Who Are We?
Detailed survey data holds up a mirror to the work lives and professional values of business press officers.
EDITOR’S NOTE: From May to August of 1995, Ian Bruce, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, conducted a survey of business press editors. The goal of the survey was to help ASBPE plan future programs and activities. Our last issue featured a report on editors’ salaries. In this issue, Alan Earls reports on editors’ views on the journalism profession.
There is good news and bad news in the survey recently conducted for ASBPE by Ian Bruce, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Take, for example, the ever-controversial question of whether the trade press is for sale. Editors were asked whether they agreed that advertisers had an impact on what they write and publish. Some 75 percent of editors said they disagreed “strongly or somewhat” with this statement or felt neutral, while 25 percent felt strongly that advertisers influenced what they wrote. At first glance, that seems to be good news, but it means that a majority of editors feel at least some pressure to serve advertisers.
Of course, the trade press operates in a different environment from mainstream consumer publications. Many respondents view themselves as spokespeople for business – that is, for the industries they cover. And few editors saw a discussion of national political issues as an important part of their jobs. That perspective probably would puzzle members of the general-interest press.
But make no mistake: Business press editors, by large margins, showed they do have strong concerns about ethics and the quality of what they do. For instance, some 80 percent of editors agree or strongly agree that “it is important to stay away from stories where the facts can’t be verified.” That’s not bad for an industry often derided for its dependence on the press release. (It’s also interesting to note that a survey conducted by Brouillard Communications and published by USA Today shows that readers see trade publications as the most objective news source.)
Yet in a seemingly contradictory finding, only about 28 percent of editors agreed that investigating claims made by news sources was an important part of the job. Ian Bruce explains the discrepancy this way: Other research has shown that journalists tend to fall into two categories. The “investigative” journalist takes a proactive approach to the job, while the other type of journalist sees his or her role as a relatively passive one – that of a conduit for the dissemination of news. Both types are likely to agree that it’s important to stay away from stories that can’t be verified, but only those who subscribe to the investigative model- apparently the minority in our survey – would see extensive research as part of the job.
How Do Editors See Their Jobs?
Presented with a series of statements about their work lives, business press editors agreed most strongly with these five (in order of importance):
|It is important to stay away from stories where the facts can’t be verified.||4.38|
|I am inundated with press releases I cannot use.||4.16|
|I find it difficult to hire good staff writers.||3.97|
|Business editors are the equal of editors in the consumer press.||3.96|
|New hires straight from college often have poor writing skills.||3.93|
By and large, they disagreed with these statements:
|My company provides most of the on-the-job training I need.||3.07|
|An important part of my work is to investigate claims made by sources.||2.98|
|An important part of my job is to discuss national policy/political issues.||2.87|
|Advertisers impact what I write and publish.||2.76|
|An important part of my job is to provide entertainment for readers.||2.53|
Scoring: 1 = strong disagreement; 5 = strong agreement
Based on interviews he conducted, Bruce adds, one can surmise that most business-press writers aren’t willing to routinely go out and investigate claims simply because of time constraints – which should come as no surprise to those of us who work in the field.
A fairly large percentage of editors think that an important part of their jobs is to provide analysis of complex subjects. Surely this orientation bodes well for the field as new technologies bring ever more information within reach of readers. Editors, as skilled professionals, may have an important and growing role to play in helping sort through information to determine its relevance to readers.
Nor are editors behind the times when it comes to delivering information speedily. Most agreed that getting information to readers quickly is very much the name of the game. Furthermore, by their own testimony, editors are overwhelmingly committed to serving the needs of the widest possible readership and to developing the intellectual interests of readers.
Can’t find your desk because of all the press releases on it? Join the crowd. Some 75 percent of editors from all kinds of trade and specialty publications agree: They get blizzards of press releases, most of which they cannot use. (See below.)
When it comes to other aspects of work life, though, editors had somewhat more diverse opinions. Asked whether they found it easy to network with peers, the response was pretty evenly divided. In many professions, networking is considered a crucial way to position oneself for advancement. Maybe in the business press it is different. Or maybe some of us are hermits. Bruce noted no significant differences in response based on gender, age, experience, salary or even membership in the ASBPE.
Editors also varied widely in how successful they seem to be at digesting new technologies. Older editors – that is to say, those with more than 12 years of experience – complained bitterly about the difficulties of keeping up with job-related technologies. By comparison, younger editors have only moderate difficulties keeping up to date. However, editors of every age expressed strong concerns through their written comments about the impact new technologies will have on the profession as a whole, especially the arrival of the Internet. Although younger people tend to be more technically literate, they are the ones most likely to be displaced when technology leads to organizational changes.
Indeed, while the majority of respondents say they feel secure in their jobs, a substantial minority don’t. Most of them are women – still more strongly represented in less senior positions.
