Change Agents: Trade Pubs Making a Difference

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

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.

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