It has never been easier to enter the field of Motoring Journalism. Thanks to the likes of WordPress and Blogger, you can have a new motoring blog up and running within minutes. Register on Quickpic, start writing news stories based on press releases, and you’ll essentially be doing what is a big part of every permanently employed motoring journalist’s daily duty. However, you’ll only be doing this as a hobby as I guarantee you it won’t pay the bills – in my lectures I explain why not. But the fact of the matter is that it is easy to be just another motoring journalist.
The overwhelming majority of motoring journalists in this country have become stuck on the “launch cycle”, every article being based on what they’ve been fed by the motor industry. As examples – a launch report will follow a launch event, a driving impression will follow the delivery of a test car, and a news story will follow the delivery of a press release. Because all motoring journalists get the same test cars, attend the same launches and receive the same press releases, the content that is generated has also become very similar. But there’s great opportunity in all of this. Yes, being a very good motoring journalist is not easy. But being a very good motoring journalist will certainly make you stand out in the crowd.
In my opinion, the following five things mark out the best of them. But of course, they’re pretty worthless if you can’t string a sentence together…
1. Frame of Reference
Journalists who are able to use a press release as a start, or as a source of information, but have enough background information on the subject vehicle’s history, technology, rivals etc., will always have a head start because they will be able to quickly add information to their articles that lesser motoring journalists can not. Let me put it this way; if you are not fascinated, in love with EVERY facet of motoring, from the technical side, to the history of the automobile and even current F1 and motorsport results, you WILL get bored and your writing WILL be staid. As an example, let’s say you receive a press release on the McLaren SLR 722. If you do not know who Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson are, about the Mille Miglia and the significance of 722, or about Rudi Uhlenhaut, you will not be able to add these colourful references to your article.
Similarly, an interest that extends beyond motoring is also very valuable. You will not be able to add interesting cultural and historical references to your writing if you are not interested, and if you don’t read. All the most entertaining motoring journalists have other passions/interests to draw references from – see James May, Jeremy Clarkson, Egmont Sippel etc. Read these writers to see how seemingly unrelated topics are weaved into stories about cars.
2. Know your Reader
Here’s the thing… It’s not about you. It’s all about what the reader wants. You may have the most flamboyant, colourful writing style imaginable, but if the publication you work for is pitched at consumers looking for solid car-buying advice, your writing will not be popular. As an employed journalist, or even as a freelancer, your first job should be to find out as much as possible about the publication’s readers, and to write FOR them. Of course, if you have your own blog/website, then you can mostly do what you want.
3. Don’t Base Criticisms on Subjective Matters
A sure sign that a writer doesn’t have a real opinion on a vehicle, or hasn’t put much thought into the research of an article, is a review that is dominated by criticisms or comments on subjective matters such as styling and handling. Automotive styling/design is like art – some will like it, some won’t. Your opinion on car design matters little. The readers will look at the photographs for themselves and make up their own minds.
Handling is another favourite focus point for those who actually have nothing to say. On the one hand it strokes the writer’s ego because it attempts to mark him/her out as someone who can really drive better than the reader, and on the other hand opinions on dynamics (steering feel, body control, grip etc.) are almost entirely subjective, too, and therefore can’t really be proven as false. Opinions on handling are, of course, very relevant in certain categories of car (sportscars, hot hatches etc.), but as for the rest, it merits probably a sentence at most…
This is very closely related to the first point in this post… Because of a lack of general automotive knowledge (in my opinion related to a general lack of wider automotive INTEREST), most motoring journalists struggle to place vehicles within proper context. When writing a news story for a website, for example, this is of particular importance because website readers are like newspaper readers (they skim through the first paragraph or two, and if the most crucial information isn’t there, they move on). In these articles a vehicle must be put within proper context (in terms of market positioning, importance, historical etc.) within the first two paragraphs. As an example, an article that followed the first press release on the SA-bound Chevrolet Trailblazer should include the following facts right at the top;
* It is a new body-on-frame SUV that targets the top-selling Toyota Fortuner. By saying this, you identify not only the segment, but subliminally also the price positioning and likely volume targets of the newcomer. By mentioning the Fortuner, you’ll immediately have a large number of people sit up and take notice. Body-on-frame is important to mention because it marks out the Trailblazer as a “serious” SUV. However, lower down in the article you will have to expand on this.
* It was co-developed with the next-generation Isuzu KB. By mentioning the Isuzu KB, one of the top sellers in South Africa, you immediately create perceptions about the Trailblazer’s potential ruggedness etc. Plus, again, by mentioning the very popular KB, you are likely to get even more people to read your article.
If you do not know these things, they will not spring to mind when you first open the press release. This means that a) you will not add this important information to your article or b) you will have to take more time to research your article, and you will not be first with the story.
5. Pick Up The Phone
The launch/press release/test car cycle that nearly all motoring journalists in this country are held prisoner by moves at a rapid pace. It is hard to untangle oneself because of the sheer volume of potential stories that are spoon fed by the motor industry. But you must try. Instead of rewriting another press release on a car or event that you know there is little interest in just because it is a “slow news” day, rather pick up the phone and get in touch with the PR of one of the brands that you do know there is interest in. You will only be able to do this if your frame of reference is good enough and you know which vehicles press your readers’ buttons. Plus, you’ll find that PRs are willing to divulge far more information on a one-on-one basis. By doing this, you will come up with truly newsworthy articles that NO OTHER journalist will have.