Automobile magazine editors talk dream jobs
By Alexander Hall
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Roasting tires and blasting Van Halen in a supercar is a paycheck for Christopher Nelson and David Zenlea of Automobile magazine.
At times, their office is in a car going 100 mph.
A five-year veteran of the road magazine, Zenlea is the associate editor in charge of writing feature stories and testing autos. A journalism graduate of the University of Maryland, Zenlea joined Automobile after college. A lover of cars, Zenlea sees it as “sort of a dream.” He travels the world as Automobile magazine’s minion for auto show information.
Christopher Nelson, Automobiles road test editor, works mainly on its website, Automobilemag.com. Before Automobile, Nelson didn’t see himself writing about cars, at least not this early in life. But cars were always a passion; he would skip class in high school to work in the auto shop. He earned a degree in journalism from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., but focused on advertising. Nelson worked as a freelance reporter for several summers for hotrod-type magazines. That led to his current position as car tester and online writer.
Both men talked about the world of high performance journalism in a phone interview, conducted via Bluetooth while they were testing a Mazda CX-5’s during a Four Seasons Road Test.
Q: What does a Road Test Editor do?
A: (Christopher Nelson) I road test sleek cars. I do mostly online writing and also four seasons writing. David is a former reporter and does the feature stories for us.
Q: Chris, what’s your main job at Automobile, are you a sort of jack of all trades?
A: (Nelson) Yea, that would be the way I describe it as. When you have a magazine that’s working with cars constantly, there’s a spillage of cars we get every two weeks. We keep four seasons cars for a year. That’s how we test and make sure they’re up-to-date with maintenance. Then you also have to schedule cars that you can do online comparisons with…. We do a lot of writing. David and I try and stay active in social media outlets — so Instragram, Facebook, Twitter. I don’t know what Pinterest is, but I’ll try that one day.
A: (David Zenlea) Everybody also does the sort of traditional editing functions, taking text and polishing it, fact-checking, copy editing and making sure it’s consistent with the Automobile style. We have a standard format for DeLorean, so we have to make sure that every time we see the word DeLorean that it follows the format.
Q: Do you guys see a big shift from the magazine to online content?
A: (Zenlea) Oh sure, and social media as well. I’ve been here for five years, which isn’t a very long time. But, I think through my experience, the Web has gone from something a couple magazines worried about to something that everyone has to consider. Everybody has certain expectations of tweeting, Instagram and Facebook contributions.
Q: Where are most of your readers, online or magazine?
A: (Zenlea) Our print circulation is still one of our biggest options. We have as many Facebook fans as we have monthly users and subscriptions. Of course, the devil’s advocate is that the people who actually buy the magazine on newsstands pay $5 whereas the Facebook fans don’t pay anything.
Q: What’s the best way to write about cars?
A: (Nelson) We’re not engineering number heavy. We don’t prioritize that. We care about driving. We care about the sensation of driving, where driving takes you. We also want writers to have distinct voices as well. We try to get writers who have voices that you enjoy.
A: (Zenlea) It’s just a matter of not getting bogged down in the details. I mean we certainly do a lot of research about every car we write. It’s a matter of telling a story about the car. There is a story behind every car and its creation. We put a lot of time and effort into where to take these cars, who gets to be with these cars and what roads to take to try and get the best story possible.
Q: Is there a preference toward specific cars?
A: (Nelson) We have a rule we try and follow as best as we can. “No boring cars.”
A: (Zenlea) We do drive everything, but we try and do it in our way.
Q: What is the process of getting test cars?
A: (Nelson) Manufacturers always have cars that they own. When they don’t, they can source cars from dealers to borrow one. And then there are a lot of times where there’s older cars that we have to work with owners. But sometimes, car makers can point us in the right direction of an owner, or they have classic collections. Mercedes-Benz has a huge classic collection.
Q: What’s a typical day at the office like?
A: (Nelson) There are weeks where you’re not in the office at all. There are weeks where you’re sitting at your desk pounding out work. It’s a 24/7 job really, I mean, it’s not something where you’re expected in the office every day. You’re working every day. If I’m not tweeting, if I’m not into driving on the weekend, I’m not doing my job. I’m not writing something that’s due Monday, you know, it’s a lifestyle for us. You know, we’re all aware of that decision we made.
A: (Zenlea) And there are day’s where we’re in the office from … I think the earliest we get out is six and the latest is 1:00 a.m. When we’re sending issues to printer we’re basically in the office pretty much all day, and we have dinner in the office.
Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
A: (Zenlea) Writing and reporting. At the end of the day when you have to sit down and write a 2,000- to 3,000-word story. I mean, sometimes you really feeling like hitting your head against the desk. It’s the most rewarding part, but, it’s also incredibly hard.
Q: What’s the best part about your job?
A: (Nelson) Driving! Of course! You don’t have to pay for gas in the Lamborghini. It’s what David and I are both passionate about. I love writing. Actually I hate writing but I love doing it.
A: (Zenlea) We’re all crazy about cars. You get to drive a new car home at the end of the day. You get to go on race tracks and just, you know, let it all hang out in cars that don’t belong to you. Those are pretty cool job perks.