Quality Journalism Is Increasingly Using Academics—and Should Use Even More
Last month Brad DeLong wrote,
“The problem with the @WashingtonPost (and the @NYTimes) is that it sells itself as a trusted intermediary interested in informing you while it is actually focused on seizing your eyeballs so that it can sell them to advertisers”
It’s true that both papers have had financial problems and need eyeballs to sell to advertisers. But Brad is being a bit unfair. Both papers produce a lot of quality journalism and I’m sure their editors would love to prioritize being a “trusted intermediary” above all else. Unfortunately, unlike Brad, who has a university salary, their journalists need to get paid. One solution is staring DeLong, one of the original academic bloggers, in the mirror: more academics producing journalism.
In fact, this past year the number of academics writing for journalistic outlets grew substantially with the founding of the UpShot at the NYT, which followed in the footsteps of WonkBlog at the Washington Post. (DeLong gave WonkBlog as an example of a trusted intermediary.) Many forces drive this trend, including an increasingly complex world needing increasingly expert analysts and academics intent on branding themselves.
But, perhaps out of politeness, no one is talking about the economic forces behind the trend. For a newspaper, academics are cheaper than journalists. And given quality journalism’s financial problems, academics are what they can afford.
Susan Dynarski is among the academics writing for the UpShot. The University of Michigan pays her a full salary and benefits to teach and do research—to learn about and analyze the economics of education. Therefore, the NYT only needs to pay her to write about what she already knows—probably a few hundred dollars per piece. (Of course, she may need more editing than a seasoned journalist.)
Josh Barro is among the UpShot’s full-time journalists. No one else is paying for Barro’s health insurance or housing expenses and so the NYT has to foot that bill. And Barro must be paid not only to write but also to learn about what he writes about. Luckily, Barro, son of an economist, already knows lots of economics, which is probably why the academic-heavy UpShot hired him.
Of course, the NYT can hire freelance journalists cheaply too. But quality journalism requires people who at some point spend a lot of time learning and investigating. Somehow, sometime, somewhere, by someone, a good chunk of living expenses has to be paid for.
From a public policy perspective, using academics to produce quality analysis for the media makes total sense. Quality journalism is a public good. While it was once cross-subsidized by selling sports coverage and classified ads, the Internet and other technology put a stop to that. Now, like most public goods, quality journalism is poorly sustained by the market. So, it makes sense to use higher education, an already financed public good, to support quality journalism, an under financed public good. That idea was just one of the reasons Don Waisanen, Andrea Gabor and I advocated Academic Journalism—a lot more journalism done by people with full-time academic salaries.
But will academics produce the kind of independent analysis that Brad DeLong fears is lost?
The complaint about quality journalism’s lack of “trusted intermediary” status was prompted by a Washington Post op-ed written by a Turkish newspaper editor, described by Claire Berlinski as “a sly, sinister enemy of freedom of expression in Turkey.” I know little about Turkish politics and thus have no opinion on the op-ed or whether running it is in any way related to getting eyeballs for advertisers or other financial problems.
But the problem is real. With few good sources of revenue, respectable media outlets look towards “native advertising”—content written by accomplished writers that looks like journalism but is in fact advertising. Regular op-eds should be protected by firewalls. But obviously, getting readers that advertisers want must have some effect on content.
Of course, academics are not immune from being swayed by funds for themselves or their institutions. Still, academics have a lot of financial protection that aids independence. We academics have salaries paid by universities—and thus ultimately paid mostly by government and students. Many of us have tenure that explicitly allows us to say whatever we want in our areas of expertise.
Quality journalistic outlets should continue to use more academics. At the very least, cheaper academics will mean that media outlets need to supply fewer eyeballs for advertisers.