This time last year, we stepped out of our usual format to examine the making and methodology of articles on Ate Up With Motor. As 2011 draws to a close, we present a different kind of behind-the-scenes look: how we decide what to write about.
Author’s note: Given the nature of this article, I’ll once again spare you the editorial ‘we’ and stick to the first person. And thus were hosannas heard throughout the land…
THE SUBJECTS OF MY SUBJECTIVITY
The most frequent questions I get about Ate Up With Motor are variations on “Why don’t you do X?” and “When are you going to write about Y?” At the same time, I’m constantly asking myself what I should cover next — particularly if I’m running late and haven’t started yet.
How I answer those questions depends on a lot of different factors, but the most significant are usually the following:
1. Do I have information on that make or model, and/or do I know where to get it?
All of these articles require a great deal of research, and it’s basically a foregone conclusion that the research for any specific article will end up being more extensive and more time-consuming than I expect. Nonetheless, having a place to start is important. If my assortment of books and magazines includes period road tests or other articles on a particular model, or if I already know where I can obtain detailed information, it becomes a much more appealing prospect. Starting from zero is obviously much more challenging.
An important corollary is the question of how much information is available in a language I can read. (For the record, I can manage Spanish well enough, and by extension can puzzle through some Italian and a bit of French, but anything beyond that requires heavy use of online translation software.) I have no doubt that there are many fine books, magazines, and enthusiast websites in Japan, for instance, but how I would find them — much less make sense of them if I did — is quite a different matter. That tends to be a major strike against models that were never exported to English-speaking markets.
In some cases, there may not be a lot of information available in any language. Marques like Porsche and cars like the Corvette tend to inspire a wide array of authoritative references, while more obscure, workaday models end up as footnotes, or brief encyclopedia entries. Books or magazines on lesser-known models tend to be from specialty publishers, and aren’t always carried by public libraries; since I’m not currently in a financial position to buy much of anything, getting access to those sources can be a challenge, particularly if they’re long out of print.
2. Do I have enough photos?
This is the perpetual question. Since I can only use photos that (a) I’ve taken myself, (b) the owners have explicitly authorized me to use, or (c) that have been released under Creative Commons licenses or to the public domain, there are any number of cars I’d love to write about, but of which I just don’t have enough photos. As of this writing, two leading examples are the prewar Lincoln Zephyr and Continental and Chrysler’s 300 “letter series.” [Since done: see the Zephyr here and the Chrysler here.]
Conversely, if I manage to obtain a bunch of usable photos of a particular subject, it tends to move toward the top of the list. For example, I had thought about doing a story on either the rotary engine or early Mazda rotaries specifically, but they might have remained in the “one of these days” pile indefinitely had I not gotten photos of a whole range of rotary Mazdas. By the same token, if one of these days I should get some good photos of an Aston Martin Lagonda, you can bet that an article on it will follow in short order.
As a general rule, I rarely start on an article until I have at least a baseline of usable photos. Needing to find a few images is one thing, but if I have almost none, it becomes more problematic, particularly if I’ve already checked various potential sources and come up short. I’ve done it a few times, but it becomes something of a crapshoot, as I would rather not run all-text articles.
3. Would it be re-treading too much familiar ground?
Part of my editorial strategy for Ate Up With Motor is to cast a wide net, and not concentrate too much on any specific marque, model, era, or even nationality. On average, about half of my traffic is from first-time visitors, and I try to make sure that there’s a good mix of articles on the front page at any given time, lest new readers get the mistaken impression that Ate Up With Motor is only about Ford products, British cars of the sixties, or forgotten American marques. (Admittedly, over the site’s history there has been a preponderance of postwar American cars, although that’s more a reflection of the information available to me than any predisposition on my part.)
With the exception of the longer two-part stories, I tend to shy away from articles on a marque or era that I’ve covered recently. That’s not to say I’ll never do another Cadillac article or a history of the MGA to complement last year’s MGB and MGC stories — I almost certainly will. However, I prefer to space them out, to avoid oversaturation.
