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BLOG: Executive Summaries: They're Keepers

Roy Harris | June 1, 2011
A 2009 HBR redesign won raves. But when the magazine killed its executive-summaries feature, readers sent a message.

FRAMINGHAM, MA, USA, MAY 31, 2011—In a post-mortem of the 2009 changes made to Harvard Business Review, New York Times media writer Jeremy Peters finds that things are going well in its struggle to–as one HBR reader put it–"balance between 'dry' and 'breezy,' lest you devalue the brand into a Forbes-style publication."

HBR Group editor Adi Ignatius says newsstand sales and subscription renewals both are up, and so is advertising.

But one change HBR made back then didn't fly: It dropped the executive summaries at the back of the book. "Do we really need a whole section toward the back of the magazine where we summarize everything?" Ignatius asked himself. The answer came from readers. "I got this whole barrage of complaints saying, 'Put this back, you idiot.' So we did," he says.

The use of summaries always has been popular with publications that boast authoritative, detailed reports. When I signed on as a young Wall Street Journal reporter in 1971, I remember being amazed that the paper's most-read features were not the "leader" reports that ran along the left and right columns, and which we reporters built our careers around. Rather, the "What's News" summary on the front page always won out in reader surveys. Years after Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the Journal, the leaders are (essentially) gone, but "What's News" remains.

No surprise, really. If the material throughout a publication is well-prepared enough to command the respect of readers, those same readers will trust the short version—using it as a guide, from which they can move on to the more-detailed report, if they like what they see in brief.

What's troublesome, of course, is when the executive summary is all there is, because the underlying reporting was never done.

 

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