Dan Neil is an automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, AutoWeek and Car and Driver. He was a panelist on 2011's short-lived The Car Show with Adam Carolla on Speed Channel, which debuted July 13, 2011.
In 1999, Neil received the International Motor Press Association's Ken Purdy Award for automotive journalism, and in 2004 Neil won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, presented annually to a newspaper writer who has demonstrated 'distinguished criticism,' for his LA Times column Rumble Seat. In awarding Mr. Neil, the Pulitzer board noted his "one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural criticism." Noted journalist Brooke Gladstone called Neil "the Oscar Wilde of auto reviewers."
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Neil was born in Pennsylvania January 12, 1960 and moved with his family to New Bern, North Carolina at age 4. He received a B.A. degree in Creative Writing from East Carolina University and an M.A. degree in English Literature from North Carolina State University.
Neil is married to Tina Larsen Neil and has twin daughters, Rosalind and Vivienne. He has a 27-year-old son, Henry Neil, from his first marriage. He lived in Los Angeles before moving again to North Carolina, when he left the L.A. Times and began writing for The Wall Street Journal.
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In interviews he has stated that his goals at the time were to "learn to write and see the world." Neil was recruited by AutoWeek magazine in 1994 as a senior contributing editor. In 1995, he began contributing reviews to the New York Times, which he continued until 2003.
Beginning during his tenure with The News & Observer Neil developed his style of combining humor with pragmatic insight, often incorporating obscure literary analogies and personal experiences. Neil worked with the Raleigh paper until 1996, when he was fired. He subsequently worked as a free-lance journalist, including five years as contributing editor to Car and Driver. In 1999 Neil was named senior contributing editor for Expedia Travels, a glossy travel magazine.
In 2001, Neil won the Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, from the International Motor Press Association. In 2002, his work was selected for Houghton Mifflin's Best American Sports Writing. In 2004 he was anthologized in the Best American Newspaper Writing.
Firing from the News & Observer
In 1991, Dan Neil had been moved from the newsroom of the News & Observer to the classified advertising department with the expectation "that he would write dealer-friendly pieces to attract readers to the newspaper's automobile classified section." In contrast to the newsroom, where Neil had worked with editors, he noticed his copy was no longer edited. "For seven years, I had unfettered access to 200,000 readers." Neil's writing eventually reflected the lack of constraint.
Neil's January 1996 review of the Ford Expedition described a back-seat encounter with his girlfriend, writing "this was loving, consensual and — given the Expedition's dual airbags, side impact beams and standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes — safe sex." The News and Observer reported Neils recollection of the column in an interview years later:
"I wrote at some point about the kids getting into the Ford Expedition and commenting on the 'footprints' on the windshield. Well, that was just it! People went crazy! It was kind of like Janet Jackson's costume malfunction -- a none too daring transgression, overall, but the thing that finally sent people over the edge."
Put on probation for the article, Neil was instructed to have his articles reviewed by an editor as well as the director of classified auto advertising. Refusing, he was subsequently fired, and wrote in a later Durham Independent article that he was fired "for refusing to have my column vetted by the classified advertising department."
Editors from The News & Observer contended that it was disingenuous to suggest that advertisers pressured the paper into firing Neil, since Neil worked for an advertorial section of the advertising department at the time.
The incident highlighted the growing issue that newspapers, under economic pressure, have in maintaining the virtual wall between the "church" of news gathering and the "state" of advertising sales, sometimes known as a Chinese wall. Notably, Keith Bradsher — author of a book about SUV's called High and Mighty — indicated that among critics, "auto reviewers are the most likely to be compromised by the industry they cover." Speaking in a 2005 radio interview with Brooke Gladstone, after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Neil described the symbiotic relationship between the automobile industry and its critics:
"The entire environment is incestuous. They introduce new cars. They fly journalists in and put them up at really nice hotels and, you know, treat them to experiences that they would never possibly in a million years — they wouldn't even be allowed in these hotels ordinarily. You know, and that's not supposed to affect their judgment. But it is a compromised business, and it is also true that newspapers are under a great deal of revenue pressure on this score, and so yeah, a favorable editorial/advertorial content is often created to satisfy that need."[dead link]
In September 2003, Neil became a full-time columnist for the Los Angeles Times and gained a following for his approach to automotive writing, which routinely included industry criticism — including criticism of automakers themselves and government emissions and safety policies.
In February 2005, he began writing 800 Words, a column about pop culture, for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. The column was syndicated by Tribune Media in 2006. Neil won the American Association of Sunday and Feature editors award for best general commentary column in 2007.
800 Words was discontinued in 2008 after the Los Angeles Times Magazine was transferred from the editorial department to the paper's business division — and advertiser control.
2008 Zell lawsuit
After the takeover, Zell rated reporters by how many column inches they produced, relinquished the Los Angeles Times Magazine and other editorial publications to advertiser control — and laid off at least 1,000 employees.
Neil called Zell "a corporate raider," adding "he's not a publisher. Newspapers are too important to the public to be treated as just pieces on a financial chessboard." Neil and a group of Times employees claimed violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and alleged that Zell breached his duty of loyalty to Tribune's employees.
