July 15, 2016 Last Updated 9:30 am

The trade press and the news: there should no conflict between hard news and industry news

Are editors of B2B publications challenging their publishers and company management and writing about the news events outside their industry focus, knowing that these events are of interest to their readers and will ultimately determine the future success of their industry?

Yesterday, at least 84 people were killed when a truck drove down the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France. The driver, a Tunisian with French citizenship, was known to police for his petty crimes, not for terrorist sympathies.

You may already know this, having read it, or heard it on the TV or radio. You probably have no expectations for a B2B website like TNM to talk about such matters (though if you are a regular reader here you know this site never avoids the news). Most of the trade press avoids directly talking about the news outside the area of their industry concentration. You won’t read any analysis of the war on terrorism, or the presidential election, in most trade publications and websites. It simply isn’t done.

But the fact of the matter is that this is a product of our modern age, not something that was historically true. The division between the mainstream news media and the trade press was not always so great. And it shouldn’t be. No single issue will impact businesses in this country more than who the next president is, yet most B2B editors are told to stick to their editorial calendars and continue to write about industry matters.

When I move from the daily newspaper business to business-to-business publishing the transition was easy for me. The B2B publication I was put in charge of at McGraw-Hill was also a daily newspaper (Monday through Friday) and it was regionally focused. It was why the hiring manager was seeking out someone with newspaper experience.

During the interview process I asked Jim Johnson, in charge of McGraw-Hill’s regional construction publication group, if experience in the construction industry wasn’t important. No, he said, you’ll learn that, what is harder to learn is how to be a publisher, that’s why I need someone with your experience in the position (or something along those lines).

A year or two later, when speaking with my fellow publishers, I said I wasn’t so sure that Johnson was right, maybe experience in your industry focus is more important, or at least as important as publishing experience. It was a tough call, and most of my fellow publishers agreed that industry knowledge was definitely underestimated.

But when I worked for Cahners (later renamed Reed Business Information), the company’s policy was to never advertise industry experience in their recruitment ads. Editors were never told in the ad what publication had the opening, and what industry it was in. Instead, basic knowledge of editing, word processing, grammar, was deemed more important than knowing the difference between a skid steer and a backhoe.

And it began to show in the quality of the magazines we produced. Veteran editors produced far better products, while new editors faced a backlash from readers, and often were shifted from one title to the next. Then came the consolidation of titles, where editors were placed in charge of two or more magazines, often involving different industries. They stopped becoming leaders in their industries, stopped serving on industry committees, and rarely spoke at events for fear of exposing their lack of knowledge of the industry. Reed eventually closed or sold off their US trade magazines, but the practice of hiring editors ignorant of the industries they cover, or forcing editors to edit two or more magazines continues. No one can say the US trade press is in better shape today than it was one or two decades ago. (The industry that supposedly represents the industry has not produced an ad page count report for its members to review since November 2014.)

Sometime in the mid-nineties a report in the news about a potential recession made me wonder about how the trade magazines of yesteryear had handled economic news. When the stock market crashed in 1929 did the trade press mention it? What happened following Pearl Harbor? Was it simply ignored? It would be be today, I thought to myself.

I had a personal interest in knowing the answer because, having come over from the newspaper business I was always going to be a news junkie. Also, in my first long conversation with my editor at Roads & Bridges I had said that our goal for the next year would be to interview President Bill Clinton and whoever the Republicans nominated (it was clearly going to be Sen. Bob Dole) for the magazine. My editor was rather startled by the idea but we proceeded with our mission.

clinton-9I had asked my editor what the most important event would happen in the next year that would determine the success of the industry in the years to come. After giving a few non-answers my editor said it would be presidential election. The reason was simple: the transportation construction industry, our focus, depends on federal funding. One candidate, the incumbent president, believed in infrastructure spending, the challenger believed in slashing the budget including the money spent on road construction. Yet, there was a huge disconnect in the industry – the vast majority of construction executives were (and still are) Republicans. The issue of future federal funding for construction seemed to me to be the single most important thing we could write about in the year.

