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How to become an automotive journalist

18th Jul 2020 7:00 am

The road to becoming an automotive journalist isn’t an easy one. We give you tips on how to make this dream job a reality.


Not a day goes by where we don’t have aspiring journalists sending in their resumes, asking (often pleading) for a job. Sure, driving great cars and bikes in great locations, and being wined and dined along the way, are all impressive but the reality is that it’s not easy to live that dream. To achieve recognition and respect in the field of automotive journalism, to able to live this magical life, takes years of hard work and commitment. It helps if you’re an early riser because crack-of-dawn starts are common in our profession and it’s even better if you’re a late sleeper, because pulling all nighters in the office to meet some brutal deadlines is not uncommon either. When you start out – which is usually at the bottom of the ladder – be prepared to drive a desk more than a car, and you can forget about getting rich quickly.

But hey, let me not pretend to scare you away. What we do isn’t just any dream job; it’s simply the best job in the world and all of us in the thick of it wouldn’t trade it for anything in the universe. So, what are the qualifications you need to get into our very privileged circle?

Can you cash in your passion?

It all starts with passion, doesn’t it? But that’s not a requirement, it’s just a prerequisite. We are all passionate about cars and bikes (that’s why we want to make a living out of it), but by no means is mere passion a ticket into the world of journalism. Just because you love all things cars, know a lot about them and are a good driver, you aren’t guaranteed a career in this field.

Interviewing company executives is the best way to build your network and get authentic information for your stories.

This is the first reality check that shakes loose the delusions out of those imagining media houses will be lining up to hire them and hand them the keys to a Ferrari, just because of the passion they have. This job isn’t just about loving cars, it’s about writing about them in a lucid, engaging and objective way. And this is brings me to the most important question I would ask any journalist – how well can you write?

Write right

In this digital age, anyone can write a blog, shoot a video and become a journalist. But all bloggers and vloggers aren’t necessarily good journalists, or even great writers for that matter. The truth is that writing is a skill that’s not easy to master. But if you do, the ability to tell a good story in an engaging way can bust open many doors (including ours). There are just a handful of auto journalists out there who are great writers and that’s a privileged lot that media houses hang on to. Those are the people who are the most secure in what are the best jobs in the world. Can you be a wordsmith like them? It’s very possible, but here are a few things you need to know.

Whatever your chosen language is – in which you want to pursue your career – make sure you have an excellent command over it. Writing is a bit of a God-given talent and it’s enviable how some of our best writers can punch out a piece of prose that is clean, easy to read and doesn’t need much editing, in no time at all. But if you are less than talented with words, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve on your writing with just plain and simple hard work.

Taking a course in journalism or professional writing is the obvious way to build your skills, and Gavin, one of our best writers, is a great example of this.

But you don’t really need to have a degree in journalism or have any degree at all (like yours truly!) to make writing your livelihood. In fact, most of our senior editors came to us from completely unrelated professions and with no formal education in journalism. Shapur is an accountant and a priest too. Yes, not a saint but a priest! Sergius has a diploma in automobile engineering, and Renuka was successfully running a thriving garment export business before making the switch. Others like Nikhil joined us straight out of college, but not with a journalism degree. The only thing in common they all had (and still have) is that they take their job seriously. Very seriously.

So, without some sort of degree in journalism, how can you improve your writing?

In a word, read. Or in three words, read, read and read. The best way to sharpen your writing skills is by reading the work of the best motoring journalists. The magical way they engage the reader with their word craft, the authority they exude and their ability to inform and entertain their readers will give you an understanding of quality journalism.

You can carve out a couple of stories from just a 10-minute interview with a CEO.

My favourite names? I grew up reading Brock Yates (from his Car and Driver days), LJK Setright, Russell Bulgin (both contributors to Car magazine, who’ve sadly died, leaving behind  a great legacy of writing), our very own Steve Cropley, and many others. Jeremy Clarkson is as brilliant a writer as he is a TV host and his funny, opinionated and often controversial style is what has given him demi-God status. In fact, Clarkson has inspired thousands who want to be just like him. Great writers are the best source of inspiration to motivate you to write, and that’s what you should be concentrating on as the first step.

