Top 10 Ways NOT to Become an Automotive Journalist [Op/Ed]

MMUSA Nathan and Roman
Nathan and Roman Driving a Jeep Wrangler to the Highest Points in All 50 States

So, you want to be an automotive journalist. Great! But what do you need to know?

Let’s face it, driving cool cars for a living is the dream of many automotive enthusiasts. As long as I can recall, I’ve had a deep love affair with cars and trucks, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. The automotive industry employs tens of millions of people around the world. From engineers, to men and women working on the assembly line, to the salespeople on the showroom floor, there are folks at all levels. In the end, however, we all share a common bond in our love for cars and trucks. Passion among automotive enthusiasts is what fills coffee shop parking lots on Saturday mornings. Even when the mercury dips below freezing.

Inevitably, some parlay that passion toward a career in automotive journalism.  What better job in the world than to get paid driving cool cars and trucks…right?

Well, that’s the dream. But what about the reality? Can we all be Jeremy Clarkson, James May or Richard Hammond? Of course, you know the answer to that: hell no! That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…but not everyone can trek around the world. Most of us, in fact, have to drive Kia Rios and Toyota Highlanders. You know, the humdrum cars we all actually buy.

At TFL we get a lots of resumes from prospective automotive journalists who want to work with us. Some we turn away simply because we can’t afford to take on more people, but others don’t quite understand what this business is about. So, in true TFL fashion, here are the Top 10 Mindsets That Won’t Make You an Automotive Journalist, compiled from mistakes that come across my desk everyday:

10) I have a deep and passionate love of all things automotive.

Don’t we all? I have a deep and passionate love for desserts. Does that mean I have the skills to be a world-class pastry chef? Not necessarily. Loving something and possessing the skills, talent and commitment needed to build a career aren’t always one in the same.

A more important question would be can you write? Can you tell a good story? Can you edit your work? Do you know how write an effective headline? Do you know how to creatively edit a professional video? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then automotive journalism may not be for you.

9) I can learn how to write.

Actually, you really can’t without going to school or working professionally at a magazine or paper. Sure you can write just like I can bake, i.e. you won’t burn your house down. Being a blogger and a professional writer aren’t the same, however. Professional writing is one of those skills that’s easy to learn, but difficult to truly master. It’s a skill set that, just like any other, demands tuition, time and practice. If you don’t have a mentor of some sort, your writing will remain like my cooking. It won’t be ready for primetime.

8) I have a camera; all I need is access to cars.

Having a camera and knowing how to use a camera are not one in the same. Just like writing, photography and videography are specific skill sets that take time, experience and, to some extent, patience to master.  A better question to ask yourself is, “Do I have time, money and energy to spend on an education so I can learn to shoot cars professionally?

7) I have a blog and social media accounts, so that’s all I need, right?

Having that infrastructure in place is certainly important, but it’s not going to run itself. As with mastering your writing technique, it takes time, effort and patience to build a loyal following. While we’re on the subject, building your audience organically is the best way to go. If you paid Facebook or Instagram to build a “following”, please start over and do it with time and talent. It takes determination and grit to stand out, but it’s far more impressive (and rewarding) in the long run.

6) I want to start podcast, I just need a few car loans to get started.

Prepare to drown in white noise of you start a podcast. You’re not unique, as about 10,000,000 other people run a car-themed podcast. If you are determined to go this route, think long and hard about what unique piece of the puzzle you can bring to the table. That’s difficult to do with so much competition.

5) I have an automotive YouTube channel, I just need access to cars.

A few years ago, this would have been a feasible approach to take. But guess what? Everyone else already has. You’re the ten millionth person to start a car-based YouTube channel, and you’re going to have to work extremely hard to gain any traction. You’re also completely at YouTube’s mercy if you’re trying to make a living from posting videos to YouTube.

4) Let’s take a brief pause here before we get to the top 3 for a word from our sponsors: Car and truck manufacturers.

There’s a theme that runs through this top 10: access to cars and trucks. That’s really the root of the problem breaking into automotive journalism. Most wannabe automotive journalists don’t really want to be journalists. They just want to drive cars and trucks for free, or better yet get paid to do it. You know how the adage goes: nothing in life is free, and that’s equally true in this industry. The manufacturers expect a return on their investment for your time with that car. So don’t think you get these cars to drive with no strings attached. They watch your every move.

Dodge SRT Hellcat
Roman and his automatic Hellcat and Jesse with his manual Hellcat. [photo: TFL]

3) I want to drive cool, fast and fun cars and trucks.

Did you know that the best-selling car in America is the Toyota Camry? How about the fact that the best-selling truck is the Ford F-150? And not a Raptor. Not a Ferrari. Not a Tesla. Once in a blue moon, you may get the opportunity to drive the “cool” cars. However, the majority of automotive journalism is based around cars and trucks that sell the most. For every Ferrari you’ll ever get your hands on, prepare to drive 1,000 bland, forgettable crossovers.

2) I have a unique take on cars.

I don’t really know how many automotive journalists make a full-time living writing about cars and trucks in America. However, I can make a pretty decent guess. It’s less than 1,000. Perhaps much less. Simply put, the pool of journalists making a living wage is constantly shrinking. This is a profession that’s rapidly changing as digital content – video, in particular, continues to choke traditional newspapers and magazines to the point of extinction. Its not a growth industry today, so your unique perspective might just not have an avenue to really take hold the way you think it might.

1) But I truly love cars and trucks.

Having a passion is definitely part of a good automotive journalist’s toolkit. However, don’t expect to get rich from writing about cars. It took me about two hours to write this story. It will take Zach, TFLcar’s managing editor, another hour to edit it, as I’m such a sloppy writer. If we’re lucky, this story will earn TFL a couple bucks if it gets passed around. In other words, writing about cars is truly a labor of love.

If you really love cars and trucks, here are my recommendations. Write with skill, write to stay relevant, write with passion, and tell a good story. If you have time and talent, you might eventually get car loans. If you keep plugging away at it and hone your craft, you might start to actually make money.

Bonus) I want to be rich and famous like Clarkson.

Clarkson, as you likely know him, is a showman, not an out-and-out journalist. Sure, he does write, but he gained his notoriety by pushing boundaries and skirting the limits of what’s acceptable. There’s a reason most automotive journalists aren’t celebrities. But, if you insist on chasing fame, here’s an idea…

  • Start a YouTube channel
  • Buy a Lamborghini or some sort of exotic sports car (at least if you have the cash…we certainly don’t)
  • Install a straight pipe
  • Make a video with your girlfriend, mom, or dog accelerating as fast as possible
  • Create a thumbnail with yourself looking extremely shocked/happy/sad/constipated/drunk/pissed or drunk and pissed and with the headline, “You Won’t Believe What Happens Next…!”

If all goes well and you break yourself of some of these mindsets, you’ll be on your way to a career as an automotive journalist. Good luck!