Anything Once

The Only Place in Journalism Where the World Still Works

I was completely sick of election coverage. So I read nothing but trade publications.

election magazines.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Convenience Store Magazine, National Hog Farmer, NAILS magazine, and QSR.

Like any human with even a dollop of exposure to the media these days, I am sick to death of the presidential election. I recognize the stakes. I know it is important. You might even say that keeping abreast of the news is part of my job! But I’m exhausted, depressed, and anxiety-ridden from constantly thinking about it. And I’m really sick of reading about it.

That’s why, nearing the last sprint of the election, I recently decided to opt out of election news for as long as I could stand it. I resolved to instead immerse myself in one of the few journalistic realms that, at least in theory, ought to be oblivious to our national electoral nightmare: trade publications.

I had tried this same experiment this May during an earlier episode of campaign fatigue, and I found it very calming. For a week, I abandoned the takes, spin, and horse race microscoops of modern election coverage and binged on magazines devoted to footwear, amusement parks, and pizzeria management. I found a safe haven in these boosterish, specialized publications catering to practitioners in specific industries. Last week, I returned to their numbing embrace.

If you watched the final season of Breaking Bad and wished it had focused more on the mechanics of Robert Forster’s vacuum-cleaner business, you are probably a trade-publication subscriber. They are the Dragnet of magazines, both for their just-the-facts appeal and their presumed disdain for hippies. To read them is to enter a vast journalistic parallel universe that is unapologetically wonky, congenitally nonconfrontational, and resolutely focused on workplace safety. Do you own or operate a nail salon? Then you should probably subscribe to NAILS magazine. Considering a career in swine? Let National Hog Farmer be your guide to pork production. Are you a grocer with a forward-looking approach to a rapidly changing field? Stop reading Slate and pick up Progressive Grocer.

I’ve been a fan of trade magazines for years, ever since the pizza parlor near my house started stacking old issues of a magazine called Pizza Today near the oregano shaker. Reading Pizza Today gave me insight into the operating mechanics of the New York pizzaverse, a world in which I had previously been just an enthusiastic tourist. Moreover, the magazine gave me a better sense of the tricks that restaurateurs employ to snare my money. I learned, for example, that every New York pizza place serves garlic knots not because they are delicious—they aren’t—but because they’re inexpensive to produce and are “an excellent upsell.” I haven’t eaten a knot since.

There are thousands of trade publications serving every conceivable field, offering deep, detailed excursions into mundane industries and processes. A week spent among their ranks was bound to give my brain a needed break from campaign minutiae.

I started with a publication that I knew would have absolutely nothing political to say: Door & Window Market magazine. Like most people, I use doors and windows every day but have rarely paused to consider the market conditions under which they are bought, sold, and installed. I had started reading DWM back in September after the archivist Carl Malamud publicly praised its reporting on a standards case involving the “fenestration industry.”

That’s a neat thing about trade publications: Many do an unparalleled job covering their niches. Upon visiting the website of DWM I clicked on a short, interesting article recounting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “preliminary list of the top ten most frequently cited workplace safety violations for fiscal year 2016.” Apparently, lots of workplaces do not spend very much time protecting their employees from dangerous falls. This was unfortunate to learn—if I owned a business, I would cocoon my workers in protective bubble wrap—and yet it was a relief to read about regular old workplace safety hazards rather than violent political rallies.

From there I visited the website of Plumber magazine, where my eyes were immediately drawn to a forum post titled “Can we get beyond butt cracks and sophomoric humor?” (My friends and family would tell you the answer is no.) The takeaway, according to editor Ed Wodalski: “Image and actions display professionalism and command respect from peers and customers. Having it in your company handbook is a good reminder.” I was glad to see this question being discussed among industry leaders. I was also glad to read an article by Paul Nicolaus titled “How Did Fence Post Get in Drainline?” (The answer: Vandals did it.) The piece closed by citing the business philosophy of the plumber who removed the fence post from the drainline: “answer the phone, show up, get the work done, clean up behind yourself, and be nice and honest.” This was exactly what I was hoping would happen in my experiment: I’d find some easy reading material on a low-stress topic and hopefully learn a little bit about fence-post extraction in the bargain. And besides, reading fence news that I could sort of use was infinitely preferable to fretting over Trump’s border wall.

