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. Reach him at:

Online Auto Content – Journalism Or Fandom?

In previous installments of our look into Auto Journalism 3.0, we’ve looked at the inevitability of the web in the future of our business, and what the structure of the information chain may look like in the very near future. Tom-Tom: Tom Kelley
Tom Kelley and friends.

Terry Parkhurst recently added his take on sites that are operated more for the sake of gaining access (fandom), than for the practice of journalism. This month, we’ll build on Terry’s foundation by offering at least one perspective on what separates journalism from fandom in the world of online auto content.

The goal is not to create a protectionist environment that secures spaces for the old-timers at the expense of the up and coming, but rather, to identify the relevant elements of traditional journalism, and discuss how they apply to the online world.

The Society of Professional Journalists ( defines journalists as: “persons who are engaged in directing the editorial policy or editing and preparing news and editorial content of independent news media products.”

As definitions of journalism go, the SPJ version is perhaps the best example of being distribution channel neutral. It doesn’t matter whether an outlet is print, radio, television, online, or whatever comes next, nor does it matter whether the practitioner is a writer, photographer, graphic artist, or voice/video reporter, the SPJ definition focuses on actions rather than who or where, so it serves as a good starting point for our discussion.

What may need further definition though, is what qualifies as news and editorial content.

Editorial content is defined as commentary and/or opinion, specifically, that offered by the editorial or management staff of the media outlet. As a practical matter, commentary/opinion provided by freelance contributors is not differentiated from that of the media outlet’s staff. News is defined as a report of recent events or previously unknown information, interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting. Though not explicitly covered in the above definitions, feature coverage (interviews, how-to, profile, etc.) is also within the realm of journalism.

Whether you call it a blog, a clog, a vlog or a podcast doesn’t matter, it’s about the content, not the delivery channel.

Conversely, recycled press releases, reader/listener comments, forum posts, diaries, and other non-original, non-expository content doesn’t qualify as journalism, regardless of whether its delivered through a legacy media channel or through a new media channel.

While the type of media outlet isn’t a factor in identifying legitimate journalism, there are certain “mechanical” factors that aid in qualifying an outlet as legitimate.

First and foremost is accountability. Online outlets can’t have it both ways; if a site’s principals want to hide behind the anonymity of the web, they can’t expect the site to be considered as legitimate. Newspapers and magazines have mastheads, and radio/television station ownership/contact information is required to be publicly disclosed, but meanwhile, some of the largest websites refuse to provide basic brick-and-mortar contact information. Even in the online age, bylines, masthead data and physical contact information are not curious relics, but necessary elements of a legitimate outlet. This information should be easily found on an “about” page linked from everywhere on the site.

Addressing the “independence” mentioned in the SPJ definition can be difficult because of the low cost-of-entry barrier for many forms of online distribution. In most cases, journalistic outlets are clearly and obviously supported by advertising revenues, subscription sales or single copy sales. However, journalistic integrity is not automatically conferred by a particular revenue level or revenue source. Journalism is defined by it’s actions, not by its source of funding.

Absent a readily-accessible page disclosing advertising rates and policies, an online outlet does need to disclose its means of support, even if self-funded. The outlet also needs to disclose any relationships with those persons or entities who are the subject of coverage by the online outlet. Not providing that disclosure leaves the reader to assume the worst.

To facilitate the disclosure of relationships, the new media community is already actively engaged in the creation of standardized disclosure statements that are abbreviated down to a few characters to fit within the 140-character limit of a Twitter post.

Unfortunately for online outlets, while there are plenty of hit-counters, rating schemes and traffic measurement services available, the online industry hasn’t yet settled on one or two universally accepted methods such as the BPA audits, Arbitron ratings or Nielsen ratings used by the legacy media. In the absence of a universal measure, the online outlet that seeks to base its credentials on its traffic/audience size does need to use, and not game, at least one of the popular online traffic measurement techniques.

Admittedly, none of the foregoing is rocket science. Some of you may even be thinking “Thank you, Captain Obvious” right about now. However, until we start formally laying out the elements of a legitimate online automotive journalism outlet, any judgement that a press fleet manager, an event credentialing service, or we ourselves make about the legitimacy of a particular outlet will seem subjective and arbitrary.

Terry Parkhurst’s recent “Clog” post identified a potential gray area within the legitimacy spectrum of online automotive journalism, in the form of websites that seem to exist solely for the purpose of gaining “backstage” access to the automotive journalism community.

There is a nearly parallel concept in the world of book publishing, generally known as a “vanity press,” where an author pays to be published, rather than getting paid for his/her work being published. Granted, many fine books have been self-published, especially now that publishing on demand is a reality. This is not meant as a negative judgement on self-publishing, but rather, the analogy is being made to the unflattering sentiment behind the vanity press terminology; that somebody is buying access, presumably because a lack of skills prevented access through normal channels.