Editors with management responsibilities also had a litany of worries. Veteran editors, especially men, expressed concerns about the writing and job skills of new college graduates. Overall, more than half of the survey respondents shared this concern, though younger editors – closest in age and experience to new college graduates – were somewhat more tolerant. Even among this group, though, though there were few real defenders of newly minted business journalists.
When it comes to actually hiring staff writers, 40 percent of editors say they find it hard to find the quality they want among job candidates. A similar percentage say they have trouble finding good freelancers, though women especially reported finding it difficult to do so.
Role of the ASBPE
Although most editors say they do not feel out of touch with their profession, a strong minority, comprised mostly of women and younger editors, say they do feel out of touch. To what extent ASBPE can address these concerns is less clear. Only about 40 percent of respondents agreed that a national organization of business editors was “vital” to the profession. Yet when the same question was rephrased to mention the functions a professional organization might provide, it drew a more favorable response. In that case, some 50 percent said they thought a trade-press association was important.
It’s also unclear how easy it is for people to get more involved in ASBPE or similar groups. For one thing, management doesn’t seem to be giving much support to involvement in professional activities, though as Bruce observes, senior people – often members of management – seem to think they support such involvement.
A Serious Bunch
One thing is clear: Editors take themselves seriously. When asked whether considered themselves the equals of consumer-press editors, the vast majority of respondents said yes – though many admitted in interviews that they thought peers in other parts of the publishing field considered them less professional and more swayed by commercial pressures.
Furthermore, when Bruce asked editors whether entertaining readers was an important part of their jobs, he received a nearly universal negative response. •
Our survey of business press editors shows that one of the frustrations we most often experience on the job stems from the floods of press releases we receive. Here, editors air their PR pet peeves and tell us how they handle the paper avalanche. (Editor’s Note: A copy of this article will be sent to the Public Relations Society of America.)
At the last two places I worked, we literally received about two shopping-carts full of paper mail every day, plus dozens more unsolicited pages over the fax machine.
We must get at least that much at CIO and WebMaster [magazines]. Last week, I was out of the office for three days and returned to a three-foot stack of mail, faxes, unsolicited books and product samples, and more. In addition, I probably got about 40 PR e-mail messages and a dozen more on voice mail. It took days to get through it all.
I kept only a two-inch pile of releases, most of which were referred to other staff members. (I did get one possible story idea.) And I’m just ONE person on an editorial staff of 30-plus people!
I understand that it can be difficult to know which editor at this publication to contact for certain “beat” areas, but many of the calls I receive from public-relations professionals reflect the fact that they have never even looked at or read the section that I edit. That puts me in the undesirable position of having to “pass the buck” and then try to connect them with the appropriate party.
A company may make one product that is appealing to our audience, yet once we’re on their list, we get releases for every single product they make, many of which do not apply. They need to have more targeted mailing lists since all of their products will not appeal to everyone in their database. We get at least 500-plus press releases per week; 90 percent are not of use to us.
Also, companies should go through their databases once in a while. We still get mail addressed to people who worked here six years ago!
Military & Aerospace Electronics
My biggest gripe is people sending information that has no real relevancy – e.g., numerous releases on a “new” product that was actually introduced some time ago. To help make their information stand out, PR people should explain the relevancy to me. If PR people would bother to read my magazine, they would quickly be able to figure out what’s in our niche. When someone isn’t sure, I really appreciate it when they call to ask whether or not I’d be interested
Karen Auguston Field
The real trouble starts when PR people try to follow up on unsolicited press releases. I often get calls from people asking about press releases they sent a month or six weeks ago: Did you get it? What did you think? Are you going to use it? In fact, it has gotten so bad that I simply do not respond to follow-up voice-mail messages or e-mails about unsolicited press releases. I get about 10 of these a day – and that’s no exaggeration.
Ten Commandments for PR Practitioners
Provided by Joe Maglitta, Senior Editor, Computerworld
- 1 Reps should read the book they’re pitching. A DUH, but often ignored.
- 2 Read the masthead.
- 3 Double-check the editorial calendar. Then double-check that you have called the right pub. I am often amazed at how many calls I get for other books’ features.
- 4 Check the pub’s Web page. If they don’t have one, tell them it would be helpful if they did.
- 5 Don’t ask me to correct/update your mailing list. Please hire a person and do it yourself by calling or e-mailing. I hate mailing back update cards.
- 6 Use e-mail if the editor prefers it.
- 7 Read one of the PR newsletters that show comings and goings at the magazines.
- 8 Share information at the agency so that 10 people don’t call the same editor about the same announcement.
- 9 Offer exclusives as much as possible, not blanket stories.
- 10 Don’t send a release, then call the next day or every day to see if I got it. The mail works. E-mail works. I will call if interested.