How Do I Become an Automotive Journalist?

It seems like every week, there’s another question or two in my in-box. “How do I break into the world of automotive journalism?” they ask. Rather than pen another thoughtful individual answer, I thought it might be worthwhile to pen a post.

So you want to become an automotive journalist, eh? I guess I can’t blame you. After all, this seems like a glamorous life, filled with adventure and new-car smell. The allure is strong. You’ve always loved cars and this seems like the perfect career path …

Be careful of what you wish for, because one day it might come true.

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

The vast majority of “Automotive Journalists” are not well paid. Many could not afford to buy the expensive vehicles they test drive.

Do you like to clean and detail cars? I spend hours each week keeping the cars clean to shoot. You’d make a whole lot more money by opening a detailing business and employing folks.

I’ve followed an unconventional route. I have an art degree, not a journalism degree. I don’t market myself as either an artist or journalist. I am a writer and de facto videographer. I just do what I do, because I have nothing left to do.

Eat. Drive. Write. Shoot. Cut. Sleep.

If you want to become a journalist, get a journalism degree. If you want to write for a living, you damn well better love to write.

If you want to work in automotive media, in some form (without being a writer, per se), there are other ways into the game. Most involve working hard and being in the right place at the right time.

In the past, the manufacturers ran significantly larger media fleets, or so I’ve been told. With the downturn in the newspaper industry, the number of local professional print media folks that “review” cars has dwindled.

The folks that run the fleets have always placed vehicles with publishers in specific communities. Where in the old days, those communities were largely geographic in nature, things are different today.

These days, the communities are interest or demographic based. That’s why you see mommy bloggers and doggie bloggers landing review cars. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’d reckon that precious few are as fastidious as I am about keeping the cars clean. You know, for the photos. Or in my case, the footage.

Similarly, for every printed automotive magazine that has folded, dozens of websites have cropped up. Nearly as many have crapped out. Print was expensive, but that expense provided a hurdle. The Internet is dirt cheap, but that dust sometimes covers the gems.

When I tripped into the path I did, it was not calculated. It had become obvious. I had come to a realization.

I didn’t choose this as a career path. This path chose me.

Fuel economy isn’t an afterthought.

Fuel is the economy … and we’re being held hostage.

I’m here to help change that. This is my windmill.

Tilt away. Phasers on stun.

Enough about me. Back to you.

You want to be an automotive journalist, right?

  • Find your voice.
  • Find your niche.
  • Find your audience.

But nevermind what I say. Listen to Clarkson.

– by

5 thoughts on “How Do I Become an Automotive Journalist?”

  1. Hi Dan,

    For at least 10 years now, I have enjoy watching auto reviews from various sources. I have to say that your approach has been the best I have seen. Where other reviewers quote straight from a press release or some other official auto company literature, your reviews are informative, interesting, and very thorough. I love how you show not only the possible performance you can get out of the car, but also the best possible fuel economy you were able to get. You show the engine, rear seat room, trunk room, and features as well. It’s honest, well done, and in my opinion I feel your reviews should be more of a benchmark in the industry. It’s extremely refreshing not having to listen to the same press release being quoted for the 200th time by some other ‘journalist.’

  2. Many thanks for the kind words, Mike! Our goal with the reviews is to do it different and do it right. We’re always looking for ways to improve upon what we’ve established …

  3. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure if I am eventually going to college so I could simply get a degree in Journalism (especially since I’m aware that journalists *in general* don’t get decent pay anyway), but I think that in between your advice, Clarkson’s and that of one of my friends who runs a blog and a forum on the Internet, I could really go for a career as an automotive journalist, since I would like to do test drives and reviews of various automobiles (some of which I have even made as personal first car considerations), especially those in the A, B, and C Segments (e.g. FIAT 500, Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Jetta).

    I’m also curious to know: how do writers land review units of various cars? Also, could they be had with a specific transmission? I may prefer to mostly do reviews with manual transmission cars.

  4. @Khalil – I prefer manuals, always have, always will … that is, until I’m unable to drive them. The trouble is that they’re relatively rare in the media fleets, for a number of reasons. The number of Americans that choose manuals is dwindling. It’s oft repeated that roughly one in ten cars sold in America is manual-equipped. Folks arent learning how to drive a manual these days and that includes folks imployed in the industry. I always ask for manuals when they’re available …

    As far as landing review units, once you’re established, it’s not an issue. If you have an audience, the manufacturers want to get you into the vehicles.

  5. Good suggestions. We get the same question each week too! 🙂

    We usually tell people that they need to actually like to write as well. Lots of people say, “I’d like to write about cars.” and then you ask, “Do you like writing” their reply is usually “No!”

    Since the same question comes up a lot, I sent in the question for John Davis of MotorWeek when he was on the radio. His reply was pretty much what any auto journalist would say.

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