The Blogging/Scholarship/Media Interplay

This story got me thinking about what I think has become an increasingly interesting interplay between blogging scholars and journalists. It quotes Jeffrey Lewis, proprietor of the excellent Arms Control Wonk blog and manager of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center.

Reporters depend on smart people willing and able to explain things. Scholars are especially valuable to reporters because of the standards of intellectual rigor that generally attend scholarly work. Before the Internet and blogging, finding those scholars required a lot of trial and error, reading the scholars’ primary literature, having a fat Rolodex and a playing a lot of open-ended games of telephone: “Who do you know who’s smart about China’s nuclear program?”

Those techniques are still important, but blogging scholars seem to be short-circuiting that process, to the benefit of both reporters and the public discussion about the issues with which they deal. By definition, you see, bloggers are people who have already telegraphed their willingness and ability to try to explain things.

I’ve known Roger Pielke Jr., proprietor of the Prometheus science-policy blog, since before he started blogging. Roger was frequently quoted in the news media before he started blogging. But he says the blog has improved the dynamic:

I certainly have far more “offline” (not public) discussions with reporters than before the blog, and it seems that I do have a more substantive exchange with many reporters than before the blog. So I think that it has been a very useful means of holding an ongoing “conversation” with a wide range of reporters, and establishing a longer-term relationship. It is I think much easier for reporters to see who I am and where I am coming from with the blog.

In contrast to Roger, who I first met at an American Meteorological Society meeting some years back (that’s one of the old-school techniques for finding scholars to talk to – going to their meetings), I didn’t know Jeffrey Lewis pre-blog. The conversation between the two of us spun out of the fact that both of us had related blogs (the ACW and my NukeBeat). The Arms Control Wonk quickly became a must-read for me. And while lately I’ve not been doing much on the subject, I still turn to Jeffrey’s blog as a starting point when I need to get up to speed.

Jeffrey says blogging has “raised my profile tremendously,” and also helped the discourse in a way that’s not possible in traditional scholarly media for a number of reasons:

My personality doesn’t really come through in my academic writing, which tends to be bland, technical and behind the news cycle. Perhaps most important, my comparative advantage tends to be comfort with the minute technical details that inform that big picture. A blog is pretty much the only forum that allows me to write to my strengths in a style that isn’t an excellent sleep aid.

Reporters have paid much more attention to my work as a result of blogging, both because what I write is accessible and, now, because my blog has become sort of a “blog of record” for the community.

I do get the sense that reporters are definitely more well informed because of blogging. With op-eds and journal articles, form subjugates function. Take my summary of recent events with Iran and the IAEA — you found it useful, but can you imagine if I tried to place that in a newspaper as an op-ed? The form is all wrong, the tone is too flip, etc.

That last point, I think, is crucial for me on the reporter side of these discussions: blogs allow me to enter into the discussion much better informed. The conversation is, in a sense, already underway before I ever place the first call.

Gavin Schmidt, from RealClimate, is another scientist who I’d never talked to until he started blogging. He also has seen has media contacts rise significantly:

I think it’s absolutely clear that my media presence has increased dramatically from the blog. Prior to that, I was occasionally quoted, but once we were established, the number of media inquiries increased from maybe one a month to a few a week.

Communicating with journalists was part of the idea behind RealClimate from the beginning, and Gavin’s comments suggest it’s working:

It works both ways – the blog has introduced us more widely, and we in turn have been able to introduce interesting ideas into the media and public discourse. I’ve had many journalists tell me that they used our
posts to generate story pitches for instance. Many more have told me that our posts have helped contextualize other work – which was of course the main point all along. So I do get more informed journalists calling me – whether that is true across the board I am less sure, but I think it is probably a real effect.

(A big thanks to Roger, Gavin and Jeffrey, whose email contributions contributed to this, and who gave permission to quote them.)