Why academics make better bloggers than journalists

By Felix Salmon
May 22, 2009

I just found this, from Brad DeLong:

One reason that we academics tend to judge journalists harshly is because of their… excessive claims of originality. We tend to believe strongly that situating your work and your contribution in the ongoing discussion is one of the very first duties of a writer–and a duty that is absolutely essential to any attempt to inform or educate readers.

Journalists act differently. They try to make their readers as ignorant as they can about where the information is coming from. In my view, this is both unethical and ineffective: it tends to lead to great suspicion of American journalists, and a discounting of what they write.

“Situating your work and your contribution in the ongoing discussion” is exactly what bloggers do — and it’s something that journalists find very difficult. Being original (the fetishization of the “scoop”, even if it’s only by five minutes) is vastly overpraised in journalism, and journalists as a group tend to imbue everything they do with an incredible amount of secrecy. Try asking a magazine writer what she’s working on: she probably won’t tell you. After all, you might scoop her!

I think Brad’s insight helps explain to a very large extent the reason why academics took to the blogosphere with so much more alacrity than journalists, and why journalists-turned-bloggers can be pretty stingy with links and hat-tips, at least when they’re starting out. And of course it helps explain the otherwise inexplicable decision by Bloomberg to bar its reporters from even discussing “media competitors”, let alone linking to them.

One of the things I dislike about many of the big for-profit blogs is that they seem to be much more likely to internalize this kind of competitive mindset, where they become obsessed with their “competition” and tend not to link to them. It’s silly, and it helps to poison the helpful and positive-sum spirit of the blogosphere; it’s also one reason I think why Twitter, with its re-tweets and nobody really caring who got something first, feels a bit like the blogosphere circa 2003, which is increasingly feeling like some kind of halcyon golden age.

On which subject: a question, if I may. Should I automatically link to my blog entries from my Twitter feed? I tend to get annoyed when people do that, but I also appreciate that many people are using Twitter as an RSS substitute. Let me know on Twitter or in the comments!


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Yes to both why academics are better bloggers than journalists and the question of inserting blog updates into your Twitter feed. I subscribe to your Twitter feed primarily because I like your blogging and figured it would be interesting to see what non-blog thoughts you have. Better to get them all in one place, no?

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

What Dave Said on the second. As long as your Twitter feed isn’t entirely your blog posts. (Some of us still read Twitter feeds via RSS.)

good wrting, i did got interested in blogs in the first place because some harvard academics wrote something interested and linked me to linkedin.com twitters.com and even facebook.com, how would i have known if it was only the jounalists that took care
thank God even scientist can write interesting stuff and i do believe the academic most

Doesn’t the fact that journalists get paid for their blogging, whereas academics don’t, have something to do with it? Assuming that’s true, of course. By the way, how do bloggers get paid? Do comments matter? I’m getting the feeling that they don’t.

That’s an easy one, Felix: Yes, it is annoying when people use their personal twitter feed to link to their stories, especially if their rate of output is high and constant. I’ve unsubscribed from plenty such accounts because they pollute the stream of quirky one-liner witticisms I’m after. The answer: A twitter account for the blog, which is separate from your personal twitter account. Of course, feel free to blur the edges of their respective magisteria.

Felix, definitely Twitter your blog posts. Twitter is a supplement to RSS and you should take advantage of it. Your readers will appreciate it.

I’m not a fan of blog post links in your twitter feed. If you do want to use twitter for that purpose, may I suggest having two twitter accounts- one for blog post links, and other for comments/ideas that don’t make it into blog posts…

Posted by mkamdar | Report as abusive

Salmon: Try asking a magazine writer what she’s working on: she probably won’t tell you. After all, you might scoop her!

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the profession of journalism required journalists to verify or corroborate the information they were reporting from various sources. Nowadays, SpeedyNews no longer allows that, reporters have a deadline to meet.

Which means we (the readers) get a lot of junk that we must sift through separating the wheat from the chaff. With great quantities of chaff to handle.

In depth reporting died an agonizing death, in the decade just after Deep Throat.

Forums have been around since the mid-1980s. They were not Internet forums, but internal to proprietary company systems. Internet forums became current about a decade later. And “blog” is just a propeller-head word for a forum.

All of which makes for more than a quarter century of some of the most mindless chat around.

What training does a reporter get?
Reporters have the gift of gab, hurried to spew sufficient words, and have a strong inclination to reflect what people/institutions already believe.
Reporters get trained in a field which almost anyone can get a college degree.
However, technical academic fields narrow the population to perhaps 10 percent who could attain a PhD.
The academic can cut through difficult/corrupted information, understanding the difference between a million and a trillion.
Numerous physicists have such good training that you find them at the front of other fields like Wall Street finance and statistics.

Economists have the best training for most stories.
The economist has a model about how things work,
whether people, animals, or the environment.
They have a rigid mathematical training.
Unlike reporters, economists who start writing off the top of their heads soon get corrected by their economic training.
A reporter might tell of cutbacks in schools,
but an economist (MarginalRevolution) would more entertainingly and more enlightened mention a teacher who paid for printing by adding local business advertisements on quizzes and tests.
You can select you economist according to your political view — conservative Greg Mankiw (Harvard), liberal Brad deLong (U.C. Berkeley), or libertarian Tyler Cowen (George Mason University).
Yet all these economists look out the window to temper their comments away from fancies in their heads and towards truth.

Posted by Jameson Burt | Report as abusive

Dear Felix,

Academics versus journalists? Interesting…

Some journalists are academics and vice versa. But, in the purest sense, academics are boring. They can be interesting if you have the time or patience to wait for what matters to you (very subjective per person), and I’m sure they are very good at what they do, but when it comes right down to it, they just don’t have the punch to serve up dinner on time.

