Academics Cost Less Than Journalists

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. Continue reading

Obamacare’s Complexity is Not Designed to Fool People

Obamacare’s complexity is really driven by the complexity of our present health care system—and the preferences of the American people

In a fantastic piece Megan McArdle exhorted journalists, who need both expert knowledge and insider connections to do their job, to nonetheless represent their non-expert, outsider readers. Taking Grubergate as her ostensible peg,  she listed various Affordable Care Act complexities that are meant to hide what’s really going on. For example, we have the Cadillac tax, rather than just limits on the tax subsidy to employer-provided insurance.

But McArdle goes wrong when she claims that deliberate attempts to obscure are the main drivers of Obamacare’s complexity:

“Obamacare was designed—as many laws now are—to exploit [ordinary people’s] lack of understanding.  It is huge and complex for a reason, and that reason is that this complexity is an effective thicket in which to hide what you are doing.”

The desire to obscure, though real, is only responsible for a tiny share of Obamacare’s complexity. The dominant cause is the complexity of our pre-ACA health care system. The second main cause is giving Americans what they want from health care—like the lowest possible cost to government. That’s really the opposite of what McArdle claims.

Continue reading

Are 90% of academic papers really never cited? Searching citations about academic citations reveals the good, the bad and the ugly

“90% of papers published in academic journals are never cited.” This damning statistic from a 2007 overview of citation analysis recently darted about cyberspace. A similar statistic had made the rounds in 2010 but that time it was about 60% of social and natural science articles that were said to be uncited. Neither statistic came with a link to supporting academic research papers.

That lack of support was a problem for me. I did not doubt the basic truth that many academic papers are uncited. But to be sure 90% was not urban legend and to learn the context and caveats, I needed to find the original research paper. I was not the only one who wanted the supporting evidence.  So, I dove into Google scholar, searching the disparaged academic literature for articles on academic citation rates.

What’s the truth? Continue reading

Journalists Need More Than Free Access to Best-Selling Academic Papers

Ezra Klein thinks he understands the real reasons Nicholas Kristof is frustrated with academics. It’s not that we write badly. That’s actually good, at least for journalists’ livelihoods: Since academics “write in jargon but speak in English,” journalists can “arbitrage,” translating academics’ work for the public. So, Klein is not focused on helping academics reach the public themselves, as I was in my reaction to Kristof.

Klein believes journalists’ real problems with academics are that academic journals are “wildly expensive” and there is no “academic equivalent of a best-seller’s list,” making it hard to find interesting papers.

I am skeptical. I think Klein vastly under-estimates the distance that most academic writing and most academics would have to travel to be relevant and understandable to journalists. His suggestions, while laudable, won’t bridge much of that gap.

My skepticism comes from my own experiences in academia, particularly too many hours scrutinizing endless equations or convoluted writing trying to tell if an academic paper in my own field was convincing or useful. And I fear that many academics cannot extract from our work what matters to the public and explain it clearly. In fairness, much of what we academics do is intrinsically complex.

I suspect that Klein is optimistic about journalists and academics’ papers because he unconsciously envisions many academics like the ones he hangs out with.  They explain well and have their pulse on what matters for the public. And there is another problem with Klein’s optimism: quite frankly, most journalists are not going to “get” complex analytical material as well as he does. Continue reading

What Kristof and His Critics Missed: Journalism’s Obsession with Newness Helps Keep Academics Obscure—Or Why Ezra Klein is Even More Right

Nicholas Kristof ignited fierce protests—and enthusiastic support—by saying that most academics “don’t matter in today’s great debates,” because they (we!) write dreadfully and in obscure journals, rather than for broad audiences. Both Kristof and his critics got a lot right. But they focused on what academics and academia do wrong and right, missing what journalism does to make the problem worse.

Coincidentally, only weeks earlier Ezra Klein, a fantastic wonky journalist, articulated journalism’s problem, explaining why it drove him to start a new journalistic enterprise:

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic… Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

Journalistic outlets today provide news, not what Jay Rosen describes as helping “us grasp the stories we care deeply about.” Why does journalism’s obsession with newness hinder academics trying to reach broad audiences? Continue reading

Netflix-like data to shape political reporting—Should we worry?

Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder concerned about NSA surveillance and threats to press freedom, is creating a new news venture, to the tune of (at least) $250 million. His plan to fund investigative journalism will help bridge the gap between what a vigorous democracy needs and what current media markets can support financially.

But one feature has gotten no attention: the plan to be a “general news” venture, including sports and entertainment.   Why do that? Sports and entertainment news are doing just fine, thank you, and don’t need a billionaire ’s charity. Plus the old-fashioned full-service approach doesn’t jibe with Omidyar’s “entirely new,” legacy-free rhetoric.

In fact, the brief explanation for the full-service route, communicated in an interview Omidyar gave to Jay Rosen, raises important questions. First, Omidyar is saying, implicitly, that others’ solutions for journalism, funding the unfunded content with the likes of Pro Publica and Kaiser Health News, is seriously incomplete. Is he right? Second, Omidyar may be planning a potentially creepy use of Netflix-like personally data to shape the public interest journalism. That would be ironic, since one of his first hires is Glenn Greenwald, famous for his NSA spying scoop. Should we worry? Continue reading