Covering business schools in the multimedia age

by
Businessweek rankings

Louis Lavelle is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Previously, he was BusinessWeek’s management editor.

Since taking over as the magazine’s business schools editor in 2005, his team has expanded the franchise to include coverage of Chinese business schools and new rankings of undergraduate business programs, part-time MBA programs, the best employers for new college graduates, and the best employers for internships. In 2007 and 2008, BusinessWeek won National Magazine Awards for the B-schools channel on Businessweek.com.

Lavelle is also the author of “Fast Track: The Best B-Schools” (McGraw-Hill, 2008). Prior to BusinessWeek, Lavelle was a reporter at The Record in Hackensack, N.J. In 1998, he won the New Jersey Press Association’s Award for Business and Economic Writing. Lavelle worked at The Tampa Tribune for nearly nine years. In addition, he did stints at The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J., and The Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y.

Lavelle received a bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University in New Jersey and a master’s from New York University.

Next month, the magazine will introduce revamped rankings. Among other changes, it is launching a new web tool that lets people select from more than 100 data points across 200 schools so they can see how they stack up against each other using criteria that matters to them.

Lavelle discussed by email with Talking Biz News about how the magazine covers business schools and the upcoming changes. What follows is an edited transcript.

Why are business school rankings important to the magazine?

Bloomberg Businessweek’s biennial ranking of full-time MBA programs dates back to 1988. We were the very first publication to do this and have come to own this space in a way that most other media outlets can’t claim. Every two years, business school applicants rely on Bloomberg Businessweek to make one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.  The rankings serve as a great introduction to the magazine for a new generation of rising young business executives. The trust engendered during the business school selection process makes many of those people Bloomberg Businessweek subscribers for life.

How do you determine the editorial content around the data every year, and then throughout the year?

For the most part, we let the data determine the editorial content. The stories we publish with the ranking are based on the most important developments we tracked throughout the year — application trends, admissions changes, the MBA job market — as well as the thousands of comments made by MBA graduates in our surveys.

During the year we publish at least two to three new pieces of content every day, five days a week on businessweek.com. Much of this is breaking news — there are really very few media outlets that cover the B-schools space as thoroughly as we do — but we also do features, service stories, and the occasional multi-part series. All of our editorial choices are driven by what we think is important, or interesting, for the vast majority of business school applicants, students, and alumni.

How are the rankings changing this year in how the data is presented?

First, let me say the actual methodology we use is not changing. Our ranking will be based on surveys of thousands of MBA graduates, hundreds of corporate recruiters, and the publication record of each b-school’s faculty. However, the way in which the data is presented is undergoing its biggest overhaul in the 24 years since the rankings began. The biggest change is on Businessweek.com. We’re launching a new B-School Finder, which lets you personalize the list based on your own needs. You can compare schools on more than 100 different data points — everything from selectivity and yield, to top employers for graduates.

Let’s take salary for example. You’ll have extensive information on alumni pay, with a level of detail not available anywhere else on the web. For each school you’ll be able to view graduate salaries for those with up to 20 years of work experience. And, you can dig deeper into specific industries, functional areas, and world regions. You’ll also be able to see the top undergraduate institutions, top majors, and top employers for each school’s admitted students.

The other huge change is the look and integration of multimedia. Instead of a dry run-down of statistical data, the information will be presented on businessweek.com as charts and graphs that make it easier to understand. Profiles will have photos, and in the case of top-ranked schools, Bloomberg Businessweek-produced videos to help bring the feel of the campus, classes and students to you. And, last but certainly not least, we help you connect with other applicants and participate in lively discussions through our forums.

Explain the importance of online for the coverage.

The rankings and other B-schools content still make an appearance in the print magazine from time to time, but most of the people who rely on the rankings and our year-round editorial coverage consume them online. This has been true for some time now and becomes more true every year. Part of the reason why people are looking online for this type of content is because the B-school community follows our coverage on Facebook and Twitter, and gathers in our B-school forum to share tips on B-school admissions, advice on the MBA job hunt, and more.

Who do you see as your competition in terms of business school coverage?

Well, in my opinion, nobody covers business schools the way we do — looking at more than 100 different data points and publishing daily articles. However, other organizations that either produce rankings or have editorial coverage in the space include the Financial Times, U.S. News, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and Poets & Quants. (Editor’s note: The Poets & Quants site is run by John Byrne, who once ran BusinessWeek’s business school rankings.)

