As Reviews Editor at What Car?, Will Nightingale covers new car launches, writes and films comparison tests, always making sure there's real science behind all the information they provide. In recent months however, the science has gone further than how many miles to the gallon a car can do, as Will has spearheaded a project introducing new COVID car testing guidelines. While this may lengthen the process of car testing, it has ensured the What Car? team can continue to produce trusted content for their readers.
What made you want to work in the publishing industry?
I was midway through an IT-based degree before realising I did. It suddenly dawned on me that spending my entire working life in front of a computer screen didn’t hold much appeal. I’d enjoyed writing for as long as I could remember and loved cars (I was obsessively reading car mags before I was 10), so I just thought I’d try combining the two things and see if I was any good. Turns out I wasn’t terrible, or I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.
Chart your career from the start to where you are now?
I was fully prepared to do a journalism postgrad (PPA accredited, of course) after I finished my bachelor’s degree. But I signed up for a few work experience placements, first at DMG Media and then at Dennis (Auto Express), plus I started writing for a small website called Car Enthusiast around the same time. Then my fourth and final unpaid job was at Haymarket (they are paying me now). By then I’d had a few stories published, so I was trusted to help with more important jobs, including some driving. By chance, a job on the consumer desk came up at the end of my first week and that was my foot in the door. 13 years later and I still haven’t left. I’ve worked for Autocar during my time at Haymarket, but I’m now back solely with What Car?.
What is your role as Reviews Editor at What Car?
I manage a fantastic team responsible for producing all of the written and video review content for What Car? magazine and whatcar.com. We cover new car launches, both in the UK and (in normal times) abroad, and we also write and film comparison tests – always with the consumer forefront of mind. We invest an enormous amount of time (and money) in making sure there’s real science behind all of the information we provide, whether that’s how many miles to the gallon a car can do in the real world or how reliable it’s likely to be.
Believe me, the truth often does get in the way of a good story at What Car?. But the story still needs telling in an interesting, passionate way to keep the reader engaged and informed. That’s a real challenge but it’s something that, on the whole, I think we’re pretty good at.
How has What Car? consumer behaviour changed over the course of the last three months?
The vast majority of our content is geared towards helping people buy the right car, and when car sales plummet (as they did by 97% in April) it’s hardly surprising that fewer people visit our website and buy our magazine. The same thing happened during the last financial crisis albeit on a much smaller scale. Fortunately, there’s already been a big rebound since the easing of lockdown restrictions, and the fact that some buyers are understandably more reluctant to visit dealerships and take test drives at the moment has made our reviews even more valuable.
How has What Car? reacted and adapted to keep readers engaged?
Producing COVID-specific content has certainly helped, not least because of all the confusion around MOTs expiring during the lockdown, or what to do if you’d ordered a car that you weren’t allowed to collect or could no longer afford. We also dug deep into our archive to keep readers entertained with stories from yesteryear.
That got us through to the point that we could start testing and reviewing cars again and now, thankfully, traffic to our website is up significantly compared with this time last year. Mag sales are improving, too. There’s certainly pent-up demand for new cars; I just hope we’re over the worst of it and no more strict lockdowns are needed.** **
You spearheaded Haymarket’s new COVID car testing guidelines – can you explain what these are and why they’re important?
Car testing is fundamentally important to Haymarket’s business, so that was a big factor in us wanting to get back to a ‘new normal’ as quickly as possible. We also felt a duty to help car buyers at a time when private car use was/is being actively encouraged to help reduce crowding on public transport. A few weeks ago taking a test drive wasn’t an option, and even now it is, many – particularly older and vulnerable buyers – would rather not take the risk.
We knew we’d only be able to get back to reviewing cars if the job could be done with a minimal risk to everyone involved – including the manufacturers prepping, delivering and collecting cars for us to test. That’s why we came up with a strict set of guidelines to show that testing could, with some restrictions, be done without breaking any of the government’s advice on social distances or exposing anyone involved to undue risk of becoming infected.
Explain the process of putting together the guidelines – how long it took and the different steps.
All of our decisions have been based on the science available to us. The way we tested cars before the pandemic was positively conducive to spreading Coronavirus, with journalists pairing up and frequently swapping between cars.
First we did some learning, much of which came from research by the WHO and other science papers. After we knew as much as we realistically could about the way COVID was spreading and how best to prevent that happening, we were confident we could put together a set of guidelines that would allow us to restart testing while minimising (not completely eliminating) the risks.
An example of this is allowing only one journalist in a car at any one time, but also santisising that car before it’s passed to someone else. We even have our own contract tracing system that allows us to quickly identify which cars anyone on the team has driven. If someone were to display COVID-like symptoms, everyone else who’d subsequently driven the same cars as that person would be asked to self-isolate.
How will Haymarket’s new COVID car testing guidelines affect What Car?
Testing cars takes time and the new guidelines, though absolutely necessary, make the whole process more laborious. There’s a strict limit on how many journalists can drive a car during any loan period, for example, which is far from ideal. The sanitising process takes around 10 minutes and we might need to process the same car four or five times in a day, including after the interior has been photographed or filmed. That extends what can already be a 12-hour shift (not all of that behind the wheel).
But ultimately it’s worth it because it means we’re still able to produce content that we can be proud of and that helps car buyers make the right decision.
What’s on your radar?
Traditional revenue (i.e. mag sales) has obviously fallen over the years and continues to do so. We need to adapt and find new revenue streams to stay successful, and I think the most promising is our New Car Buying service. Essentially, we can put readers in touch with car dealers who are willing to sell at a fair, discounted price, so the buyer doesn’t have to personally haggle with a salesman. It’s going well so far but we’re aren’t the only ones doing it, so it’ll be interesting to see how the market develops over the next couple of years.
Our YouTube channel is also starting to contribute a meaningful amount to the business and I think that’s another area we need to really focus on. These days, anyone with a camera and a bit of personality can compete with us on video views and on social media, and we absolutely must not assume our heritage alone is enough to win those battles.
What magazine would you stockpile?
What Car?, of course (I genuinely do have a stockpile from when I was a kid). But I have plenty of copies of Autocar, Car, Classic & Sports Car and Evo from the nineties and noughties, too.
Away from the car world, Cyclist is always a good read – even though it makes me feel guilty for not getting out on the bike as much as I did before becoming a dad. If I’m taking a long flight, I’ll pick-up a copy of Private Eye or any golf mag that catches my eye at the airport. But my better half would make me throw out some my old car mags before adding to my stockpile, which I’d never do.