An Motoring journalist completes test drives of new car or motorbike models and prepares opinion pieces and reviews for magazines, web sites and television.
An automotive journalist is responsible for advising public consumers and industry affiliates about car-related (or motorcycle-related) news, reviews and opinion. A core of the work involves road-testing cars in the respect that this activity is what generates reviews and newsworthy items. In reality, road-testing comprises a very small number of working hours compared to the actual writing of features.
A majority of automotive journalists work either for printed magazines or e-magazines and newsletters, with a very privileged few making it into the domain of television presenting. For this reason, the job is referred to as “car writing,” illustrating that it does not usually encompass TV work. In the UK, the publishing industry is resplendent with a plethora of auto-flavoured offerings, with an estimated 85 different car magazines of domestic origin alone. Consider that a large number of import publications are available from specialist newsagents also, and it becomes easy to assume that the scope of potential work is vast. In practice, a small number of car writers take up staff positions with car magazines, whereas a significant majority are freelancers who contribute automotive material for non-automotive magazines.
The starting salary for first year car writers with non-London-based automotive publications is £16,500, although these positions rarely become available; it is a specialised field of journalism which requires strong knowledge of the automotive industry in addition to a journalistic background. A journalist with three years of newspaper experience and a good foundation of automotive knowledge can expect to earn around £18,000 for placements outside London, rising to £21,500 with a London-based magazine on their second year of placement. These figures have been taken from modal averages based on a number of jobs which become available from time to time on media-focused job matching web sites.
For freelancers, the going rate for a 1000-word article published in a UK magazine of any type is £75-£125. This approximate value holds true for foreign territories too, although the rate often drops in less developed countries (that still have a reasonable publishing industry), such as the Philippines, Cambodia and parts of the African continent.
- Complete road tests of manufacturer’s vehicles for subsequent review
- Write detailed and involving copy when composing the complete article
- Liaise with the manufacturer to obtain product information and high-resolution photography
- Shoot publishing-quality photography on occasions where professional photographer is not in attendance
- Attend manufacturer product launches
- Make personal overseas travel arrangements when covering international launches and shows
- Maintain a detailed and up-to-date overview of the automotive industry
Young candidates who wish to become automotive journalists nearly always consider a BTEC, GNVQ or City & Guilds qualification in Journalism. In practice, this is not essential. The progression of a career in such a specific field of journalism depends on the candidate’s ability to write clear, entertaining and informed copy, witty opinion and interesting (and accurate) launch news items.
Whilst newspapers like potential recruits to demonstrate their abilities in journalistic technique, car writing is different to general news journalism because most candidates will be working freelance, and hence they will be writing about whatever automotive elements interest them. It is this passion and dedication to the art of automotion that fosters the desire to write intelligent and brilliant copy, and this cannot be learned at college. Some universities even offer specific degree courses for automotive journalism (with Coventry University the leading example), though it is possible to enjoy regular earnings as a freelancer in this industry without ever having set foot in a learning institution.
- Very strong general grasp of the automotive industry, which does not necessarily mean knowing every make and model inside-out
- Superb opinion-weighted writing ability
- Understanding of the way in which the industry works, in terms of launches, PR, shows and testing
- Freelancers must be highly-motivated and be able to take daily knock-backs from editors
- Staff writers have consistently busy diaries in terms of launches and testing, so good time management is essential
- Be prepared to travel across Europe and beyond, as it is truly an international industry
Much of the work takes place with the candidate spent slouched over a battered old laptop, either in a hotel room, or in the busy aisles of a motor show. Very little time is spent behind the wheel, although when it happens, it can be quite an experience to behold for a car enthusiast; imagine the thrill of being able to “max out” someone else’s £200,000 Ferrari on a coned-off racing circuit. This is not a regular event for most car writers, but it does happen occasionally. Often, the car being tested will have practical application, so for a writer working for the motoring section of a daily newspaper, the road test subject is likely to be an MPV or hatchback.
Automotive journalists who work as staff writers with car magazines will enjoy comprehensive insurance provided by their publisher. For freelancers, some care is required regarding this issue. Usually, a car on test will be issued with appropriate insurance by the manufacturer, but it is worth asking. There are times when a private individual will supply a test car (such as in the case of a feature on rare classics); candidates must ensure that appropriate insurance arrangements are in place before attending to the drive.
