Monday, November 13, 2006

Change Agents: Trade Pubs Making a Difference

Notes: Change Agents: Trade Pubs Making a Difference comes from the ASBPE Washington, D.C. blog. Some links were added.

Martha Spizziri, vice president of ASBPE Boston, will be posting to this blog while Spring Suptic is away. Spring returns on Monday, Nov. 27.

Journalism That Matters, ASBPE's book on high-impact articles, was the focus of an ASBPE chapter panel presentation in Washington, D.C. on October 12, 2006. The book (available on features case studies built around industry-changing articles from English-language business publications around the world (US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.).

The panel was moderated by Steve Roll, editor with BNA. Roll, who is D.C. ASBPE's chapter president, and co-editor of the book, said he is struck by his encounters with award-winning editors who are proud of "not so much the award, but the change that[their] piece triggered within a particular industry." He said that the book contains both investigative pieces and "elephant-in-the-room" stories where biz pubs are the first to tackle large industry problems.

The four panelists summarized their case studies which appear in the book. John Gannon, senior editor with BNA's Right-to-Know Planning Guide, discussed his coverage of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are supposed to warn of dangers posed by the use of chemicals in the workplace. He noticed that problems with the sheets kept cropping up in Chemical Safety Board reports where faulty information had caused explosions and even deaths. "Can you imagine if you go to the store and you buy medication, and two times out of six if you follow the directions you end up in the hospital or dead?" Gannon asked rhetorically.

Gannon tried to get answers from OSHA and EPA. "OSHA acted so strange about it, I figured there must be something here," he said. He eventually turned to plaintiffs' lawyers and victims families for big pieces of the story. After he started reporting on the issue, a Senate hearing was held and a professional association called for corrective action.

Patience Wait, senior writer for PostNewsweek Tech Media's Government Computer News, followed up on a tip about a deputy CIO in the then two-month old Department of Homeland Security who claimed a doctorate degree on her resume from what subsequent investigation revealed was a diploma mill. The only requirements for the degree were two short papers. The school granted credit hours for "life experience" to cover all course requirements. Upon graduation, the school provided a transcript listing specific courses but giving no indication they were all waived. Wait found that it is a criminal offense in Oregon to claim a degree from the school in question (and others listed on a state website) on any job application, public or private, in the state.

She broke the story online to scoop other reporters who were beginning to sniff around. "Three days later," she said, "I got another email from another person saying 'didn't you know that she claims that all three of her degrees come from the same school?'" National media picked up the story and congressional hearings were held. The woman in question went on paid leave and ultimately resigned.

Jeanne LaBella, vice president of publishing for the American Public Power Association, published a six-part series about electricity pricing in her magazine in 2004. Most of APPA's members are electric utilities that are owned and operated by municipal governments. Historically, utilities would allocate costs and set rates according to the size of the customer. If a town had a large industrial plant that consumed 60 percent of the power, then 60 percent of overhead and facilities (lines, substations, etc.) was allocated to that customer.

APPA's chief economist advocated a different pricing scheme based on whether power was being consumed during peak or off-peak hours. Think of " how a hotel is priced," LaBella said. "If you go to the beach in the summer, you're going to pay one price for your hotel room. If you go to the beach in the winter, you're going to pay a much lower price. The same concept should be applied to electricity." Letting prices fluctuate with demand would signal customers when to back off from heavy consumption.

This was heresy in the industry, LaBella said. Reader reaction was strong and she got many requests for extra copies of the magazine so readers could pass it around to their colleagues. "Ultimately, the series led to the formation of a group of utilities from across the nation who started looking very seriously at the ways that they would redesign electric rates to come closer to the kinds of things that [the economist] was advocating in his article," LaBella said.

Molly Moses, editor/reporter with BNA's Transfer Pricing Report, started hearing in 2004 that Canadian tax authorities were taking outrageous positions in transfer tax negotiations. At issue were tax liabilities arising from imputed cross-border 'sales' of goods and services between parent and subsidiary corporations.

Moses found that company sources were reluctant to speak. "Nobody wanted to go on the record with this because they all have cases and they don't want to poison the negotiations," she said. She got around the problem by talking to a knowledgeable source at a trade association which represented the companies involved. "She could just go off on this issue without repercussions to any one company," Moses said.

After the story was published, "what was really gratifying was I could tell that it had an impact [because] cases started to move after that," Moses said. Not only did negotiations start to go smoother, but new understandings were reached among the parties as to how to resolve

Much of the question-and-answer session that followed revolved around getting past public relations departments who are sometimes overzealous gatekeepers. Patience Wait suggested trying to talk to the source at a public event. Another tactic: "You come in unobtrusively directly to the person that you want to talk with, and get them to agree that, if public affairs signs off on it, they'll talk to you," Wait said. You may find that the source will give you clues off the record and is willing to go on the record if public affairs clears it.

John Gannon said these techniques would not work at OSHA where every staff member is well-trained not to speak to the media under any circumstances without public affairs' approval. He used a different tactic after an OSHA public affairs officer didn't answer his questions and kept stringing him along. "I eventually had enough stuff that she either didn't know [or] couldn't find out that I sent her an email ... and said that when my story comes out, I'm going to do a sidebar about all the things that you don't know. I think that's going to be very interesting to my readers," Gannon said. Cooperation improved immediately thereafter. Threaten early, Gannon advises, don't let it drag on for two months like it did in this case.

Related links (added by ASBPE KC):

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