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