Trade magazines generally stay away from politics, but it wasn’t always that way
B2B editors are too often told by their publishers to leave political commentary to the trade associations, fearing a backlash from readers and advertisers
If you are an American voter I am sure you were among the over 80 million who watched the first presidential debate on Mondqy evening. If you did you might have heard Donald Trump mention the condition of US roads, bridges and airports. It was part of a rambling diatribe that placed the blame for this solely on Hillary Clinton.
“When we have $20 trillion in debt, and our country’s a mess, you know, it’s one thing to have $20 trillion in debt and our roads are good and our bridges are good and everything’s in great shape, our airports. Our airports are like from a third world country,” Trump said in his rather unique way.
“You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark, and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible — you come in from China, you see these incredible airports, and you land — we’ve become a third world country.”
As the former publisher of a business-to-business transportation construction magazine back in the mid-to-late nineties, that brief mention of construction immediately got my attention. For one thing, while most road contractors vote Republicans, it is generally Republicans who fight increasing the spending inside the highway bill. Yet here was the Republican nominee calling out the condition of our roads.
A story I have written before here on TNM is of the time my editor and I were able to get the Bill Clinton and Bob Dole campaigns to answer some questions about their spending plans for roads, and then featured that in an article in our October issue. It allowed us to then feature Clinton on the cover of the magazine months later when a new highway bill was signed.
When it came time early last year to submit a new bill to Congress for roads and bridges, President Obama asked for $478 billion to be approved by Congress. When a bill was finally signed it was for $205 billion on highways and $48 billion on transit projects, there was no signing ceremony, and the president was criticized for even getting this much spending through Congress.
The point is that this still feels like a big issue to me, one that should be discussed… not only in the pages of The New York Times and on political websites, but by the public at large, and most especially the trade magazines that cover the construction industry.
That was the way I felt two decades ago, but even then I knew that B2B magazines were somehow different than the rest of the press world, less likely to enter into political discussions and more likely to let association representatives tackle thorny issues such as this. I wondered then if this was always the case and began going through the old issue archives to see if there had been a major shift in editorial coverage through the years. I found that, depending on the magazine, there really had been a shift – from editorial writing that was sharper and more issue oriented, to one that rarely took a stance and avoided even the slightest hint of partisanship.
Our little foray into politics two decades ago was timid, we let the candidates do the talking, But it was still controversial. Letting the candidates point out their highway spending plans meant publishing the truth about the industry – that one side wanted a well-funded construction segment that would potentially put thousands to work, while the other wanted budget cuts. Yet the industry itself was supporting the side that would, if it could, hurt the business of our readers. That seemed to me to be the job of a B2B magazine that professed to represent its industry.
One example of a US trade magazine covering publishing that really seemed to be on top of its game regarding covering politics and how it was influencing publishing was during the run up to the Iraq War and its immediately aftermath. Greg Mitchell was the editor of the then Nielsen-owned trade magazine Editor & Publisher.
Mitchell led a team of journalists who rightly called out the reporting seen in US newspapers, but not without many readers pushing back. Of course, E&P’s coverage was seen as too liberal, but looking back one can see that it was accurate – the press had given then President Bush a free hand to start the war, with only a few news organizations, one being the DC bureau for McClatchy, doing a good job of looking into the administration’s claims.
Here we are, more than a dozen years later still debating who was responsible for the decision to go to war in Iraq, it featured prominently in Monday’s debate. But at the time even talking about the subject of news coverage of the war was deemed too controversial for a trade publication, one that represented the newspaper industry.