How to become an automobile journalist

by Paul Williams
Originally published in CanadianDriver.com, June 7, 2007. Updated March 10, 2011.



AJAC members often receive requests for information from people who’d like to become an automotive journalist. That’s no surprise, as for many people this would appear to be a “dream job,” especially if you are interested in cars and the companies that make them. You also get to travel and meet fascinating people in the automotive industry, so what’s not to like?

The good news is that while there are no programs in Canada that lead specifically to an automotive journalism degree or diploma, there are certainly steps you can take that will help realize this career goal.

But first, a rather comprehensive reality check.

Why are there no post-secondary automotive journalist programs? Because there are very few full-time, permanent jobs available for automotive journalists in Canada, and a graduating class of newly minted auto journalists each year would quickly flood the market. So if you are looking for the reliability of a paid salary with benefits, automotive journalism may not offer the stability you require.

In fact, a large number of automotive journalists freelance, which means they write their stories and sell them individually to a media outlet (newspaper, website, magazine, trade publication). The challenges are to build up a number of outlets for your work (this can take years), and to sell multiple stories to a range of publications on a regular basis. As a freelancer you will be, in effect, self-employed.

However, people do make a living at automotive journalism – some with full-time positions and others as freelancers -- and many have done very well for themselves. A positive sign is that new, specialist magazines are offering more opportunities for publication, and the internet has emerged as a venue for many new and legitimate media outlets that supplement the “traditional” media of newspaper, radio and TV. Learning what outlets exist, and how they relate to one another (the Canadian media “landscape”) is an important ingredient in getting ahead as an automotive journalist.

Fortunately, there is a professional association to help. Many full-time automobile journalists in Canada belong to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, or AJAC (www.ajac.ca). There are several benefits to AJAC membership (including networking opportunities, professional accreditation, and participation in the annual Canadian Car of the Year program), but AJAC has tough conditions for becoming a member. Key among them is a history of published work in recognized outlets, and sponsorship by existing journalist members.

So, where to start? If you’re in high school, and moving into college or university, a diploma or degree in journalism is a good place to begin. Many practising automotive journalists came out of a post-secondary journalism program, got a job at a newspaper or magazine (what is called “print journalism”), and were assigned by their editors to cover “automotive.” Once a journalist develops an expertise in a particular field, they tend to get assigned again, eventually becoming an “automotive” journalist almost by default. But if you know that’s your goal, you can focus on “automotive” while studying, and this will certainly help when you graduate. If you don’t enroll in a formal journalism program, you should choose courses that build writing skills (creative and research).

And while you’re studying, don’t forget the college or university newspaper (or radio station or webcast) as an outlet for automobile reviews or automotive stories. Auto manufacturers are certainly interested in connecting with students and near-graduates, so the university student newspaper is a relevant outlet and a good place to hone your skills. Volunteering as an editor would be a good move, giving you some experience working with text and images for the printed or electronic page (and as an editor, you can establish an automotive section, to which you could contribute!). In any event, you should aim to get your work published as much as possible, and keep copies of your published work.

Another path toward automotive journalism is through a technical specialty. Several automobile journalists in Canada have an engineering background, although not necessarily in automotive engineering. For instance, one noted Canadian automotive journalist was trained as an industrial engineer; others have qualifications in electrical or mechanical engineering. Others (although only a few) are trained automotive technicians who also work in a garage or teach at a community college. Their published work likely began with a technical orientation (see Jim Kerr’s Auto Tech columns, as an example). In most cases, these individuals started out as working engineers, technicians or teachers, and then supplemented their work by writing automotive articles. Eventually, some made a complete transition from a technical field to automotive writing, while others maintain a primary job, and write as a supplement.

But in any event, a relevant technical qualification plus on-the-job experience will certainly add credibility to your written work, and can open doors with editors.

Another route to automotive journalism is through motorsports. Especially in Quebec, many automobile journalists are current or former race drivers. They are regularly guests on TV, or interviewed by other media. Using this notoriety to move into writing or hosting their own TV or radio show is a natural evolution of their skills. In the rest of Canada, several of the veteran “journo’s” are also former competitive drivers or performance driving instructors. Indeed, knowing how to handle a car at speed or in extreme conditions is expected of people reviewing cars. To this end, most journalists have at least taken a number of performance driving courses, and regularly update their skills (AJAC requires members to update their performance driving skills annually, and offers a venue to do this at the annual Canadian Car of the Year “TestFest”).

But what if you lack a journalism degree, technical qualifications or experience as a competitive driver?

An enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of the material and flair for writing can get the attention of editors, even without professional qualifications. Although it’s unlikely that you’ll immediately get a story published in an established and major media outlet, there is a large enthusiast press that caters to tuning, audio, motorsports, classics, accessories, and specialty cars, and these smaller publications are often receptive to unsolicited submissions by non-professionals, or a pitch for a story (although your work will have to be of a professional quality). Contact the editor of each publication directly (you’ll typically see names listed in a box on first or second page), and be prepared to supply images (high resolution) along with your story. My first automotive stories were published by Old Autos, a Canadian bi-weekly newspaper, and Car Collector magazine, a monthly from the U.S., and the Special Car Journal, a now-defunct website..

Even though the Canadian media is concentrated, the editor of your local newspaper may have a discretionary budget for additional automotive stories, and it’s worth contacting him or her to sound out the possibilities. Simply phone or email the newsroom, and ask who is responsible for automotive editorial. If you make a professional impression, you may get a meeting to discuss your ideas (make sure you bring ideas!). Community newspapers may also be a possibility, but don’t expect to get paid. At the least you’ll get a “byline,” which is a start!

