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Why journalists don't cover how things work

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May 04, 2006

Why journalists don't cover how things work

Stephen Baker

For two days in Miami, I circulated in a large conference wearing a badge that said press. I didn't see any others. This was a conference of operations research. This is the math that makes businesses and industrial operations run smoothly. It cuts wasted motion. It's the magic behind Federal Express and Dell. It's a leading force of innovation and competitive advantage in the industrial world. And few outside the field pay any attention.

At the O.R. conference (the association is called INFORMS), there were far too many interesting presentations for one person to cover them all. The people behind operations at Intel, IBM, the Army, Ford and plenty of others provided inside looks. Beat reporters of those companies could have feasted on these lectures. But they weren't there.

Why? The press covers news, stocks, companies and personalities. But try pitching a cover story on operations. People think it's ... boring. Trouble is, if we want to know where things are going, we have to understand how they work. And when the process is transformative, as it often is in OR, there's nothing boring about it. The winner of the annual Informs Franz Edelman award, by the way, was the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. They overhauled the maintenance of jumbo C-5 transport aircraft, reducing repair time by 33%. This means that these monsters, which cost taxpayers $2.3 billion each, spend more time in the air and less time in the shop.

08:30 AM

mainstream media

There is a rapid prototyping/manufacturing show in Chicago at the end of May. PLEASE GO! because I can't.

Posted by: csven at May 4, 2006 10:31 AM

I think there are two things that explain why media don't seem to care about operations.

1) The last decade or so has seen the idea that things need to be "entertaining" infiltrate fields from education to journalism.

If you start from the entertainment premise, and you don't know anything about business to begin with (the case with most reporters when they start out) you write about the things that are interesting to you.

2) We have confused "stock market news" with "business news." The evening business report is a stock market report. Hardly anyone looks behind the stock market report at real operations unless there's a plant closing to be covered.

I don't know what the answer to this is. Maybe we need to have basic business courses in our J-schools. Maybe we need to pay attention to who we assign to business stories. We wouldn't think of assigning someone to a sports story who didn't like sports, but I've been interviewed by enough reporters who are writing business stories but don't know the first thing about how business works to know that a knowledgeable business reporter in the mainstream media is rare indeed.

Posted by: Wally Bock at May 4, 2006 11:09 AM

Stephen: Great question, and one which I'm sure there are many answers.

One, I would say, the short news cycle. There is little time to really delve into a topic or subject. That, plus the demands on journalists' time is another.


Posted by: Mike Driehorst at May 4, 2006 12:18 PM

Stephen, I met you at the conference and agree with your perspective. Those of us in Operations Research may not have the talent to explain our work in a way that makes it interesting to the general public and consequently we are in need of journalists who will take the time to understand our technologies and create the proper words to interest those outside the field in their value.

Posted by: Jay April at May 4, 2006 06:50 PM

I sometimes wonder if some editors (and yes, writers) don't respect their readers' intelligence and curiosity. I believe that many readers actually do want to read about how things really work. They can get entertainment everywhere today. Knowledge is a rarer commodity. Certainly it's tougher to pull off in an engaging manner, and maybe that's the problem. But what else are we journalists here for, when you get down to it?

Posted by: Rob Hof at May 5, 2006 12:45 AM

"And few outside the field pay any attention".

Could it just be that we/they didn't know about it? I didn't, I appreciate the heads up. It sounds exactly up my alley (I write about manufacturing, lean manufacturing and am interested in organizational behavior). I've never heard of this organization but I'm glad to learn of it.

Could it also be that INFORMS needs to be more proactive in getting the word out? As someone who blogs on some arcane/technical stuff, I can tell you that you tend to develop a diffident posture if you have to continually explain it to a general audience because it bores them. They're not interested. That's why you stick to media you know, preventing the attendance of more mainstream media. Knowing that, I read as broadly as I can. I mean, I read this blog and it has nothing to do with my core interests but I found some great information today.

Posted by: Kathleen Fasanella at May 5, 2006 05:58 PM

I just watched "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room". In one of the "extras" on the DVD, co-author Bethany McLean talked about a similar topic: why business reporters tend not to dig into accounting issues. She said that the culture of the business press values writing talent and storytelling, not expertise in finance and other technical topics.

Posted by: Adina Levin at May 6, 2006 07:23 PM

I'm a personal-finance writer with a Master's Degree in Management Science -- which is a field that features operations research but with a more applied bent. And I've attended OR conferences.

First, Mr. Baker might appreciate, a little background. Operations Research is actually the mathematics of optimization. How do you do something in the "best" manner, subject to various real-world constraints.

It was first used in World War II, when OR mathematicians helped figure out the best way to deploy troops, equipment, and munitions. Soon after, it became a major tool for oil companies to figure out how to build the most efficient supply channels, and for airlines to figure out the most efficent set of routes and hubs. In both of these cases, constraints included maximum times for a given delivery or flight, maximum fuel usage, and related factors.

But in many other industries, OR sometimes had problems "proving itself in" as offering benefits beyond its costs. Part of the problem was in some practitioners who developed overly elegant solutions -- often due to their failure to actually get out in the warehouse or field and see how things were actually done. So, for example, they might have come up with a way to maximize overall plant production of a number of distinctly different products by using a 24/7 scheduling scheme involving shutting down certain equipment and starting up other equipment in a way that people would never actually do it -- for example because of the Monday/Friday absentee effect that many factories used to suffer.

But once powerful computers became ascendant, OR made new inroads; in fact, it's the basis for many of resource-utilization techniques involved in parallel processing on the massive computers that preceded networked PC environments.

In a related vein, OR is behind the design of major call-in centers; statistical queueing theory is used to determine how calls are handled and routed to ensure no customer is on hold more than X minutes and no non-specialized rep spends more than Y minutes on a call before transfering it to a specialist.

So, watch out, some OR geeks might just show up in your newsroom and get management to buy in to a total redesign of how news feeds flow in, reporters are deployed, the writing/editing schedule is set up, the workstations are placed for most effective interaction, etc. And you can be sure it will also play a big part in this election year as the national political committees determine how to deploy their staff and funds for maximum effectiveness.

Posted by: Alan Feigenbaum at May 8, 2006 06:12 PM

Stephan - i wish i had spotted you in miami - i was looking for those with press badges to thank you for covering our show. one of my roles at SAS is to talk with the press and media about ways that businesses are benefiting from math. I have seen an increased interest in the past couple of years and a renewed appreciation of those with the patience to crunch numbers.

May 21-24 in orlando Florida will be another professional society conference where you will find industrial engineers and mathematicians applying their skills to improve our world. take a peak at the event website

Posted by: mary crissey at May 9, 2006 02:28 PM

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