Many of the regional automotive press associations vet their prospective journalist members by requiring the submission of a minimum number of recent clips, which are often reviewed to verify that the content does, in fact, qualify as journalism.

Perhaps the vetting model used by the associations can offer a foundation for objectively determining the legitimacy of online automotive journalism outlets. Does the outlet’s content qualify as journalism? Is the quantity and frequency of the content sufficient to establish the outlet as an ongoing professional enterprise? Is there a means by which the online outlet’s visitor traffic can be independently verified?

What do you think? Are there other measures that should be incorporated in the qualification of an online outlet as a legitimate purveyor of automotive journalism?

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Michael T. Lynch

    I don’t believe many regional automotive press associations “vet” anything, other than that the author has published somewhere. This has nothing to do with whether what was published was “journalism”. It is simply covering their behind so that if they allow someone to join, i.e., pay dues, and the person abuses getting credentials for an event he/she had no intention of placing a piece about, the association has something to hide behind. In the old days, many tracks had a policy of collecting a fairly large ( up to $100) deposit when they gave out credentials. When you sent in a tear sheet, your money was refunded. In a society where money talks so loudly, this might not be a bad idea.

  2. Edward

    I completely agree that it’s the quality of writing that defines “journalism” rather than the means of distribution. However, I do think online journalists are sometimes the unintended victims of the web’s “quantity over quality” model, which has been exacerbated by social media. It’s hard to rise above the noise of the digital world and get noticed. Likewise, apart from a highly elite few online outlets that demand paid subscriptions, it’s actually quite a challenge to make a profit from online, as the essentially infinite ad inventory exerts a strong downward pressure on digital ad rates, which once again “feeds the beast” of quantity-driven media. Until there’s a concerted, industry-wide shift away from a “free” content model to a paid one, I’m afraid this downward spiral will continue.

  3. John Goreham

    This was helpful to me and I see little to take issue with. I do think there is room to exapnd on it with some vocabulary words though. I’m an aspiring auto-columnist, though I don’t consider myself a journalist, or desire to be one. Things I’ve written have appeared in print so I do consider myself a writer. There are differences between a journalist, a columnist, and a writer. A journalist (very similar to what used to be called a reporter) does research on a topic, obtains first hand interviews and information, creates a story that is original and informative to the readership, and delivers it when the story is finished. A columnist is going to provide writing each print cycle, be it weekly, monthly, or semi-annually and it is usually not a requirement that there be a heavy amount of research involved. A writer is a person who writes and is published in any way in a format that obtains payment for its content.
    This month in Car and Driver, Keith Barry provides an example of auto-journalism. He writes an informative, well researched and well delivered article on the topic of California’s Air Resources Board and ZEV credits. This work could not have been created by Mr. Barry from “top of mind” knowledge or from a rehash of previously written materials. I assume he was paid by Car and Driver, but that does not matter. What matters is that people pay to read his work in Car and Driver.
    An auto-columnist is a writer who does a regular Q&A piece or reviews cars and does it each week or each month. They test a car and report their findings and opinions. They might also ruminate in their column about an old friend who recently retired from racing (or died), or they might tell a story about an adventure they had in a car. Good examples of these are David E. Davis Jr. and Dan Neal, They are columnists, but they have also been journalists and editors in the past.
    I consider myself an example of an auto-writer. I do write. The topic is exclusively automotive. I am published (and grateful to have been published) primarily by a local newspaper that people pay money to read. I am the lowest form of writer. I make no bones about it; I am in this for access to cars and access to things automotive and because I am fan of all things automotive. I don’t need money for my work, and I don’t aspire to be paid for the words I write. Could care less. I’ll just blow it on tires anyway.
    I see described above a forth type of writer and you define it well. An editor is a person who provides an opinion piece. There may be facts involved, but the article takes a stand on an issue and provides the writer’s well-formed (hopefully) case in point. The title “Editor-In-Cheif” is also a person who is the supervisor of all journalists, columnists, and other editors at a publication. Jean Jennings is an editor.
    My college credentials are in engineering and business, so I might be off base on these definitions. However, I had a talk with a woman who is a “Journalist” employed by the Financial Times and she was the one who spurred me to form these thoughts into definitions. She clearly, and with the confidence of one in the business, drew a line between a columnist and a journalist. One thing I will caution you and your readers about is this; Be aware that occasionaly, a person in this for fandom may evolve into one of the most well read writers in the automotive publication world. I’ve read Ezra Dyer’s bio and I don’t see any journalism degree mentioned. Maybe he is hiding it. Maybe you don’t consider him a journalist. That’s fine. I don’t either. Because he is a columnist.

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