As is often the case with jobs that do not demand a formal set of qualifications or a full-time placement, the best advice is just to get out there and do it. Newcomers often begin by approaching local car dealerships and asking for test drives under the pretence of being a potential customer. This is a tried-and-tested approach to getting started, and will at least enable the candidate to have access to some short-term cars to test and write about. The subsequent road tests can then be included as part of the candidate’s portfolio as they approach magazines and web sites.
It should be noted that car magazines in the UK are normally fully-staffed and reluctant to consider printing work by inexperienced freelancers. For this reason, candidates do well to approach non-car-related magazines; men’s fashion magazines, for example, have a much greater need for automotive content than do car magazines, which are besieged by dewy-eyed hopefuls trying to get published, or, Heaven forbid, staff writing positions. These hardly ever come up, and are highly contested.
Staff writers can progress to editorial positions, right up to the position of editor-at-large; roles and responsibilities vary depending on the size of the organisation. The chance of freelancers progressing their career is simultaneously limited and limitless, paradoxically; they are free to submit to magazines around the world, yielding (paid) trips abroad and fantastic opportunities. Conversely, they will never enjoy a guaranteed income, unless freelance contribution leads to a permanent job offer by one of their client publications. It is an industry that demands a great deal of flexibility from freelance entrants.
Major car publications in the UK include Car, Auto Car, Auto Weekly, Top Gear, Evo, Fast Car, Octane, Performance Car, Classic Car and Custom Classics. This is usually the first stumbling block for would-be car writers; candidates are advised not to approach automotive publications in the first instance. Instead, they are often best served by finding niche lifestyle publications in other countries and approaching those instead.
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Also known as…
- Car writer
- Bike writer
- Motorcycle journalist
- Auto journalist
- Automotive writer
What’s it really like?
Cameron Cooper is one of the most well-known car writers in Asia, and a respected freelance contributor to several high-profile magazines in Thailand. He gives us a (sometimes irreverent) view of what his job involves.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I sort of drifted into it. The Thailand Times newspaper needed warm bodies to work as copy editors and hired every backpacker in Thailand who wasn’t brain damaged. Some of us, including me, discovered a knack for it and not having much else on the go, decided to become journalists in Asia. I got into writing about cars not long after because very few people at that income level had cars in those days in Thailand – or driving licences.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
To get my heart started, I drink a triple espresso, then sit down at my computer and spend the day surfing and avoiding doing any actual work, usually getting into actually writing something by sunset. If it is a good day, I get to go and pick up a car to put through its paces. I haven’t crashed one yet though.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Launch events for all sorts of things, but a lot of auto and motorbike ones lately. Thailand is fast becoming a major assembler of vehicles, even assembling for the US market, so they are always introducing a new pickup truck or hatchback, which dramatically appears out of a cloud of smoke to thundering music while you try to balance a paper plate of canapés and a glass of wine and applaud at the same time.
What do you like most about the job?
Constantly learning new things, taking other people’s cars out for test drives, nice hotels and dinners that I couldn’t otherwise afford. Overall, living a lifestyle beyond my actual means and being treated better than I deserve – but only on their terms of course.
What do you like least about the job?
The pay is mostly pretty rotten, as is often the case if you are doing something you want to do. If you cave in and toe the line, by which I mean writing thinly disguised PR rubbish, you can do alright, but if that is what you wanted to do you may as well have become a corporate lawyer in the first place.
What are the key responsibilities?
Filing stories no later than three days after deadline.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg- A Levels?
If you are freelancing, as I am currently, there are none. But a university education helps you learn to play the game of giving your masters what they want while still having plenty of time left over to enjoy your life.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
I’m going to plead the fifth amendment on this – the right not to say anything that might embarrass me. As a freelancer, the money only increases as you get into bigger name publications, but those editors are pretty demanding, so the hourly wage doesn’t increase that much. And print media have been cutting their budgets for the last 20 years, so if anything the pay has been decreasing. In 1975, you’d get the same from a prestige publication on a per-word rate as they pay now.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Intelligence, insight and wisdom are what you should possess. Being able to tolerate being a supplicant to the pool of available work, and at least a modicum of writing ability are what you MUST possess!