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 Vince Capece is the pen name of a long-time automotive journalist and IMPA member who publishes a blog on Edmunds’ CarSpace.com at http://www.CarSpace.com/hudsonthedog. He’s worked on a number of books and has been published in various of automotive magazines. Additionally, he’s worked as an industry consultant for global vehicle manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers

The Future of Automotive Journalism

by Vince Capece

“The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society.”
J. G. Ballard (b. 1930), British author. “The Car, The Future”

The same can be said for the automotive journalist. Over the past 10 or 20 years, there’s been a dramatic movement in automotive journalism. And it started with a home computer.

When desktop publishing started becoming a household term, people decided that they would begin writing careers. Some of these people wrote political publications and some decided to teach others what they knew about tending their garden. And many of these people decided to take on the glamorous role of automotive journalist.

They’d drive cars, take some pictures, put down some prose and, voila, they were in the automotive media. Sometimes they’d get published in newspapers, sometimes it would form a magazine. Most of the time it went nowhere because it was still too expensive to publish a glossy magazine and too difficult to sell ad space.

And then came the Internet.

These writers could take a course or read a book and learn how to produce a webpage. The cost had dropped to virtually nothing and the last barrier to entry was gone.

Before this computerized revolution, automotive journalism was a prime example of basic economic theory. There was a limited demand for automotive writers and a growing supply of people with basic automotive knowledge and the ability to pepper a sentence with choice adjectives. This imbalance led to continually declining wages for automotive journalists because many of these “kids” were willing to work for “free rides in cool cars.” Unfortunately, this oversupply of underachievers swallowed up the Ken Purdys and Tom McCahills of the world and allowed few David E. Davis’ and Beverly Rae Kimes to emerge.

But after the “revolution,” there were just so many outlets available that no publication, online or in print, could generate a critical mass of revenue to pay for the good writers and had to settle for the “affordable” writers.

Print media began to shrink in favor of the cheaper websites. Once grand publications like Automotive Industries have dissolved into glorified press kits for whoever would pay to place an advertisement. The major “buff books” were absorbed by a small group of major publishing houses to create “economies of scale” for the new, more competitive marketplace.

Which brings us up to the present. A handful of companies own the top names in automotive media and they publish little more than what car company PR machines want the public to know. The best new vehicle news comes from automotive chat forums where once the only place to get this kind of current and future talk was from the front sections of the top magazines. And just about anyone with a driver’s license can be a “certified road tester.”

A few years ago, I met a young woman at an automotive event. She wore a badge showing that was the automotive editor of a top NY-based personal finance publication. She didn’t seem to be the “car type,” but then we didn’t ask probing questions on the subject either. We did, however, ask her how she got such a significant position at her tender age. Her response was that she had a driver’s license, a relative rarity among her fellow Manhattanites.

As a youth, I learned how to read from the likes of Motor Trend and Car and Driver. Over the years, I’ve collected thousands of magazines spanning hundreds of different titles. The quality of magazines has fallen so dramatically that my list of personal subscriptions, which at one time numbered 8-10, is now just 2. My trips to the newsstand which could add 6-10 magazines a month to my collection now just adds 1 or 2 a year. There’s simply not enough to keep my interest. And I’m still as much of a car enthusiast as I ever was.

An automotive historian once opined that the trend toward electronic press kits is going to kill the “paper trail” for future automotive enthusiasts. This same trend in publishing is doing all it can to kill the present for automotive enthusiasts. Between pretty talking heads on TV shows and the “level playing field” of ‘Net automotive “publishing,” there’s simply not enough intriguing automotive journalism left in one place to keep an enthusiast coming back.

There are still a few great writers out there, but they’re being lost in the din of the rest of the automotive landscape. Unless we can find a way to pay “real writers” to write about cars, there is no future for automotive journalists. I’ve been fortunate enough to rub elbows with some of the greatest automotive writers of the past 30-40 years (this writer is not in their league) and sadly they are a, literally, dying breed. I can’t remember the last time I met someone who could fill their shoes. And the next time I do, I hope someone is paying them enough to keep doing it.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Amen. When Setwright and that crew were writing for Car, I remember thinking that we Yanks had a long ways to go to match their prose abilities. And, in terms of writing, those were better days for the American auto magazines.

    But one can make the same rueful complaints about almost all periodical journalism. Newspapers are shedding their older (which to them only means means more expensive) reporters as fast as they can; name a (non-automotive) magazine that publishes good writing. Okay…The New Yorker.

    Jeez: someone should convince David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, to publish a (well-written) automotive column. Yeah, I know, people in New York don’t much care for cars. But one of the best-written (and idiosyncratic) car columns, Brakes, used to run in The Village Voice. And much of The New Yorker’s circulation is outside New York.

    It’s a terrific idea. Whoever gets the gig owes me a ride.

  2. This was a nice read though I am among the new, young, “netizens” you speak of…

    I grew up thinking of cars as an object of my desire and I am now in a position to combine that love with a yearning to place the ideas and thoughts that flutter through my mind into a written form for others to discover (though my thoughts now become virtual words that hang in a cyber space).

    I would like to believe I am more than a drivers license and a press pass, but that is still all I am at the moment.

    I want to stick around for a while and learn from those before me, and if that means combing through my father in-laws stacks of old Car & Drivers, than that is what I will do… it is not viewed as “paniful research” but rather a chance to discover the magic that some feel is missing from the articles of today. Fluff pieces and not-so-subtle advertisements masquerading as journalism are not what I want to write about.

    I want to discuss the feeling of hopping in an american V8 sports car for the weekend and heading down PCH… I want to talk about the sound the comes out of the Aston Martin DBS and why, once you hear it, it will be the only thing you can think about for weeks to come… I want to talk about how certain cars are not just machines but rolling works of art that should be driven and enjoyed no matter their value…

    I want to talk about cars…

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