So I went into the backroom of our office, to the archives. What I found there were old issues from magazines such as Engineering News & Record, as well as old issues from magazines related to the ones our company was publishing. Did ENR care about the stock market crash? I discovered that the issue was “Yes” there were articles about the crash, with interviews with industry leaders about its consequences. As you might expect, industry leaders in early 1930 were optimistic, this was all just a bump in the road. Similarly, following Pearl Harbor, ENY writers talked about who the war would change the construction industry, how engineers were volunteering or being drafted into the military. But even the magazines that covered the waste water industry did not ignore the events around them – at least in 1930 or 1942. I was sure that I was solid ground to think about how the world around us affected the industry we were tasked to serve. But I did not discuss this with management, I knew what they would say.

In the end, we got those interviews with Clinton and Dole – campaigns will do a lot of things when trying to win an election, even talk to a B2B editor.

So, in the fall of 1998, appearing right next to articles on drainage and asphalt repair, were the interviews with the president and his Republican rival. The picture of Clinton was taken by the White House photographer and looked great, while the picture of Dole looked to have been taken by a Kremlin photographer, so airbrushed was Dole that no facial features were present. We played it coy and didn’t put pictures of the candidates on the cover, just teased it like any other story.

But, as one reader told me months later, it all made so much sense when, months later, we used the cover to show the President signing the massive new highway bill. For the next several years the transportation construction industry boomed, our magazine boomed. The presidential election of 1998 determined the fate of the industry for the next few years until a new administration decided that tax cuts were more important that infrastructure spending.

The above sounds like a success story, but that is not the way I remember it. The way I remember it is that every decision I made regarding the editorial (and advertising) direction of the magazine was second guessed, criticized by management. Why were we writing about the presidential election and the consequences of political decisions when we should be writing more about construction equipment, publishing more press releases? Even as ad revenue grew, readership became more satisfied, management made my life hell. My most important job at the publishing company was shielding my employees from management, allowing them to do their jobs.

Shortly after finishing a record year, and receiving a huge bonus check, I left the company, and they were happy to see the back of me. We were oil and water.

Today, I returned to thinking about how the trade press deals with the world around them. Is there a mention of France on their website? And discussion of how a Clinton or Trump presidency would impact the industry as a whole? Maybe there shouldn’t be because those subjects may really be irrelevant for their industry. I doubt a Clinton or Trump presidency matters to the plumbing industry, for instance. But does the editor know their industry well enough to know? Is the editorial team avoiding these kinds of stories simply because they do not appear in the editorial calendar?

After many years as a B2B publisher I finally understood, and got my editors to understand, that the published editorial calendar was not the same as the “editorial budget” – one was what was printed for advertisers, and the other, unprinted, was what would appear in the next issue. Things in the printed editorial calendar had to appear in the magazine because marketers built their ad schedules around it. But the editorial budget (do they still call it that?) could include things the editor thought important, assuming there was enough room. Also, the editor had the right to talk to me about things in the editorial calendar and suggest dumping an article if there was no advertising support. So, if the ad sales team wanted that story on concrete pavers, they damn well better sell a few pages of advertising to those manufacturers, or else they lose their editorial. This often ended up being the sales pitch – look, mister concrete paver manufacturer, if you want us to cover concrete as much as asphalt you have to support this magazine and your industry like those asphalt guys. It was sales via blackmail, but it worked, and they were happy to see their ads, and the editorial, in our magazine pages.

I don’t know how much freedom the typical B2B editor has today to branch out from the editorial calendar. But we have this thing called the Internet now, and just about every B2B print magazine editor is also in charge of a website. Visit any of the major B2B websites today and ask yourself as you scan the headlines, is this really what is on the minds of industry leaders today? Does this editorial content reflect the interests and concerns of those in this industry? Or is it just more of the same, the same PR, the same mandated copy?

If you, dear reader, are disappointed to see a story like this on TNM, rather than a look at a new digital edition app, sorry, there are bigger things going on in the world today, and I think they affect us all.

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