Write as much as you can and wherever you can. Start by writing a blog which you can post on social media, join one of the many forums that eat and breathe cars (they are good places to learn from and interact with other enthusiasts), write for your college newsletter, and simply jot down your thoughts, which could always develop into a story later. Don’t develop an opinion just to impress your readers, and first ask yourself, if you are experienced or qualified enough to have one.

Then edit your stories again and again to make them read better. And by edit, I mean keep it simple; maintain a structure and flow, cut out unnecessary words and sentences, and don’t try too hard by using flowery language. Remember, less is more, especially in this Instagram age where the attention span of a reader may not be more than 15 seconds.

I love The Economist for the way it packs in news, analysis and opinion into short, brilliantly crafted articles. The headlines are clever, the editing is flawless, and just reading this weekly magazine will teach you a lot about how to hone your writing skills.

So, keep at it, put your stories out there and constantly strive to make them read better and better. It’s a good way to build up your resume and hopefully land a job offer you’ve been desperate for.

Know your stuff

Being a good writer is, of course, the most important thing for a journalist, but knowing what you’re writing about is just as important. You could be a great writer but if you haven’t a clue about the auto industry and their products, your story will be of little worth.

The auto industry is highly complex, cars and bikes are highly technical, and it’s hard even for engineers, leave alone journalists, to keep up with the march of technology. So, it’s important that you have at least a basic understanding of how the world of cars and bikes works.

Video is the most important medium today, so invest in it.

Build your knowledge not just by reading voraciously but also by meeting the engineers responsible for producing cars and bikes. And then meet the marketing people who eventually sell them, to get an idea of how the auto business works. In fact, I don’t trust the internet and have found that I’ve learnt the most by simply chatting with company officials who are often happy to share a wealth of experience and knowledge if they sense an eager pupil in you. It arms you with a better understanding of their company’s products, which is always useful when you get down to driving them. And this leads me to the final frontier, the ultimate goal for most auto journalists – test-driving cars and bikes.

Time to skill

If I had to choose between a very skilled and fast driver and someone who is slower and more experienced, for a job as a road tester, it would usually be the latter. There’s a belief that if you can drive fast, have taken part in rallies, you are automatically a good test driver. It’s a belief I don’t subscribe to. Yes, you need a minimum level of skill and car control to handle high performance cars and bikes, but it’s experience that polishes your judgement, hones your seat of-the-pants feel and amplifies every nuance of the car that those with lesser experience would miss. Above all, it makes you safer.

Another thing you need is perspective. You can’t simply jump into a Ferrari and comment on how great it is if you haven’t driven other supercars. Similarly, you can’t drive a Swift and say it is utter crap, because all you were driving before that was your dad’s 3 Series. You need the right context, with other cars as reference points, which is what experienced drivers have. The more cars you drive, the better perspective you will have to judge and review what you’re testing. 

So, the message here is the same – drive as much as you can, whenever you can and whatever you a can. There’s no better way to build your skill as a test driver. And another thing, don’t review the car you’re driving for yourself but for the target customer of the vehicle. There’s no point slamming the lack of power in a budget diesel hatch because you don’t find it quick enough, when the typical customer only wants something that is cheap to run. The thing is, the experience of buying and owning cars with their own money isn’t something most auto journalists have, which is why they often focus on what’s not relevant and miss the essence of the car or bike they are testing, by a country mile.

Becoming a good road tester takes years of experience.

It’s important to reiterate that a good road tester will always review a car in the right perspective and gauge how it stacks up in its own segment.

Angle of approach

In Autocar India, people have been hired for their talent but fired for their attitude. Sadly, this job tends to attract kids who don’t want to start at the bottom and go through the grind; they want to become road testers from day one, just to fulfil their dream of riding hot cars and bikes. That just isn’t going to happen, not in this magazine at least. Freshers should feel privileged they have this job and should work doubly hard, putting their hand in everything – from updating the specs and prices in the Buyer’s Guide in the back of the mag (a truly painful job), to repackaging content for various digital  platforms, and even washing cars before a shoot. Of course, if you show signs of brilliance early on, you’ll get noticed by the editors and be given the important jobs, and then, eventually, get to travel. Creativity is in short supply, so if you do have a creative spark, the organisation will love you for it.

But to really move up in any organisation, you need to be a team player, take initiative and proactively come up with ideas. Help others out with their stories and assignments if you can, because media houses, many of which are strapped for resources, value staffers who can multi-task. And most important of all, stick to deadlines!

