News organizations get serious about research

“News organizations used to get by with minimal research expenditures because, for most of the second half of the 20th century, they had major profits and operated in fairly stable markets.”

I have a confession to make: What you are about to read is as much a plea as it is a prediction. But in the spirit of the holiday season, I trust you will not shy away from reading an analysis written from a place of hope.

pablo-boczkowskiHistorically, news organizations have invested a very small portion of their revenues in research. And the little that they have invested has been mostly devoted to a kind of market research with very clear short-term goals and a narrow focus — the opposite of the type of more long-term and broadly focused research that sometimes leads to nothing, but other times yields useful product or process improvements, and once in a while is the backbone of major breakthroughs.

I remember a speech by Bob Cauthorn at an industry gathering in the late 1990s, when he was still at the Arizona Daily Star. He scolded his fellow media executives for spending so little on R&D in comparison to the levels of expenditures of large organizations in other mature sectors of the economy. His remarks were received with welcoming applause. But one could see the disinterest in the eyes of his peers. Back then, traditional media organizations still had healthy profit margins; the founders of Google and Facebook were still in school.

Nowadays, traditional media organizations are fighting for their existence — a scaled down version of it, compared to that enjoyed by the executives Bob addressed at that meeting less than a generation ago — while Google and Facebook have become regular destinations for doctoral students in a number of disciplines, including graduates from our program.

Do companies like Google and Facebook hire PhDs and routinely fund external projects because they see themselves in the research business or want to expand into higher education? No — they do it because they are convinced that investing in R&D is essential to remain relevant in a knowledge economy, especially one in which the pace of innovation has greatly accelerated and whose future direction has become increasingly uncertain.

News organizations used to get by with minimal research expenditures because, for most of the second half of the 20th century, they had major profits and operated in fairly stable markets. This environment was also hospitable to the skepticism among journalists about the value of media research undertaken by social and behavioral scientists. This attitude of “we know better” contrasts with the deference that journalists have traditionally displayed towards research about almost any other topic.

We can call it a turf war and agree it was tolerable when times were good. But now that the survival of journalism is at stake and those winning the battle for the public’s attention — and advertising dollars, which usually follow that attention — are research-intensive enterprises, that kind of turf war has become between stupid and suicidal.

But there are recent glimmers of hope, both inside news organizations and in their external relationships with universities and other relevant parties. The R&D unit at The New York Times is a promising example of the kind of innovative work that can emerge when a news organization is not focused only on tomorrow’s deadline but also on the medium-term horizon. Last year, Tom Rosenstiel at the American Press Institute and Jack Hamilton at Louisiana State University began convening a task force composed of industry and academic leaders aimed to foster research-focused collaborations. I participated in two meetings of this task force and was delighted to see a transformation from the historical attitude of skepticism to a contemporary tone of engagement. But this engagement was hindered by an industry position of “what can you do for us?” Until this position — representative of that held by many journalists — shifts to “what can we do together?” it’s unlikely that fruitful partnerships will develop.

I hope 2015 will be remembered as the year that news organizations got serious about research. If that’s the case, it will be a major step forward for them towards regaining a position of relevance within the knowledge economy. If it isn’t, they will continue chronicling that economy from the sidelines, including many more stories about their own steady and painful decline.

Pablo Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.