Compelling Stories Await Alert, Aggressive Trade Publications

In this post, Tom Zind — the 2010 recipient of the Stephen Barr Award — explains why B2B publications are perfectly capable of producing stories that can trigger meaningful change.

There’s no rule, written or unwritten, that only publications lucky enough to get to compete for the Pulitzer Prize get to do great journalism.

Trade publications, too, are fully capable of producing the same kind of impactful investigative reporting as their cousins in the consumer press.

I’ve been reminded of that fact this year, having had the good fortune to win the ASBPE’s 2010 Stephen Barr Award, as well as a Gold Azbee, for a story that appeared in EC&M magazine in 2009.

Missteps and Oversights. In the story, which explored the linkage of military and military-contractor missteps and oversights to the tragic electrocution deaths of several U.S. soldiers in Iraq, we attempted to frame the problem, cite the possible causes, allocate responsibility and highlight multi-pronged efforts to correct the situation and reduce the hazard.

Though we’ll never know just how much impact the story had on subsequent strong corrective actions initiated by the Pentagon or military contractors, we take heart in knowing that we did our journalistic duty. We saw a problem, one both our national leaders and our readers deserved and needed to understand, and did our best to fairly and accurately lay it out. EC&M editors accurately spotted a compelling and important story, allowed a reporter the time and resources to investigate and put the story through the careful editing and fact-checking paces before letting it see the light of day.

More Attuned to Safety Going Forward. The result, we think, is an industry that’s now more knowledgeable about the nature of electrical safety hazards in military environments and more aware of the dedication of some its members, as well as a military and civilian contractor community more attuned to safety going forward.

Granted, stories like this that blend life and death, rumors of official negligence and a compelling human-interest angle, don’t come across the typical trade publication editor’s desk very often. But they don’t have to. Trade publication editors and writers who stay clued in to events taking place outside their industries, think creatively about how national stories can be spun with an angle “local” to their readers’ interests and allow their imaginations free rein to at least consider what stories they’d pursue in “a perfect world” not beset by industry political concerns, might be surprised at what gems they uncover.

Always an Audience for Compelling Journalism. Moreover, they’re likely to find an audience whose interest in compelling journalism that may even ruffle a few feathers in the process is unrivaled. Trade publication subscribers are acutely interested in issues that affect their industries and professions. Many increasingly understand that in an age of blogging and social media, secrets are harder to keep and openness is a preferential strategy. That can translate to more willing and cooperative sources than might be imagined, and an engaged readership eager to be told the truth, even in a more unvarnished form.

In short, all of the elements needed for solid journalism – stories begging to be told, sources with intimate knowledge and readers clamoring for facts – are in place for trade publishers. The only missing piece? Just more editors and writers willing and able to turn the key.

By Tom Zind

Zind, who lives in Lee’s Summit, Mo., is a 1979 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism, and has worked as a freelancer for the last 13 years.

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