Local graduate is a driven writer for the Detroit Free Press
Mark Phelan, a 1978 Tecumseh High School graduate, loves his job. As an automotive reviewer and columnist for the Detroit Free Press, he test drives new cars from all over the world and then writes about them and the auto industry.
A small classified ad, looking for someone to write for magazines that covered General Motors, was his entry point into journalism. Armed with his journalism degree from Michigan State University, Phelan drove into a career that has been nothing but fascinating for him.
“It was mostly luck,” Phelan said. “I liked writing and wanted to see if I was any good.”
He also credits luck with his next career move to Ward’s Communications, now Wards Auto, which let him dig deeper into both journalism and the automotive world. His work with Ward’s even took him to England for a few years.
The technical aspect of cars and the automotive industry is captivating to Phelan. He credits his ability to understand engineering as a genetic gift from his father, a gifted engineer.
“I love understanding how it all works,” Phelan said. “I couldn’t take things apart and put them back together the way Dad could, but I do understand engineering.”
Since his career started in the 1980s, Phelan has witnessed incredible change in both the automotive world as well as journalism. He began his career typing on a manual typewriter in the newsroom and now does much of his work from home or on the road on a laptop.
When he lived in England, all Phelan’s stories were submitted over the phone using sonic cups. Phelan remembers starting the process, leaving to eat and coming back with the story still transmitting. Now he submits stories from his phone, as well as tweeting and shooting video to go along with his work, and all of it is done in the blink of an eye.
“It’s a really interesting transformation,” said Phelan. Adapting to new ways of communicating can be frustrating, but he enjoys a challenge and marvels at the advantages technology offers.
Adding new ways of communication to his work, like utilizing social media as well as becoming more of a photographer and a videographer, has been an interesting challenge.
“It’s another way to tell a story,” Phelan said. “It’s so interesting.”
At first not sure about the advantage of shooting video on his phone to accompany stories, Phelan discovered it was actually the perfect way to document issues with different cars and eliminated arguments from the auto makers. “It’s sort of instant evidence,” he said.
Newspapers and print journalism have struggled over the past few years, and some people believe print media is on its deathbed. Phelan believes there is still a need for good writing and good newspapers. “People want information,” he said.
The need for experienced journalists was never clearer than when the bottom dropped out of the automotive industry. The shock resonated across the country when General Motors and Chrysler had to request help from the government to avoid bankruptcy. As frightening as the time was for Detroit, Phelan said it was also a time of great excitement for him as a journalist. This kind of story happens only once in a lifetime.
With all the inaccuracies that came up during the congressional hearings, part of Phelan’s job was to help set the record straight about the quality of work coming out of Detroit. He had to make the workers in the auto factories real to readers who did not understand the industry and mistakenly believed this blue collar work force was incompetent and the product made was obsolete.
“I got to be the one to do the fact check,” said Phelan.
The way the auto companies have rebounded from their low point is impressive to Phelan. “I’m amazed at what good stuff is coming out of General Motors, and how Ford Motor Company turned things around,” he said. “It’s a really good time for those companies. The technology has come so far. It’s so easy to see where we’re going. The cars I’m driving today are doing things that were science fiction 10 years ago.”
Phelan sees cars continuing to have the ability to do more in terms of safety and performance. He does not doubt that very soon new cars will be able to drive themselves, with the driver becoming more of a passenger.
“I love to drive,” Phelan said. “But I look forward to the day when I can get in my car, program it for New Orleans, and read a book.”
Just like his enthusiasm for the American auto industry when it was down, Phelan unashamedly loves the city of Detroit. He sees as many positives to Detroit as others see negatives.
“It’s the best town in the world for news,” said Phelan. “It’s a fascinating city.”
The arts community, music, and history are of particular interest to Phelan, and he appreciates everything metro Detroit has to offer. “You have to invest time in looking for places,” he said.
Phelan lives in a city struggling for respect and works in a field struggling to rebuild itself, yet he is enthusiastic about both. “I love it,” Phelan said. “It really is a great way to go through life.