Having once directed employee communications for a major insurer, I know publications for employees should be a prime source for acquiring firsthand information about a company's operations and culture.

Accordingly, when I became insurance editor of The Journal of Commerce, I began asking editors from insurance company publications to send me their employee publications.Many editors responded.

After reviewing a slew of them I was impressed by the up-to-date design and business focus of many, but was dismayed by the old-fashioned, family-oriented content of some.



Surely, one of the most striking magazines I receive is ''St. Paul World'' (Linking people and ideas through a global vision). It has dazzling graphics and pictures bursting in eye-catching, modern, dramatic designs. Published three times a year by St. Paul Cos., St. Paul, Minn., for its 10,000 employees, the magazine teeters on being over the top with its every-page-a-new-look, designer-gone-wild approach.

In fact, I was so enthralled by the beauty and infinite variety of the publication that as I leafed through the pretty pages I barely stopped to read any of the stories. And if my reaction is similar to that of a St. Paul employee, it is indeed a loss because when I settled down to read the stories, for the most part, they were as professionally written as the magazine is designed.

The articles discussed new products, offices, personnel; reflected the strategy, goals and mission of the company; and generally attempted to define what St. Paul is and planned to be.



One query I had after reading several issues: Why is so much space devoted to the international operations of St. Paul? With premiums from international operations representing less than 10 percent of the company's total premiums, the proportion of international coverage to domestic seems out of whack. If I were an employee working in one of the U.S. offices of the company, I would feel neglected, resentful that I didn't work in one of those exotic foreign locales and featured in a full-color spread.

''YOU'' (for the agent-customers and employees of the Utica National Insurance Group Utica, N.Y.), also a four-color magazine, has a less in-your-face design with satisfactory photos and graphics that complement the text rather than competing with it for the reader's attention. The serviceable photography seems to have been professionally contracted.

''Amica News'' (For and about the Amica family) starts with a four-color cover, but slips into two colors inside, except for the center spread where grip and grin photos of employees smiling and having a good time at the annual dinner are in full color. Another issue of the magazine of the Providence, R.I., insurer, had a colorful center spread of Amica's cookout to kickoff the company's United Way campaign. The black-and-white photos in the 26-page magazine for the most part are in focus, but not especially well composed or cropped.



What ''YOU'' and ''Amica News'' lacked was any solid information about what business the company is in or where it was headed, or if it had a plan for remaining profitable.

Also, both publications glorified the ''family'' feeling; that employees were part of one big group working happily together for the benefit of the company.

Maybe this family fiction works with these two relatively small companies that have managed to remain profitable and whole, but for other insurers that have fired thousands of employees, cut down on lines, relocated offices to distant places and closed others, merged/acquired/bankrupted - the myth of a company as a loving family collapses.

Loving, caring families don't deliberately instigate actions that result in disruption, confusion and alienation. Competition, fierce and unrelenting, has forced corporate America, including insurers, to hack off layer after layer of excess personnel, staff functions and operations to remain profitable.

Corporate America is no longer (if it ever was) a kinder, gentler place. Continuing to portray employees as family flies in the face of reality.

Community is an image that more closely identifies employees of a company. They remain as individuals with an interest in preserving the fabric of the place they live, but they have lives that have nothing to do with each other.



That said, ''NEWZ,'' published by Zurich-American, Schaumburg, Illinois, part of the gigantic Zurich Group of Switzerland, presents the news in an upfront, upbeat fashion in a bare-bones format.

Spelling news with a Z is a striking signal that this publication strives for the unique. First, it is odd-looking.

An unusual size, 9 1/2 inches by 14 inches, the design has a high-tech flavor without being obvious. Most strange is the use of only one color of ink - not black. In one issue, dark blue was the color selected so people in the photos (including Rolf Hueppi, chairman of the Zurich Group) came out in varying shades of blue. When a second color of ink was used, it was red in one issue, yellow in another and green in a third - never black.

Lots of pictures and graphics scattered throughout the issue break up the articles (which are usually short and snappy) and make the reader focus on this feature, then that, and on to another. There's a dynamic quality to ''NEWZ'' that's exciting, not distracting; but energized.



This publication has something few others include - a listing of events of Zurich-American's competitors. How are employees going to know how they and their company are doing unless they have some benchmark to evaluate their performance.

And there is a place where letters from employees are printed. Letters, some highly critical, tackle policies, procedures and operations of the company. Letters don't have to be signed apparently as several in recent issues were tagged anonymous.

Not much to look at, but once you have finished reading an issue of ''NEWZ,'' there is no doubt what business Zurich is in and that it is determined to be ''simply world class.''