One hint, though: consumer oriented publications (like newspapers, and larger websites) are typically not interested in enthusiast-oriented stories, and likewise, enthusiast magazines won’t want a car review of a base Toyota Camry, for example. In other words, you’ll need to target your work appropriately, also ensuring that you target Canadian stories, pricing and models to the Canadian press.

You can, of course, start your own website. This is a lot easier than starting a print magazine, and will give you somewhere to publish. But Grant Yoxon was way ahead of the curve when he started CanadianDriver.com (now Autos.ca) in 1998. That site grew to become one of Canada’s premier online automotive destinations, serving six million pages of information monthly, to nearly a million visitors. The point is, it’s one thing to operate a website; but quite another to have people visit it. And it’s web traffic, or what the print sector calls “circulation,” that’s key.

As a budding automotive journalist, you probably read many magazines and browse the web continuously for car-related sites and stories. Maybe you’ve already written a few articles. Unfortunately, the big American and European publications won’t even look at your work, as they have full-time paid writers on staff. Likewise, most Canadian media outlets use a core group of professional writers and occasional contributors (all of our test drivers are AJAC members). And most newspapers and magazines have their “stable” of writers.

But you can use those writers to your advantage. Identify your favourites, and study their work closely. How do they structure their stories? What type of information is always included? How long are their stories? How do they start, develop and conclude their stories? It can take years to find your “voice” as a writer, and while you don’t want to copy other people’s work, it’s fine to get pointers from working writers. A highly recommended general publication for new writers is the Canadian Press Stylebook. Now in its 14th edition, most journalists and editors own one.

Finally, if you’re not trained as a writer/journalist, a helpful editor is a huge bonus. My own experience entering “mainstream” publications was enhanced by submitting my product review articles (that’s how I started in daily print journalism: by reviewing automotive safety, performance and appearance items) to a demanding newspaper editor. He would regularly send my work back, with suggestions, before accepting the finished product (most of my previous writing was of an academic nature; quite different from journalism). As opportunities emerged for test drive and preview articles, he’d still make suggestions and lightly edit my work. I carefully noted what he did, anticipating and trying to avoid the same criticisms when writing my next article. You don’t feel bad about this; quite the contrary, as someone’s taking the time to help you develop your skills. I basically got an internship in auto writing from Rob Bostelaar, the former Automotive Editor at the Ottawa Citizen. You should be so fortunate!

But the key, whether or not you are formally trained, is to produce work, and get someone to publish it. This is how you really get started. The more you publish, the more opportunities emerge. Nothing succeeds like success is a truism that’s completely relevant to automotive journalism. But success only comes from being productive and welcoming constructive criticism when it is offered.

More food for thought: suggestions and observations

In Canada, the ownership of media is concentrated. This means that one company can own dozens or hundreds of outlets. Consequently, rather than a freelancer having hundreds of individual editors to approach, there’s often one key person handling “automotive” for a large chain. This limits your ability to sell stories to multiple publications.

There is less demand for articles on “classic” cars than you may think. Most mainstream publications are not interested at all. Note that publications support themselves through advertising, and that the automotive section in newspapers, for example, typically runs advertising from auto manufacturers and local dealers. The editor of the section will look for editorial (articles) that are relevant to the vehicles people are buying. “Classic” cars don’t have a relevant advertising base. It was the same thing at CanadianDriver.com, which was very light (by choice) on motorsports.

There are about 100 working journalist members of AJAC; and that includes 65-70 voting journalists (full-time auto journalists). It is an aging population, which is good for younger people entering the field as some of the senior journalists will be winding their careers down over the next few years. But it’s competitive. Other journalists are looking for outlets, and to establish themselves as well.

There is a strong demand for articles about specialist, “tuner” vehicles and accessories. The senior journalists in AJAC are unfamiliar with this scene, and mainstream publications (in additions to specialist outlets) may be interested in articles that focus on younger consumers.

Most auto journalists are men. In Canada, most know each other, and travel to the same events on a regular basis (for “First Drive” vehicle introductions).
Although automotive journalism is mostly a male domain, that doesn't mean women can't succeed in this career. For example, award-winning journalist Jil McItosh was CanadianDriver's Assistant Editor, now works for Autos.ca, and she also writes for the Toronto Star. And Quebec-based journalist Nadine Filion was named Canada's Automotive Journalist of the Year in 2006. Opportunities exist!
Some for-profit publications will offer work to new writers for very low, or no payment. You may get a byline, however. The practice of soliciting work for no or token pay is not in the interest of working automobile journalists, and is something that AJAC members typically oppose.

All manufacturers operate a fleet of press vehicles for road-testing purposes. Based out of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, each manufacturer’s public relations department typically assigns someone to manage these vehicles. BUT, they are available only to legitimate writers with established outlets. Freelancers pay their own expenses (fuel, pick-up and drop-off). It's worth a try, though, to get a test vehicle IF you have an outlet lined up.

Car and tire companies continuously organize events to which they invite working journalists. These events generate stories, and typically feature new (to the market) vehicles or new model lines. Travel and accommodation expenses are paid by the manufacturer if you are a freelancer. If you are on salary, your publication may choose to pay expenses.

Automobile journalists travel a lot. If you don’t like travelling, or can’t get time off to attend media events, you will have a difficult time establishing a career.

Still interested? Maybe it’s time to stop dreaming and start writing