Academics do have the luxury of time. And apparently this is important when it comes to such things as truth, cause, effect, etc.. They can blog, change their blogs (reports), correct and delete, and ultimately come up with something worth reporting. If an academic is complete in their thinking on their particular specialty, they often put events into contexts other may not. A valuable commodity.

Journalists, however, are the opportunists who scrap up the dailies, weeklies, monthlies – hopefully with some common sense and an ability to sort fact from fiction – and serve it up on demand. There is a marked difference between the two professions and the most critical one to me, it appears, is time.

So don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Forty percent fact may be substantiated under the right context. Today’s fact is tomorrow’s fiction. Tomorrow is another day. Let it run. Put it out there and see if it causes a stir. Sometimes the truth needs a little help. If you say it, it is opinion; if someone else says it, it is news.
The world didn’t wait for Einstein and it won’t wait for your dissertation. The presses are rolling; pull it or push it. Get your facts straight.

Can you summarize that it 25 words or less?

Ultimately, it is best the two are kept at arm’s distance or further from each other. More importantly, it is fortunate we have some, dare I say, credible news organizations which undertake the task to keep them apart.

ps: Tweet to your heart’s delight.

(joel j is neither an academic or a journalist and he doesn’t Tweet)

Posted by joel j | Report as abusive

Felix – not sure I agree with all you said here. If you ask an academic what they are working on when it isn’t yet published, they’ll probably not tell you if they think you may publish first – I live with an academic, they have their ideas/work stolen too.

As for links – academics are expected to cite existing work, although they sometimes do so badly (‘personal correspondence’). Overall a good journalist should write the articles based around citing the words of their sources, using direct or indirect quotation, and better still naming those sources. What journalists maybe don’t do so much is hyperlink. But hyperlinks don’t point to anything permanent and may even break. Hyperlinks are regarded as a ‘bad’ citation in academic circles, since there’s no certainty the content will remain static (e.g. you do an experiment using values from a web page, someone wishes to repeat your experience and the values are either different or not available).

Posted by Nic Fulton | Report as abusive

When I used to read academic articles in the humanities that would cite and often distinguish numerous previous writers on the topic, I used to think this was a sort of name-dropping, the author showing off that he had read all his predecessors. Since I was often not familiar with the previous writers I didn’t appreciate the value of “situating your contribution in the ongoing discussion.”
That is, till I started reading the business school journals. Not all journalists are writing on deadline. I was shocked to read long-form articles in the Harvard Business Review (and others) on things like the evolution of complex systems, articles intended to summarize the current state of theory and apply it to business strategy, but which made no reference to any intellectual progenitors. You’d have thought the author had created the theory of complex dynamics himself — or climbed Mount Sinai and brought it down on tablets. I thought it was somewhat unethical not to cite the author’s sources. And also intellectually shallow. It deprives the reader of links into that broader discussion. It was also disheartening to realize that Harvard apparently thinks business executives can’t handle footnotes.
(The HBR also seemed to have a policy of only citing other HBR articles.)
While a blog post like this is always somewhat situated because it is part of a stream of comments, I don’t think that fully situates it intellectually. If a lawyer were to write a blog comment citing a legal principle — say that mailing catalogs into a state is not sufficient “nexus” to establish jurisdiction for tax purposes — other lawyers would expect a reference to a case or some other authority. (And maybe also citing and distinguishing what seem to be contrary holdings in other cases.) The fact that the comment is situated in a stream of comments isn’t really sufficient. The relevant “discussion” is bigger than that.

Posted by Joel Rosenblum | Report as abusive

Dear Felix,
What an interesting blog! I am teaching economics at a primary school and studying to teach Grade 10-12. I’ve found it difficult to find an appropriate blog that is topical to both my studies and school curriculum. In my case I have to be economist, academic and “journalist” to my learners about every day, up to date economic affairs in the world. Blogs like these broaden your horizon and stimulates talk. Thank you!

Posted by Antoinette Matthee | Report as abusive

i gust want to say some thing “great job”

Update your Twitter randomly according to your intrest Or, from Rss Feed Or, from your own tweet message list Or, Any combination of the above three http://feedmytwitter.com

Felix is my friend and colleague at Reuters, and I admire him and he has said nice things about me. Now I will skewer this misbegotten blog post.

DeLong’s comment about trying to keep people ignorant is not only untrue, it’s an insult that reeks of elitism. Academics have time and space to draw many conclusions based on scientific methods. Journalists usually do not. They have to go with the next best thing: observation, interviews and conclusions. That is a skill that is not as well grown in classrooms as academic skills are, journalism schools notwithstanding. It sounds like DeLong scoffs at a job that is still more a trade than a science.

Your comment about how journalists have difficulty setting their work in the ongoing discussion of the story at hand reveals a lack of understanding of what journalism is supposed to do and what good journalists do every day.

You raise interesting points and cite interesting people, yet you end up being so painfully wrong. Nevertheless, you and the blog post are entertaining, so you earned your bowl of rice today.

Interestingly I am a journalist who has a background in academia and a degree in science journalism. I think the distinction is that a journalists job is to find out what’s “going on.” An academic’s job is to figure out what’s “true.” Journalists often do include some kind of analysis in their reporting and writing but it is not to the same level as an academic analysis. And as other commenters have pointed out, this type of analysis is not something that journalists have the time to do.

Another important point is that academics often have a very narrow field of expertise, where as journalists are trained to become “instant experts” in an entire field like business, science, politics, etc. They do that by finding the experts in the field, interviewing them, pulling together the pertinent information and figuring out where the consensus is.

Posted by Eric R. Olson | Report as abusive