There was a time when The New York Times, which now says it has all of two reporters currently dedicated to the autos beat, actually cared about coverage of cars and the auto industry. They even had a blog, not unlike this one, called Wheels, that was staffed by smart editors and writers and which persisted for over a decade. But Wheels, The Times confirmed to me this week, is officially dead, having published perhaps its final post on Wednesday.
I first came across the news in a week-old post on LinkedIn, as one does. It wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world — The Times had previously killed the Sunday Autos section in 2014, and Wheels had been a shell of itself since then — but the news was still sad, the end of an era and confirmation, if any was needed, that the NYT, for whatever reason, can’t really be bothered to care about cars or car culture.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for the NYT, told me Wednesday:
The Times has two reporters (Jack Ewing and Neal Boudette) dedicated to covering the auto industry around the world in addition to many journalists on our business, technology and climate desks who regularly cover developments in the auto industry. For example one such journalist is Keith Bradsher, our Pulitzer Prize-winning Beijing bureau chief, who reports at times on the future of the auto industry from China.
We have sunsetted the Wheels column because the editor changed roles within The Times. The change will not affect our coverage of the industry.
The earliest Wheels blogs I can find are from January 2007, and they represent what used to be good about the internet. Take, for example, this meditation from Ezra Dyer (who’s now at Car and Driver) on car names, or a post by the late Phil Patton from 2009 about how John Updike’s most famous protagonist’s occupation was selling cars, or this tribute to the late hot rodder Dean Moon. Wheels was urbane but didn’t try too hard, unlike The New York Times proper, which is urbane and usually trying too hard.
Wheels was, in fact, a part of an era at the NYT in which the newspaper embraced blogs as it tried to negotiate the still-young internet and also make itself relevant. Before Wheels, the NYT had a newsletter called DriveTimes, the last issue of which was published in April 2007, which gave way to Wheels, which The Times had decided would be the way forward.
Wheels’ longtime editor James Cobb remembers:
Keep in mind that in those days the NYT was still extremely print-focused, and editors were taking their first cautious steps into the digital world even as that world was changing rapidly. (There had even been an abbreviated version of the NYT delivered by fax! It went to hotels, cruise ships and the like…) By the mid-aughts blogs were already the next big thing, and Wheels was among the first efforts at the paper to mine that market. Eventually, the NYT had literally scores of blogs aimed at all sorts of niche readerships in sports, games, travel, fashion, etc, etc., but I recall that we were among the first.
This was in large part because the Automobiles section was seen as highly entrepreneurial, with a tiny staff — just me, initially — and a very small budget, so we were used to scrambling for resources internally and to turning to freelancers for most of our content. And while at the time there was considerable grumbling throughout the paper about any efforts that weren’t print-focused — “This Internet thing is just a fad!” “It’s diverting money and staff from the Important Stuff in the printed paper!” — our little crew was eager to expand our reach in any way possible. As one top editor told me at the time, “You guys are our little digital laboratory, the Times’s own version of a tech start-up.”
Wheels staff would grow to include Jalopnik alums like Ben Preston, and its longtime deputy editor was Norman Mayersohn, who was the deputy editor here for a time, too. Norman tells me that the staff was never fond of the name, which had been foisted on them, though under that banner they produced seven years of good blogs, ending when The Times pulled the plug on it at the end of 2014, though it kept the name Wheels around until this year.
Cobb, who has been retired for several years, says that it is his impression that The Times pretty much stopped paying much attention to it.
I can’t tell you much about NYT autos coverage since 2015. My understanding is that there has been no actual blog in recent years, just a “Wheels” label over auto-related stories in print, as well as that infrequent email newsletter of the same name. No disrespect to the folks who’ve been producing the content — talented editors like Justin Swanson — but they’ve had to juggle this work along with a dozen other things, with very limited resources, and the car biz doesn’t seem to be a top priority with newsroom management these days.
In the old days of newspapers, the job of car reviewer usually went to the no-good reporter on staff who literally couldn’t do anything else, because newspapers liked to have stories about cars — they needed something to accompany all of the ads bought up by dealers and automakers — and they didn’t need those stories to be very good. Wheels represented the opposite of that, which was: What if, instead, we write about cars and the stories are good? The fact that it has been subpar in recent years only serves to underline its previous accomplishments.
What I still can’t figure out, however, is the NYT’s ongoing indifference to the car business, a multi-trillion-dollar global business, as competitors like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have many more than two reporters dedicated to covering the car business, in a time when the NYT’s staff of 1,700 journalists is bigger than ever. I asked Rhoades Ha, The Times’ spokesperson, about this, and she didn’t reply, perhaps because she has better things to do, which was a nice summation of The Times’ posture on cars and car culture in general.
Pour one out for Wheels, though, a once-upon-a-time good car blog that The New York Times made almost despite itself.