How many staffers are working with you on the coverage and the data, and what are their jobs?

We have a core B-schools team that oversees the day-to-day management of the ranking surveys, handles the number crunching and writes B-school specific stories. In addition to this team, we have many others who contribute to the success of this effort, assisting with the design, the technology and the information gathering. Special shout-outs to Alison Damast, Melanie Danko, Katherine Davis, Francesca Di Meglio, Geoff Gloeckler, Tiffany Guidice, Fred Jespersen, Martin Keohan, Jennifer Lee, Ross Litscher, Jennifer Marrero, Brad Rickman and Erin Zlomek.

How has business school coverage evolved in the past decade?

I think interest in business schools — positive and negative — has really exploded in the last decade as an MBA came to be seen early on as a path to untold riches, and later as the source of some of the problems that led to the global financial crisis.  The number of rankings, by media outlets and others, has also exploded.  The business of business schools has gone global, with top schools opening campuses or partnering with local players in foreign markets, and its gone digital, with more schools exploring online programs.  As costs have risen and graduate salaries have stagnated, there’s a greater hunger for information on ROI — there’s no longer an assumption among applicants that a two-year B-school sojourn will necessarily end well. B-school coverage used to be a quiet little backwater; it isn’t any more.

Is the idea to cover business schools like they are a business, or is it still looking at them like an academic institution?

At Bloomberg Businessweek, we’ve traditionally viewed business schools as academic institutions — our coverage is heavy on what it takes to win admission to top schools, land a job with a coveted employer, and the in-between part: the B-school experience itself. It’s all about the student. But that’s starting to change.  We now publish stories on the endowments, fund-raising, tuition hikes, new buildings, and other “business” aspects of B-schools. We also write about what I think of as the intersection of business and B-school: developments involving MBA alumni out in the business world, for example.

Do business schools court coverage like some companies, and what do they try to do to get stories written about them?

The extent to which some business schools court coverage would put a lot of top corporations to shame. I get pitched at least a dozen times a day. Every new program, every associate dean, every new faculty hire, every piece of research published — everything gets pitched, no matter how inconsequential.  The main thing schools do to get stories written about them is facilitate interviews. If they’re pitching a story about first-year MBAs coming back from their summer internships with job offers, they’ll gladly line-up a half dozen interviews with students.

Where I think a lot of schools go wrong is refusing to supply information. This happens frequently when the information sought might put them in a negative light: starting salaries that are lower than last year’s, for example. Prospective students have a right to know that information, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Schools’ withholding it does them a disservice.

What are some of the issues or strategies in covering business schools that are unique to other types of business news coverage?

I believe there’s what I would call an “optimism bias” in what gets reported about business schools, which is more or less the opposite of every other kind of coverage I can think of , from book reviews to business coverage.  The reason is the schools control the message.

I’ll give you a few examples.

When the business school accreditation agency, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, accredits a new school it issues a press release. When it strips a school of its accreditation or puts it on probation it refuses to release the information, and in fact doesn’t even have to supply it to the federal government. There’s an outfit called the MBA Career Services Council that creates standards for reporting MBA careers data — placement, salaries, that sort of thing. It audits schools every year, but it won’t release the results of the audits — so a school could be lying about its placement record, but nobody would ever know.

When the Graduate Management Admission Council recently reported testing volume, the press release mentioned the big increase in global and international testing volume but omitted its biggest market, the U.S., where testing volume was flat. As a result this kind of reporting bias, much of what gets written about business schools is overwhelmingly positive. That’s not going to change.

It forces media outlets like Bloomberg Businessweek to be creative. We now rely on our own surveys of students for some information we used to get from schools.

How do you try to keep the coverage fresh every year when the new rankings are released?

That’s a good question. With some of our other rankings (undergraduate business, part-time MBA, executive MBA) there’s a little more movement than you typically see in the full-time MBA rankings, especially at the top of the list. So keeping the coverage fresh, especially for the full-time MBA ranking, is a challenge. It helps that a lot of our ranking stories aren’t your typical “horse race” stories, focusing on who moved up and who slipped down. They’re broad thematic stories about the current state of the MBA.

So if it’s a year when the MBA job market is down, the story might be a look at the reasons behind it, what schools are doing about it, how graduates are coping, and the outlook for recruiting season; if it’s a year when all the top B-schools overhauled their curricula, the story might take a look at that.