Recently, I went to interview someone in a local engineering consulting firm about the growing use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Hawaii. (For more on the GISing of Hawaii, see my upcoming piece in the December issue.) At the end of the interview, the company’s tech whiz handed me a copy of ArcNews to show me a recent article on GIS use in Hawaii. The article was a good source, but I was more interested in the magazine itself. In fact, ArcNews is just one of several slick publications put out by ESRI, the world leader in GIS technology.
As it happens, I already receive ArcNews (and ArcUser) at home. Not because I’m a GIS geek. In fact, I have almost no personal experience with GIS; I can barely use Google Maps. But, many years ago, my wife fiddled with ArcMap, one of the older versions of the technology. At the time, she was a biologist, and the program was – and still is – the best way to manage many kinds of biological field data. Now, though, neither one of us has a particular need for GIS; but we still look forward to our issue of ArcNews every four months. It’s always a fascinating read – full of highly practical and detailed accounts of how actual practitioners use GIS. And even though neither of us are users, the magazine is an intriguing glimpse into another world. In short, it’s an excellent example of a trade journal.
Here’s where I confess to a strange predilection: I love trade journals. I know they’re supposed to be dry, boring magazines, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. In an earlier life, for example, my wife and I ran a small trade association for farmers who produced native seed (where we produced our own trade journal). Although we closed the association down almost a decade ago, I still cherish my quarterly issue of Seed Today, the journal for the broader agricultural seed industry. Similarly, when I interview people in their downtown offices, I prefer to show up early so I can sit in the waiting area and peruse the trade publications strewn across their side-tables. In city offices, I might browse Governing Magazine or American City & County and get a taste of the issues that are unique to running a municipal government. While waiting for a banker, I can learn about the nuances of operating a financial institution from American Banker or, better still, Banking Technology Magazine. The point is: the more detailed and jargony, the better. This is, after all, how the people in this industry actually think; not what they want me to think they think. It’s not beyond me to quietly slip one of these magazines in my bag as I leave.
It’s not only the articles. In fact, one of the main charms of trade journals is the advertising. Ads show you how an industry is organized. Who sells what to whom? How are the industry functions segmented? What sectors run in parallel. (That’s what makes Banking Technology better than American Banker.) Plus, it’s always fascinating to see the countless ways people make their fortune. (Who would have thought corn growers would shell out millions on something called a male row annihilator?)
It’s that detail that makes trade journals interesting. General interest magazines – even one, like Hawaii Business, that’s focused on a fairly specific, educated audience – sometimes have to eschew to particular for the general. But for a writer, the particular is often the whole story. There’s no substitute for the right word, even if that word is technically jargon. And if you want to really know the jargon that sets an industry or a guild or a trade apart, there’s no better place to look than a trade journal.