America's obsession with cars is evident just from the number of
specialist titles available. But as David Ward discovers, other media
outlets are also revving up their auto coverage
With more than 200 million cars already on US roads and tens of millions
more new vehicles rolling off assembly lines each year, it's clear that
America's love affair with the automobile shows no signs of fading.
To their credit, automobile journalists seem to be up to the
There are hundreds of media outlets dedicated to cars and trucks,
ranging from general-interest buyer's guides to the most niche
publication catering to the restoration and enhancement of specific
Most of the journalists at these outlets are well versed in not only
describing a car's technical specifications, safety features, and
design, but also in conveying the intangibles, such as how it feels to
be behind the wheel and what buying a particular model will say about
But while more than 6,000 journalists attended the North American
International Auto Show in Detroit a few weeks ago, only a fraction of
the reporters were considered top tier, and those writers have certainly
earned such respect. "The category has become so complex and the
engineering so advanced that it's no longer for the faint of heart,"
notes Daniel McCue, partner with Freeman-McCue, which represents Volvo
of America. "It's not enough to tell someone how good a car looks. How
serviceable will it be? Is it a prudent buy? And is it reliable?"
All this information must be provided within the context of an
ever-changing auto industry marked not only by consolidation and ongoing
labor and manufacturing issues, but also by global distribution. "As the
profession has grown in stature and in compensation, the top journalists
have become very savvy - not only about the design and manufacture of
automobiles, but quality issues, trend issues, and the future of the
business," says Stan Stein, GM of Manning Selvage & Lee's Detroit
office, which handles a number of other General Motors accounts. "They
seem to have a better grasp of the industry as a whole."
With the exception of those who cover automobiles as business and
finance stories, there are essentially two types of car reporters. "One
of them is the enthusiast, hard-core car guys," says Lee Morrell,
account supervisor with Edelman's Los Angeles office. "They work in
everything from 'buff books' like Motor Trend and Automobile, to car
sections like the LA Times' Highway 1."
Most of these outlets are aimed right at the heart of the American car
fantasy, and thus tend to highlight cars with powerful engines, great
handling, and new and innovative designs.
But most of these magazines will end up reviewing everything at some
point, even down to the smallest economy car.
In it for the long haul
By and large, auto reporters are car fanatics themselves and, as a
result, tend to be lifers in this category. While they routinely switch
publications, they typically stick with automobile writing for the
entirety of their journalism careers.
Pitching these writers - whether they're at Car and Driver, Road &
Track, cable network SpeedVision, or the growing number of radio
programs such as All About Cars - requires focusing on the car's
specifications, and getting the reporters at least some time behind the
wheel. "What you really shoot for is to get to these guys three months
before the car's on-sale date," explains Edelman account executive
Lauren Cilch, who works with Morrell on the Nissan Motor Corporation
account. "You do a press preview, and what you might do is either have
one location and fly the press out, or do it regionally at multiple
The top enthusiast car magazines tend to have an impact that carries far
beyond their direct readership. "An automobile in this country continues
to be an emotional purchase," McCue says. "The keepers of the flame, the
people who truly do understand all the complexities of the current
machines, as well as what it means to get behind the wheel of a shiny
red convertible, are the journalists at places such as Car and Driver,
Automobile, and Road & Track."
At the other end of the auto journalism spectrum is the general-interest
lifestyle media. "They won't necessarily look under the hood or look at
zero-to-60 times, but will look at, say, what's the perfect minivan for
today's soccer mom, or what's the best SUV to go off-roading," says
Driving into new markets
The good news for PR professionals representing car companies is that
the number of lifestyle and other general-interest outlets interested to
automobile coverage seems to be growing. Golin/Harris vice president
Jennifer Baker-Assidao says that while it's not easy, even traditional
women's and family lifestyle outlets such as Ladies' Home Journal,
Redbook, and Parents will cover some aspects of automobiles, such as
safety or comfort. "You have to have very consumer-friendly media
angles, and create story ideas around them," says Baker-Assidao, who
represents Toyota Motor Sales.
This approach works for many men's lifestyle outlets as well. "If you're
pitching the car guy at Stuff magazine, Marty Padgett, he's much more
interested in pictures and what kind of car will get a good looking girl
to jump in the passenger seat," notes Cilch.
Given the breadth of automobile coverage, it's not surprising that the
most respected car journalists represent a wide range of outlets. They
include Keith Naughton, Detroit bureau chief at Newsweek, David Welch
from Business Week, Bloomberg columnist Doron Levin, Tom Brown of The
Wall Street Journal, Car and Driver editor Fred Gregory, Motor Trend's
Chuck Schifsky, the Los Angeles Times' John O'Dell, and USA Today's
While outsiders may perceive it as a strictly male preserve, there are a
lot of well-respected female auto writers. They include Denise
McCluggage, who pens the nationally syndicated column Drive She Said,
Michelle Krebs, senior editor at Auto World, and Cheryl Jenson, who
works in tandem with her husband Christopher at Cleveland's The Plain
Dealer. "A good one-third of the list of North American Car of the Year
judges are women," says Morrell.
TV also provides a lot of opportunities for both hard-news car stories
and features. Although its distribution isn't quite a broad as some
other cable networks, Speedvision has a loyal following, as do
individual programs such Motor Week, Motor Trend Television, and Car and
Given the amount of time Americans spend behind the wheel, radio is also
a natural outlet for car stories - not just locally, but also through
nationally syndicated shows such as the Miami-based Bobby Likis Car
Clinic, Car Talk, and All About Cars.
Stein says that even the traditional morning television shows will
feature cars in conjunction with other segments. "We had Chevrolet very
prominently on Good Morning America and the Today show through the
Olympic torch relay," he says. The relay featured a 2002 Corvette that
had been signed by prominent politicians and celebrities. "We ended up
with four-minute segments on prominent national television where the
talent is actually walking around the car, pointing out the features as
they look at the signatures," Stein marvels.
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: Detroit News; Detroit Free-Press; USA Today; The New York
Times; LA Times; The Wall Street Journal; Magazines: Car and Driver;
Motor Trend; Hot Rod; Automobile; Road & Track; Hot Rod; Truckin'; Low
Rider; Consumer Review; Time; Newsweek; Stuff; Business Week; Turbo;
Consumer Reports; Collectible Automobile; various Peterson titles
Trade titles: Automotive News; Automotive Design & Engineering; Ward's
Auto World; 12-Volt
TV: SpeedVision; Motor Week; Motor Trend TV; Car and Driver TV; Car
Talk; Bobby Likis Car Clinic; Bob Long's All About Cars; American on the
Internet: MotorTrend.com; Engines.com; Thecarconnection.com;
Autochannel.com; Microsoft Car Point.