some reason I think you were referring to me when you mention specializing in engine cooling/HVAC. I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that’s all I do, or even close. At this moment I’m working on two new car tech roundups for MOTOR Magazine, and in the past few months have done tech feature articles on Ford SYNC, calculating electric car fuel economy, three electric car articles (Ford, Nissan and MINI), Genesis coupe platform design, integration of add-on electronic features, new trim panel molding process on the Ford Taurus, and neat new shop tools. And I’m awaiting an okay on a diesel tuning piece.

    Specialist? I think I’m a tech generalist. Sure, I made a fair bit of change writing about cooling systems and A/C. But a lot of the HVAC stuff I do is developing engineering standards as a member of the SAE Interior Climate Control Committee. And that’s strictly volunteer work –i.e. pro bono.

  3. Steve Ford - The Car Guy®

    Tom, thanks for the enjoyable reflections about the shifting world of journalism. Seeing the name ‘Paul’ in reference to a journalist with a specialty expertise did lead me to think that that would have been intended to be the one-and-only Paul Wiessler. Yet knowing Paul through shared times through the MOTOR magazine world, he has always struck me as talented at tackling and demystifying broad technical topics — with HVAC being a particular strength and interest area.

    Perhaps Paul’s example of diverse automotive knowledge and insights along with a strong niche expertise is an ideal example of how auto journalists may view the auto industry’s use of a “single-platform” manufacturing foundation to serve several variations in final products.

    Since vehicles and the media have both become more complicated and competitive in the 21st Century, it seems that there may be value in wrapping diverse journalism work around a specialty automotive or truck expertise and interest area. In “specialty topic” coverage, it is clear that such realms as automotive marketing and trends (Marty Bernstein), motorsports (Chris Economaki), or perhaps leveraging the reach of a “medium” becomes the core platform for the premier Q&A team for ‘squeaks and leaks’ to mainstream audiences nationwide (Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers), there seem to be clear benefits from developing the niche specialties.

    On the other hand, as many car guys and car gals – especially hands-on technicians – will note, we often say that vehicles are typically engineered by taking a “heater core” and building the car or truck around it. This means that Paul has one of his niche strengths exactly in the center of vehicle universe … it all starts with and surrounds the core of the vehicle HVAC system!

  4. Tom Kelley

    Sorry if my attempt at levity came across as painting you into a finite corner, that wasn’t the intent. I, and most who read these pages, are well aware that your reach extends far and wide.

    Your reputation as THE expert in the HVAC realm is so strong, however, that when one mentions “Paul” and “HVAC,” there’s no question who is being discussed. Few in our craft enjoy that level of first-name recognition.

    My lament is in regard to the industry’s present lack of an “heir apparent” for your role in that “center of the vehicle universe,” as Steve Ford so eloquently described it.

    It will take many committed autowriters to fill your shoes when the day comes that you finally retire. Will there be anyone who can match your depth of knowledge in even a single topic area, say nothing of the entire breadth of your expertise? At this moment in time, I fear the answer is no.

    Addressing that challenge becomes an opportunity for the newest generation of autowriters, especially those who find themselves newly looking for work.

    Just to make sure it doesn’t get lost here, let me emphasize and repeat that the admonition to specialize is “not to the exclusion of all else automotive.”

    There’s no call for the newest generation of autowriters to forsake a strong foundation of general/diverse automotive knowledge in the pursuit of specialization, but rather, to supplement that diverse knowledge with strong niche expertise in a one, or a small number of specialty topic areas.

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