About twice a day, I walk down the street to the coffee shop near my apartment and order an espresso. My engagement here is purely on the consumer level: I have no idea how to make an espresso, or what the various machines involved in its preparation actually do, or what sort of skill level is required to pour a good one. So off I went to the website of Barista magazine, where I was immediately engaged by a terrifying anecdotal blog post about an espresso-machine technician who found roaches inside the espresso machine at a Cinnabon in Boston:

Roaches began pouring from the machine’s shell. They ran across the counters and floor, crawled on top of the machine and the espresso hopper, scattered to every corner of the bar. In a panic the manager tried to close the panel again, but the damage had been done. The roaches scrambled to find new hiding places among the cups and plates stacked on the counter, and in the dusty corners of the floor.

This story was very gross, and it prompted me to forego my usual afternoon espresso in favor of a Coke. But I couldn’t help making connections between the roaches-in-the-machine story and the ways this exhausting election has revealed the ugliness that lurks, barely concealed, in American life. My mind was so focused on election coverage that I found myself drawing parallels between these innocuous trade stories and political topics.

At QSR, a magazine for and about the quick-service restaurant industry, I found an interesting story asking whether convenience stores posed a “threat to restaurants.” (The answer: Probably!) The story wasn’t talking about the cramped bodegas you find in New York but fuller-service places like Sheetz and RaceTrac, whose director of food programs spoke proudly of the chain’s passion for “delivering fresh, high-quality, delicious eats.” I am immediately suspicious of people who describe food as “eats,” so I didn’t know how much credence to give this story. Still, there wasn’t much here to remind me of the election, which was a blessing, I guess. And yet there also wasn’t much here at all. Trade journalism spends a lot of time passing along spin from business owners and industry leaders—and trade reporters can be (though aren’t always) even less skeptical of spin than their peers in the political press.

Hoping to delve further into the restaurant-versus–convenience stores question, I visited the website of Convenience Store News, which had a piece about how some stores are so keen on the prepared-food segment that they’re opening new locations sans fuel pumps—a daring move in the c-store trade. “High-quality, prepared food seems to be key in driving traffic without gasoline,” the magazine found, and since it used the word “food” instead of “eats,” I chose to believe them. I started clicking around the website for more stories, and this was where my experiment ran aground.

An October column by Joe Kefauver caught my eye: “Trump vs. Clinton: Who Would Be Better for C-stores?” Kefauver framed the question as a real dilemma for convenience-store owners. While Clinton advocates for equal pay laws and raising corporate taxes, notes Kefauver, “Trump consistently demonstrates no real policy initiatives or agenda, especially with regard to issues impacting the profit and loss statements of retailers.” Ultimately, he concludes, “operators will probably have very few legislative and regulatory threats to worry about from a Trump administration. Their only exposure will be when undisciplined, random and often irresponsible statements or tweets send international allies running for cover, making world markets panic.”

This was devastating. I did not come to the website of Convenience Store News to read about the election. I came to read about best practices for hot-dog roller machines. Looking for something more calming, I navigated to the website of Lodging, a trade magazine published by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Within minutes I was reading a column titled “How Hoteliers Can Make a Difference on Election Day.” “Now is the time to take a stand and support candidates at all levels of government—city, state, and federal—who will advocate on behalf of hoteliers,” wrote Vanessa Sinders. This was not what I wanted to read.

Or was it? I was trying my best to avoid election coverage, and yet I was encountering it nevertheless, even in places where I did not expect to find it. Perhaps I was subconsciously looking for election news? Moreover, though I hated to admit it, I didn’t actually care about the door and window market, whereas I cared a great deal about the presidential election. So I gave up. My experiment lasted about three days before I conceded defeat.

So what did I learn from my short stint in the trade-publication trenches? Well, I learned a lot about food service, a little about fence posts, and a few valuable things about this least-glamorous, most-stable segment of the media industry. Sure, trade publications won’t win any National Magazine Awards anytime soon. The people who work at them aren’t trying to turn a perfect phrase or write a killer nut graf; they just want to tell you everything they know about windows. And that’s valuable in its own right—even if a steady diet of trades isn’t an effective substitute for, well, anything. Trade publications represent systems that work, processes that can be described, and right now we’re in a moment that flirts with the undermining of the world’s processes and systems. To me, trades at least serve as a reminder that things keep on ticking.

One other thing struck me about trade publications: In filling their niches, they run a lot of puff pieces; they tell the intended audience what it wants to hear; and there’s a bland quality to even the best of them. If President Trump had his way, all media would resemble the most dangerous elements of trade media: friendly, credulous, and deferential to men in power. To read the trades in these anxious times is to remind ourselves of how things work, and how they might come undone.