Transportation reporter Rachel Premack, who writes on the trucking industry and how deliveries are changing with the rise of companies like Amazon, joined Business Insider in 2018. Here, Rachel shares how her hometown outside Detroit helped spark her interest in covering the hugely important — but relatively niche — world of trucking, how she finds sources to talk to, and what she's following next.
Olivia Oran: Covering trucking isn't the first industry that comes to mind for a young journalist to get started in. Can you walk me through how you became interested in the beat?
Rachel Premack: Over the years, I've seen a few random trucking stories that have popped up on my radar — like this NPR piece on "truck driver" being the most common job title in many states and another excerpt from Finn Murphy's trucker memoir on Longreads. I'm also from the Detroit area, so conversations on industrials and transportation are pretty common. A bridge close to my childhood house actually facilitates more movement of goods than the worth of the entire US-Japan trade relationship, and that's all moved by trucks.
But I didn't really think about trucking as full-fledged beat until I joined BI in the spring of 2018. I pitched truckers as a coverage idea to my editor then, Rachel Gillett, and she encouraged me to run with it. I wrote a piece on the truck driver shortage and how that's driven up the price of Amazon Prime subscriptions, along with a few other key consumer goods, and the response from truckers on that was remarkable. From that, I just kept covering truckers. They move 71% of our goods, so what's happening in their daily work life says a lot about the US economy.
I also just get interested in slightly off-the-beaten-path beats. I spent a year-plus after college reporting in South Korea. Sometimes I can get others interested in those topics, but sometimes it doesn't really pan out. Luckily, there are 1.8 million long-haul truckers in the US and few other outlets are really reporting on them, so plenty of folks are keeping up with BI's trucking coverage.
Oran: Why is it so important for BI readers to understand what's going on with the logistics industry? How does it touch them?
Premack: Truckers move 71% of the nation's freight — and everything else is moved by a train, ship, plane, and so on. If something is changing in logistics, that means it's about to hit everyone else, or already has.
I consider it one of the most important business beats of our time, combining so many key drivers of our economy — the movement of goods around the country, consumer convenience, trade, technology and the environment. The plight of America's truckers also shows the degradation of a blue-collar job not by outsourcing or technological advances, but by federal policy choices.
And the most successful companies are often the ones who are innovative in slashing and managing their supply chain costs. For example, Walmart's fleet of super-well-paid truckers or Amazon's interest in in-housing their logistics.
Oran: You spend a lot of your time talking not just to executives, but actually to truck drivers. Without revealing too much…how do you find them? Are you scouting out truck stops?
Premack: One of my favorite things about covering truckers is that they're super vocal and engaged. I put a call-out at the bottom of most of my stories asking truckers to email me, and they usually do so in droves. They're very passionate about educating the public on what it's really like to be a trucker.
And until the day I set up my CB radio, Facebook and YouTube are two great ways to find truckers. I'm sure there are a bunch of other spots and ways to find them, but I'm still looking for those.
Because truckers are alone much of the time, those online communities are a great way to meet others and, perhaps just as importantly, build relationships. You might strike up interesting conversations at a truck stop, but Facebook and YouTube are ways truckers can continually interact with a group of people over a long period of time.
Oran: You're based in New York — what do you think the media most often gets wrong about reporting on blue collar workers (or truck drivers) specifically? What do these workers most want people to know?
Premack: I think there's a lack of understanding that these people know a lot about their industry. And Business Insider, especially the transportation and retail sections, does a lot to dispel that — our most interesting scoops and stories from these sections often derive from the fact that many of us are talking to blue collar and service workers every day. They're super knowledgeable about what's going on in their companies and their industries, and often aren't as hamstrung as executives or analysts to tell it like it is.
It's important to back up what people are saying with confirmation from the company or data, but I think that reporting what workers are doing or thinking is a fantastic way to learn more about an industry and the economy as a whole.
Oran: Thinking about covering the logistics industry broadly, what are the biggest themes you plan on writing about over the next six months?
Premack: Amazon's logistics moves top the list, along with the idea that e-commerce hasn't really been as profitable to FedEx, UPS, and other big transportation companies as much as folks may have expected.
It's also really interesting to keep up with the "disruption" of digital freight brokerage startups. VC money has been flooding the brokerage world, and traditional brokerage companies have been matching that technology spend.
Oran: What story are you most proud of that you've written?
Premack: I spent a weird amount of time in the BLS' pay archives to get the real story on how much trucker pay has sunk. I found some previously-unearthed data that showed how much long-haul salaries have lowered in certain cities from 1980 to 2017 — as much as 35% in Toledo and 16% in New York.
I used that data to write a deep dive into why that's happened— the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. Economists say that law, which deregulated the trucking industry, is partially to blame for the devaluation of one of America's most dependable blue collar jobs.
Oran: What's the hardest part of your job?
Premack: I'm in New York, and don't really get a chance to meet truckers face-to-face. There are plenty of conferences and folks are always happy to hop on the phone, but I can feel a little cut off sometimes.