Steer your career into a new niche: Navigating vehicle reviews

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There is a reason that vehicle manufacturers support OWAA and regional outdoor journalists’ organizations. It is the indelible link between those who write about the outdoors and the vehicles they use to get there. How else would you tow boats and RVs or simply move gear from one place to another? But even more important, cars and trucks are crucial to the audience for whom you are writing, a group vehicle makers want to reach.
I discovered the connection between cars and trucks and outdoor writing about five years ago when an outdoor publication asked me to review a new truck. Since then I’ve used the cross-over of my years of writing about vehicles, with my passion for writing about the outdoors. It’s a great way to expand into new markets and find new audiences.
I’ve been an automotive journalist for almost 29 years. As with most areas of journalism, it’s a field loaded with stars and wannabes. With cars it seems as though everyone who has ever bought, driven or even ridden in a vehicle sees themselves as an expert and declares that they are an automotive writer.
But it takes more than having simply driven a truck to truly be an automotive journalist. To play with the vehicle manufacturers, they need to know that you can deliver the audience.
You also need to know how to truly test a vehicle. I took the publisher of an outdoor magazine off road to put a new heavy duty vehicle through its paces at a regional launch in Texas. The route included a hill climb, descent into water, rock crawl and all of the other challenges that auto writers love. I made that drive the ride of her life. By the time we returned to the ranch house, I had an assignment. I still write a column for that publication’s website, as well as contributing articles. Now the bulk of my work is for outdoor publications and websites.
I have written about the best ways to haul fishing kayaks, transport firearms, or simply get the most out of an SUV, crossover or truck – all for outdoor publications. There is almost always a good sidebar about the wheels that got you there for a feature on an outdoor adventure.
To get a loaner vehicle you need to do some research. Fleet vehicles are authorized through the manufacturer’s regional or national communications professionals. Expect to give them a detailed description of your project, your credentials as a proven journalist and even samples of your work. If they approve it, they send their authorization to the fleet management team in your area. They will contact you to make arrangements. It can take as long as two months to get an in-demand vehicle from the fleet. You’ll have to have insurance and sign a waiver to get your hands on the steering wheel. You are then responsible for that vehicle and should plan to treat it as though it belongs to you and the bank and you still owe 59 payments.
No vehicle manufacturer will ever pay you for an article about their vehicle. That’s not what they do. Instead, they will lend you the newest and best vehicles if you include them in some way – either visually or in the text, or both. If it is the right vehicle for the job, you are not compromising your ethics. You are simply adding another layer of value to the content. But be realistic. If you are trying to force in a mention of a new truck, just because you wanted to drive, it will be obvious to your editors and readers.
You also can write about vehicles at launches for new models. To score an invite you’ll probably need a few clips featuring vehicles to show the manufacturer’s public relations team to prove you are legit and not a wannabe. If a manufacturer includes you, they will expect you to write about that vehicle. They won’t control your coverage, but they will expect coverage. There are often embargoes to be honored. They are not suggestions.
And as an outdoor writer you’ll probably never be invited to test drive a Lamborghini at the track, so don’t even bother asking. ♦
– Linda Water Nelson is an Austin, Texas, based outdoor writer specializing in sport vehicles. Since joining OWAA, she has learned to shoot and is working on her fishing skills.

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