I also try to avoid articles that overlap substantially with past stories. I might do an article on a different generation of a model I’ve covered before, but I’m unlikely to do a second piece on the same generation. For example, the fact that I’ve previously written about the 1963-1967 Corvette Sting Ray wouldn’t stop me from doing a story about the 1953-1962 Corvette, but I probably wouldn’t do an article on the Porsche 944 Turbo, which I covered in the piece on the 924, 944, and 968 back in 2009. If I were to find new information on the 944 Turbo, I’d be more likely to amend or rewrite the original story.
On a related note, I’m sometimes reticent about models that have been covered exhaustively elsewhere. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can add to the encyclopedic lexicon of the ‘Tri-Five’ (1955-1956-1957) Chevys, and even the Ford Model A gives me pause. Aside from their familiarity, there are certain matters of filthy commerce to consider — despite what you might think, my articles on popular or ubiquitous models like the MGB tend to get fewer hits than lesser-known cult favorites like the AMC Pacer and Pontiac Trans Am Turbo. I’ve never made that the overriding criterion for doing or not doing a particular article (in large part because my theories about what topics would be the most popular have often been wrong), but it is relevant.
4. Is there an interesting narrative hook?
As I’ve said before, my intention is for these articles to present a sort of social history of each model: what it represents and what it tells us about the people who designed it and the people who bought it (or didn’t buy it, as the case may be). While I do talk about specifications, performance, and various technical details, I try to focus less on the data and more on the stories behind them.
This is as much a matter of brand positioning as personal inclination. There are many websites and publications that can give you specifications, and there is any number of clubs, magazines, and specialists better qualified to provide restoration, troubleshooting, or buying information. I accepted a long time ago that there will always be experts who’ve forgotten more about the inner workings of any given model than I’ll ever know. Rather than try to compete with those experts, it makes more sense for me to concentrate on finding something interesting or enlightening to say about it.
Therefore, when I’m considering a prospective topic, a major consideration is what story there might be to tell. For example, what made the Mazda rotary article compelling (aside from the fortuitous availability of photographs) was that it had several interesting threads: the company’s rocket-like ascendancy, followed by its near-collapse; the Yom Kippur War and the OPEC embargo; and of course the workings of the rotary engine itself. What intrigues me about the 1952-1954 Lincolns (a story I’d very much like to do) is their formidable record in the Carrera Panamericana — a legendary racing series that’s quite a story in itself.
Unsurprisingly, a topic that has a clear and compelling throughline tends to be more attractive to me than one that doesn’t. With some cars, the narrative thread is pretty obvious; however tangled their stories may be, trendsetters and noble failures are usually conceptually straightforward. With others, finding that thread takes more work. Sometimes, a story idea seems either too narrowly focused or too big to come to grips with. Other times, I just don’t see it, at least not right away, although it’s entirely possible that I will come around later, sometimes for reasons not obvious to the casual observer. (That isn’t limited to Ate Up With Motor, incidentally–it’s a subject of frequent consternation on the part of my friends and loved ones, who are all too familiar with my propensity for reluctant, noncommittal initial responses to perfectly reasonable suggestions, some of which I later decide to embrace after all.)
Of course, in some cases, the throughline of the actual article sometimes ends up being quite a bit different than I thought, but having a good hook at the start provides focus for my initial research, and they help to get me invested in and excited about the story. Given the amount of work involved in each of these articles, that’s not an inconsequential factor!
STORY IDEAS FOR 2012
All that being said, here are a few of the ideas I’m considering for the new year, again in no particular order:
- The Triumph TR7 and TR8 [see here]
- The 1949 Ford
- The aforementioned 1952-1954 Lincolns
- The Australian Chrysler Valiant and Charger
- The pre-Rolls-Royce history of Bentley and the “Bentley Boys”
- The war between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans in the mid-1960s
- The Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 [see here]
- The original Lotus Elan
- The BMW M1
- The Nissan 280ZX and 300ZX (Z31 and Z32)
- The 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia and 1961-1963 Dual-Ghia L6.4
- The Triumph Stag
- The Tucker
As always, suggestions are always welcome.
Happy New Year to all, and I will see you in 2012.