There was a time when The New York Times, which now says it has both journalists currently dedicated to automotive pace, actually cared about covering cars and the automotive industry. They even had a blog, much like this, called Wheels, which was staffed by clever editors and writers and persisted for over a decade. But Wheels, The Times confirmed to me this week, is officially dead, having published maybe his last message Wednesday.
I first learned of the news in a week-long post on LinkedIn, as we do. It wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world — The Times had already killed the Sunday Autos section in 2014, and Wheels had been a shell unto itself ever since – but the news was still sad, the end of an era and confirmation, if any, that the NYT for some reason can’t really care about the cars or automotive culture.
NYT spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told me on Wednesday:
The Times has two reporters (Jack Ewing and Neal Boudette) dedicated to covering the automotive industry around the world, in addition to numerous reporters from our business, technology and climate bureaus who regularly cover automotive developments. automobile industry. For example, one such reporter is Keith Bradsher, our Pulitzer Prize-winning Beijing bureau chief who sometimes reports on the future of the auto industry in China.
We removed the Wheels column because the editor changed roles within The Times. The change will not affect our industry coverage.
The first Wheels blogs I can find are from January 2007, and they represent what was once good on the internet. Take for example, this meditation from Ezra Dyer (who is now at Car and Driver) on car names, or a message from the late Phil Patton from 2009 on how John Updike’s most famous protagonist’s occupation was selling cars, or this tribute to the late hot rodder Dean Moon. Wheels was courteous but didn’t try too hard, unlike The New York Times proper, which is courteous and usually tries too hard.
Wheels was, in fact, part of an era at the NYT in which the newspaper embraced blogging as it attempted to negotiate the still-young internet. and also make themselves relevant. Before Wheels, the NYT had a newsletter called DriveTimes, the latest issue of which was published in April 2007which gave way to Wheels, which the Times said would be the way to go.
Longtime Wheels editor James Cobb recalls:
Keep in mind that at this time the NYT was still extremely print-focused, and publishers were taking their first cautious steps into the digital world even as that world was rapidly changing. (There had even been an abbreviated version of the NYT delivered by fax! It was aimed at hotels, cruise ships, etc….) By the mid-20s, blogging was already the next big thing, and Wheels was among the first efforts at the paper to exploit this market. Eventually, the NYT had literally dozens of blogs aimed at all sorts of niche readers in sports, games, travel, fashion, etc., etc., but I remember we were among the first.
This was largely because the Automobiles section was seen as very entrepreneurial, with a small staff – just me initially – and a very small budget, so we were used to looking for resources internally and turning to independent for most of our content. . And while at the time there was a lot of grumbling in the paper about any effort that wasn’t print-focused – “This internet stuff is just a fad!” “It diverts money and personnel from the important stuff in the printed paper!” – our small crew was eager to extend our reach in any way possible. As one editor told me at the time, “You’re our little digital lab, the Times’ own version of a tech startup.”
Wheels’ staff would grow to include Jalopnik alumni like Ben Preston, and its longtime deputy editor was Norman Mayersohn, who also served as deputy editor here for a time. Norman tells me the staff never liked the name, which was thrust upon them, although under that banner they produced seven years of good blogging, ending when the Times pulled the plug in late 2014, although it kept the Wheels name around until this year.
Cobb, who has been retired for several years, says he feels the Times has pretty much stopped paying much attention to it.
I can’t tell you much about NYT car coverage since 2015. My understanding is that there hasn’t been an actual blog in recent years, just a “Wheels” tag on stories related to the car. printed automobiles, as well as this infrequent electronic newsletter of the same name. No disrespect to the people who produced the content – talented editors like Justin Swanson – but they had to juggle that work with a dozen other things, with very limited resources, and the automotive sector doesn’t seem to be a top priority for newsroom management these days.
In the days of newspapers, the job of car reviewing usually fell to the useless staff reporter who literally couldn’t do anything else, because newspapers loved to have stories about cars – they needed something to go along with all of them. ads bought by dealerships and automakers – and they didn’t need those stories to be very good. The wheels represented the opposite of that, ie: what if instead we wrote about the cars and the stories were good? The fact that he has been mediocre in recent years only underscores his past achievements.
What I still fail to understand, however, is the NYT’s continued indifference to the auto industry, a multi-trillion dollar global business, as competitors like the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have well over two reporters dedicated to covering the auto industry, at a time when the NYT’s staff of 1,700 reporters is larger than ever. I asked Rhoades Ha, spokesperson for the Times, about this, and she didn’t respond, perhaps because she has better things to do, which pretty much sums up the Times position on cars and automotive culture in general.
Pour one for Wheels, however, a good one-off automotive blog that The New York Times created almost in spite of itself.