Meeting recap: Standing up for what’s right

Most business-to-business publications report the news. A few become catalysts for change in the industries they cover.
by Christopher M. Wright

Business editors got a sneak preview of ASBPE's book project on high-impact business articles at a D.C. ASBPE panel presentation held September 15, 2005, in Washington, D.C. As described by Rob Freedman, editor for the National Association of Realtors and ASBPE national past president, the book will feature case studies built around articles that drove changes in industry practices selected from English-language business publications around the world (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, etc.).

The event was sponsored by PR Newswire ( Media relations manager J.P. Fielder told the audience about three services his organization offers to business editors free of charge.

Tom Temin, senior vice president, PostNewsweek Tech Media, publisher of Government Computer News and other business publications, led off the discussion with two stories that made a difference. The first, in 2003, was based on a tip about a deputy CIO in the Department of Homeland Security who claimed on her resume to have master's and Ph.D. degrees from Hamilton University. With help from a professor who maintains a database on diploma mills, Temin's reporters learned that the school was headquartered in an abandoned motel in Wisconsin and awarded degrees based on “life experience.” The story, which made TV news, led to changes in how the government checks credentials on resumes, Temin said.

The other story cost Temin a friend. Stephen O'Keeffe formed the Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) Exchange to bring public and private experts together to discuss computer security. The fee for private industry participants was a "shockingly high" $75,000, Temin said. It smelled like “pay-to-play,” in contravention of ethics rules that regulate access to government officials, Temin said. When O'Keeffe, whom Temin knew personally, got wind of the story, he called Temin and Temin's boss to try to kill it. PostNewsweek refused, citing its longstanding culture of not interfering with editorial. After the story was published, all the sponsors withdrew and the Exchange collapsed. The case was mentioned at a professional seminar as an example of what not to do.

Next up were Mimi Laver and Claire Sandt, who talked about their eight-part series in the late 1990s for an American Bar Association publication highlighting deficiencies in the performance of contractor attorneys who represent child welfare agencies in neglect cases. The series, based on site visits to all 50 states and Puerto Rico, showed how some kids were being returned to unsuitable homes because of inadequate representation. The articles led to the creation of a working group to write tougher standards which the ABA eventually adopted. The improved standards cover such matters as how to hire attorneys, what their duties should be, and how to hold them accountable. Some agencies have gone to their state legislatures to request additional funding to implement some of the improvements, Laver said. One state put the standards right in its contract, meaning attorneys don't get paid and don't get rehired if their performance is not up to snuff. While an internal brainstorming group shaped each installment, in hindsight Sandt would have conducted a preliminary survey with the attorneys and Laver would have gotten early input from readers to sharpen editorial direction.

Rounding out the panel was John Gannon, senior editor, with BNA Inc. in Washington, D.C., whose continuing coverage of industrial accidents arising from faulty safety information about hazardous chemicals is still shaking up federal regulators and the private sector. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are supposed to specify, among other things, whether workers should wear gloves or respirators and what they should do in case of fire. MSDSs have been required since the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act after the Bhopal incident but are often incorrect, leading to explosions and deaths in the workplace.

Gannon found OSHA officials reluctant to talk about the matter, so he went to injured workers, plaintiff's attorneys, occupational physicians, cancer experts, and union representatives to get the story. One father whose son was killed in a workplace accident was very willing to help and went on to confront OSHA in public meetings. Gannon's colleagues at BNA, who report on various legal and regulatory topics, were also good resources. After Gannon began reporting on the issue, a Senate hearing was held and a professional association continues to call for corrective action.

Mr. Wright is a D.C. ASBPE Board Member and freelance writer specializing in business and technology topics for national and international clients. []