In late October, the New York Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, announced, in a letter to staff, that the 20-year-old Automobiles section would die. “[D]espite sensational work over the years by Jim Cobb and his crew,” he said, “the masthead and I concluded there is no longer an economic reason for a separate section.”
The section ended its run last Sunday, Dec. 21. Go to the site now and you’ll read this:
Autos coverage will continue to appear in Business Day, including a new Automobiles page in the Friday newspaper. Inquiries and comments about the changes may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. News about the automotive industry will continue to be available online.
What Jim and Norman cared about was not that I take a pre-set angle, but that I be accurate, make all the necessary calls, and get to the point — all good lessons to learn. When the Times launched its Wheels auto blog around 2008, I signed on immediately, and learned all about connecting to a new audience with a succession of savvy young online editors — Richard Chang, Jonathan Schultz and, most recently, Ben Preston.
The blog died first, last year. Mr. Cobb (for that’s what a lot of us called him) wrote then, “One lesson we’ve certainly learned in the publishing business of late is that nothing lasts forever.” That turned out to be prophetic for the Automobiles section, too. It’s a mystery to me why Autos couldn’t be economically viable, since automakers (and I should know) cared so deeply about being covered in it. The way to get an auto executive’s attention was to say, “I’m calling from the New York Times.”
Yes, Craigslist hurt deeply. At the Times and at many other newspaper auto sections, the loss of classifieds was a big blow. I remember when the Times' "autos for sale" section went on for page after page. But the section continued to have a large base of devoted readers who kept up a lively debate in comments and phone calls. People who read about cars buy them, too.
On Dec. 18, we held a wake for the section at a noisy Irish bar in midtown Manhattan. Sure it was elegiac and all that, but it was also celebratory. An amazing number of the writers for the section turned up, some from halfway across the country, and a lot of war stories were exchanged.
That last issue led off with John Pearley Huffman’s review of the 2015 Mustang. He opined that “the enthusiastic response to the new pony car shows how vital the love of cars still is,” with the Times’ coverage of all sorts of different subjects — religion, arts, sports, business, politics, fashion, books, cooking — being built around similar enthusiasms.
Huffman enlarged on that point later on Facebook. “Reviewing cars is something every newspaper and The Times in particular should be doing,” he said. Given how central the automobile is to the American experience, who could argue? In fairness, it’s unlikely that Times executives failed to recognize the section’s high quality — I’m sure they’d argue, to quote the popular slogan from World War II, “Things are tough all over.”
But click here and visit the content from the last Sunday Automobiles section. If you squint, you’ll see the taillights of 20 years of reporting integrity.
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