Training for the 'Best Job in the World'

By Mark Toljagic
Special to

February 4, 2003 - With his baggy pants, baseball cap and sideburns one week shy of authentic Peter Fonda lamb chops, Mathieu Yuill has that youthful look that sends bank managers scurrying to make sure all the pens are securely chained to the counters.

Historically, young adults have gotten a bum rap. Prevailing opinion dictates they're too inexperienced, cynical, unreliable, transient and, in some cases, have yet to master personal hygiene.

So why hand the keys to an expensive new Chrysler 300M Special to a youth like Yuill?

"We feel an obligation to bring new people into the fold," says Tom McPherson, product information specialist at DaimlerChrysler. "If we don't assist in getting young talent developed, who's going to raise the next generation of auto journalists?"

At 26, Yuill is managing editor of the Courier, the campus newspaper of Centennial College in east-end Toronto. Two years ago, the publication embarked on an endeavour to bring automobile reviews to its 28,000 readers in much the same style as a big-city daily.

Yuill cultivated relationships with most of the car manufacturers and secured press vehicles for students to drive and assess the same way Jim Kenzie and his contemporaries do it.

Yuill has effectively created an apprenticeship for young writers in training for the Best Job in the World.

As far as anyone knows, the Courier is the only campus paper in Canada to publish car reviews in much the same way students critique concerts, CDs and movies.

"Liability is usually an issue with campus papers," says Yuill. "Lucky for us, the Centennial College Student Association has faith in me." The college's student government owns and bankrolls the newspaper, but gives Yuill some latitude when it comes to developing content and building readership.

Initial pitches to auto manufacturers went over like a lead Zeppelin.

"At first, we didn't think it would fly. We were told there were imposter Web sites where engineering students put up a couple of car reviews, then approached manufacturers to borrow cars on a lark," says Yuill.

Fortunately, he had two journalism students who had a knack for making good impressions. Mark Atkinson and Andrew Luu are certified car fanatics who had joined Centennial's three-year journalism program with the express purpose of becoming auto scribes.

"It's such a tiny market for auto writers in Canada," says Atkinson, 25. "Yet when I told my professor about my career aspirations, he took me seriously and didn't snicker."

Atkinson got tremendous support from Toronto Star Wheels contributor Laurance Yap, who helped him contact the right people and open doors.

"Mazda and Subaru were very receptive to our ideas and were the first to supply us with product," says Atkinson. Mazda furnished the Courier with a new Protegé5 and Subaru dispatched a new-to-Canada Impreza WRX.

"It's beneficial to them. We're opening a new youth market for them in a non-traditional way."

McPherson concurs. "The campus paper gets our products exposed to a younger audience. And it's a difficult audience to reach - youth rely on numerous forms of media and their attention span is short."

McPherson says the automotive reviews he's received from the Courier have been "on par with almost anything out there." He's particularly impressed with Andrew Luu, whose writing exudes maturity and street smarts, but admits being surprised when they met face-to-face.

"I knew he was young, but he looked like an 18-year-old teenager!"

In fact, at the tender age of 22, Luu is finishing his final year of college. He grins when his appearance comes up in conversation: "I always get asked for ID at the beer store."

Parking a different new car in front of his parents' Scarborough home every week got the neighbours talking. "I get a lot of looks when I'm behind the wheel of an expensive car - including the attention of police."

Driving high-buck vehicles to class also won him the admiration of his fellow journalism students. "They can't believe my luck - they liken me to a kid in a toy store - but they don't understand how much work is involved in getting to this position," says Luu.

In addition to car reviews in the bi-weekly Courier, Luu and Yuill recently introduced video reports that are shown in Centennial's student lounges. The news-style reportage is designed to reach yet another, larger audience: students who don't read campus newspapers.

Showing up at a recent DaimlerChrysler event at Mosport, Luu says his camera crew worked alongside veteran reporters and stirred up a lot of interest among the seasoned scribes. "It was kind of intimidating working beside all these well-known journalists. Our ages make us conspicuous."

The students endure some ribbing as a result.

After taking the wheel of a $5-million prototype at DaimlerChrysler's Concept Drive event last summer, Yuill was warned by a company rep not to drive it back to the college residence and "let all your buddies on the third floor take it for a spin.'"

Yuill says his students are always welcomed, but feels other journalists might view them with some trepidation. "A lot of automotive writers are freelancers, so they consider anybody new as competition in a limited job market."

McPherson points out there's always a risk associated with putting a press car in the hands of a writer. And students are no exception.

Of the 30 cars and trucks reviewed in the Courier to date, the only mishap involved a Mazda Miata that kissed a guardrail when an adjacent car drifted into the student's lane.

"Mazda was cool about it," says Yuill, who has received outstanding support from the Scarborough-based importer. "We find manufacturers want to give students a fair shake." Other student-friendly companies high on Yuill's Christmas-card list include DaimlerChrysler, Kia and Volkswagen.

The only two major manufacturers that haven't supplied test vehicles are Honda and BMW, and that's because Yuill is not a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada - a situation he is remedying with the help of AJAC director Laurance Yap.

"I want the Courier to become a committed, known entity in the profession, and that requires AJAC membership," says Yuill. "By definition, a campus newspaper has high turnover as students move on, but at least manufacturers have a permanent contact in me."

The cars and trucks Yuill gets to test are usually student-affordable, but not always. He defends his decision to occasionally review $40,000-plus vehicles like the Cadillac CTS, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Audi A4.

"Half of our readers are college staff, faculty and older part-time students earning good incomes. Besides, it's cool to check out a Grand Cherokee - it gives students something to aspire to."

He cites the extraordinary interest he received from students looking over the Cadillac CTS he borrowed last year. "Phat ride," and "sick" were common exclamations. (Presumably, "sick" is a badge of honour.)

The resulting story provides General Motors with good feedback, proof that Cadillac may finally have a model that appeals to motorists who have yet to cash a pension cheque.

Yuill's notion of turning the Courier into an incubator for aspiring auto journalists has borne fruit. Graduate Mark Atkinson works as an assistant editor at Inside Track Motorsport News, and Andrew Luu is the first Canadian to join Detroit's Autoweek editorial staff - both on the strength of their Courier clippings.

The challenge is to keep the parade of talent coming.

Mark Toljagic is a freelance writer and communications officer at Centennial College.
Modified on April 23, 2009