360-degree view

An old-school, one-dimensional approach won’t get you very far in a digital world that consumes content hungrily and instantly. Today’s journalists have to be multi-faceted, and this means you can’t limit yourself to one medium like print.  You have to able to write an online story, newspaper and magazine features, a piece to camera for video and, of course, regular posts on social media platforms.

Video is the fastest growing medium fuelled by cheap data rates and it’s very useful to invest in some vlogging equipment and learn shooting and editing skills. The latest smartphones, a GoPro and some accessories can take care of 90 percent of your photo and video shoots. Making yourself self-sufficient is of great value to your employers and to yourself (if what you do is your own gig) as it eliminates the cost of using a separate team to shoot.

Social un-distancing

As a journalist, the one thing that’s as important as the cars we review, is the people behind them. Our business is a people’s business, and we are constantly interacting with PR teams and company executives who are our primary source of authentic content. Networking is super important in our line of work, and if I had to pin Autocar’s success on one thing, apart from the fantastic team we have, it is our access to key people in the industry. This gives us an edge when it comes to breaking stories, getting exclusives and making us the origin of content, which then gets blatantly copied by other media sites; but I guess that’s just something we have to live with. However, the strong relationships we enjoy with the industry hasn’t come easy. It’s taken years and years to build trust, credibility and respect. Most of our scoops have come from fairly junior people in companies who know we will never betray our sources. Truth be told, sometimes we get our best stories from the top bosses themselves!

Reading is the best way to improve your writing.

Getting direct access to the top management takes time and you have to constantly work at it. Most interactions will be routed through the company’s PR teams whose job is to keep a tab on what and how much their bosses say! But that’s no bad thing because with the right line of questioning, it’s possible to carve out a couple of stories from even a 5-10 minute one-on-one chat. In fact, the best piece of advice I could give rookie journalists is to regularly attend press conferences, interview as many company officials  as you can and aim to come away  with at least one story that’s not in the press release.

Soft skills are important when it comes to getting access to the right people. Firstly, don’t run for the buffet the minute the press conference is over. Instead, try and strike up a conversation with one of the execs who are usually free after their round of official media interactions. Don’t be shy to chat with senior people, and though it’s a done thing for journos to barge into conversations, you’ll be respected if you give a bit of space and pick the right moment to approach them.

Another tip is to dress smartly. You tend to get taken more seriously if you throw on a jacket, especially by Japanese and Korean expats in dark suits, whose idea of smart casuals is not wearing a tie.

And lastly, don’t throw your weight around. This is something many self-entitled journalists (spoiled no doubt by the PR excesses of some companies) do these days. The biggest mistake you can make is to threaten the PR team with a bad story for not inviting you to some launch or not giving you a car to test. This not only compromises your credibility as a journalist but can also permanently spoil your relations with a company. Yes, it’s painful when you don’t get invited but a candid conversation with the PR manager is a better way to ensure you’re on the list next time round. 

Our policy of ‘stay humble, stay hungry’ will take you places.

Where to start

There are many ways of getting a break as an automotive journalist because, unlike most professions, you don’t have to be qualified to become one. at one level, becoming an auto journalist is the easiest thing because today, the entry barriers are very low or non-existent. all you need to do is start your own youTube channel or blog, invest in a basic camera kit and start publishing your work. But you’ll be joining millions of others who have taken this route, and to stand out amongst all the auto-based channels and website is, well, not easy. manufacturers too are being bombarded by these new ‘publishers’ that have invaded the media space. as a result, companies are getting choosy about who they should entertain; so don’t expect media invites and press cars to automatically come your way. you will have to work extremely hard to get noticed and even if you do, you’ll be constantly fighting a swarm of youTubers and bloggers joining the rat race every day. an internship in a reputed media house is another way to start and it’s not too difficult to get. at autocar, we are constantly offering internships to students and graduates, and some of those have converted into permanent jobs. as an intern, you need to immediately show a flair for writing and knowledge of the industry, be resourceful in any piece of research given to you and be proactive in taking on tasks however mundane they are. Of course, there is an exception to every rule. Ouseph Chacko simply turned up at our office one fine day and said,“I want a job.” he then came back every day for a week, hoping that we’d give in. We did, and the talented Ouseph grew to become one of our biggest assets. Sometimes plain, dogged persistence works.

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