Forbes described the suit as putting "the fast-changing newspaper business on trial," noting "newspapers have been under siege since the technology bubble popped in the late 1990s, with problems ranging from declining circulation, advertiser consolidation, classified ads migrating online, rising newsprint costs, bloated debt structures and, yes, over-staffing. Not to mention the rise of Internet news."
- "Pulitzer winner Dan Neil reportedly leaves Los Angeles Times for Wall Street Journal". Autoblog.com, Jeremy Korzeniewski, Feb 5th 2010.
- "The Car Show with Adam Carolla: First impressions from the set". Autoblog.com, July 12, 2011, Michael Harley.
- "Ken Purdy Award Recipients". International Motor Press Association.
- "Some Highish Brows Furrow as a Car Critic Gets a Pulitzer". The New York Times, April 8, 2004, David Carr. April 8, 2004. Retrieved April 30, 2010.[dead link]
- "Interview with Brooke Gladstone & Dan Neil: A Perfect Vehicle for Criticism". Onthemedia.org, April 15, 2005.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Whether he was the direct cause, L.A. Times columnist Dan Neil was certainly in the middle of the General Motors kerfuffle. We spoke to him last year, when he was the unlikely winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. It certainly had never gone to a car critic before. Auto reviewers tend to be regarded with a certain suspicion in the journalism biz - since most newspapers depend on the good will of car dealership advertisers. But Dan Neil is the Oscar Wilde of auto reviewers. In his column, cars serve ably as metaphors for our culture, to wit- DAN NEIL: Why do I like the Benz wagon? For me, whose personal life has often resembled the save-my-baby skit with the clown fireman, the station wagon connotes a settled domesticity, peace and stability devoutly to be wished. Singledom has certainly lost its luster. There's also something deeply appropriate about wagons. They are big enough to enclose my life, but not so big as to suggest a fear of something left behind, as huge SUVs seem to do. Station wagons are kind of like SUVs after years of therapy. [LAUGHTER] So what you-I find myself doing is kind of identifying not so much the mechanical deficiencies and surpluses of a particular car, but how it fits in to people's lives, what it says about them, and whether it says something you would like it to say about you. For instance, this week I'm driving a Chevy SSR pickup - it's kind of a postmodern hot rod pickup truck. It's like a pickup truck from Toontown. I mean you, you feel ridiculous driving it. [LAUGHTER] So, I feel that it's one of those vehicles that you would drive once, park and sell. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, as you just described, you seem to love cars, but individual cars can frequently leave you cold, and that's difficult, many people say, for car critics, because auto advertising is so important, and of course there's a story floating around about you. Could you tell us about the last column you wrote for the Raleigh News & Observer back in 1997? DAN NEIL: Sure. I actually worked in classified advertising when I was working for the News & Observer, and I produced an advertorial auto section, and I wrote the column for them. I didn't ask anybody, and nobody read it behind me. It just appeared in the paper. And, you know, my column was really crazy, and this one time I, I wrote a story about having intimate congress in the back of a Ford Expedition. I said at the time, you know, we both had our seat belts on; it was safe sex, [LAUGHTER] and actually they didn't think it was that funny at all. So, my boss called me in and said okay, that's it. You are on super-super, double dutch probation. Basically he was saying to me that I was going to have to be vetted by the advertising boss, and this I declined to do. And so, after a few months of passive resistance, they fired me. And by the way, the News & Observer on the other side of the church/state wall, the news side, is a very, very honorable and respectable, you know, operation. At issue, though, is whether or not newspapers who produce these advertorial sections, you know, whether their hands are clean on this issue overall. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to Keith Bradsher who's the author of the book High and Mighty about SUVs, and he says that, among critics, auto reviewers are the most likely to be compromised by the industry they cover; that they're often quitting their jobs to take industry PR jobs for big bucks. Do you think that's true, and did that ever tempt you? DAN NEIL: It is absolutely true. The entire environment is incestuous. They introduce new cars. They fly journalists in and put them up at really nice hotels and, you know, treat them to experiences that they would never possibly in a million years, they, they wouldn't even be allowed in these hotels ordinarily. You know, and that's not supposed to affect their judgment. But it is a compromised business, and it is also true that newspapers are under a great deal of revenue pressure on this score, and so yeah, a favorable editorial/advertorial content is often created to satisfy that need. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which you frequently don't provide. DAN NEIL: Oh, almost never. I'm really ornery. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congratulations, Dan Neil. DAN NEIL: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dan Neil is automobile critic for the Los Angeles Times and recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.[dead link]
- "Close gaps in wall between ads, unpaid information". USAtoday.com, April 20, 2004, Philip Meyer. April 20, 2004. Retrieved April 30, 2010.
- "Critics abound, but this one is different". The News & Observer, A.C. Snow, May 02, 2004, modified Oct 23, 2005.
- "Putting Newspapers On Trial". Forbes.com, James Erik Abels, 09.17.08. September 17, 2008.
- "'L.A. Times' Refugees Sue for Control of Paper". Portfolio.com, Sep 16 2008.