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.

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