Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On academics blogging, writing newspaper columns, stuff like that

Should academics maintain blogs and do newspaper columns? If we decide to do so, should we insist on getting paid?

During a conversation I had with an academic at a top Australian research university he mentioned to me a colleague who he thought had burned-out as a serious researcher and who tended to spend his while writing newspaper columns and blog entries as opposed to doing serious work. He clearly didn't approve of academics spending their valuable and usually well-paid time writing content for blogs such as this one.  So, should we bother?

I got to be honest, academics working in areas that are of interest to the wider public should share their insights with that wider public. Say if you work on climate change in environmental science, or you work on obesity prevention, surely you have an obligation to inform the taxpayers that fund your job about your findings. Hiding your research outputs exclusively in highly specialized academic journals with their few hundred readers per average article output, seems almost irresponsible. It makes sense to maximize the impact of your work,

You'd object and point out that nothing stops you from doing other kinds of media work. Why not talk to journalists and let them repackage your research professionally. After all, unlike us academics they are trained at least in producing readable content. Well, truth be told, that's not exactly a risk-free activity. Often you talk to journalists for 30 min or longer over the phone and their 2 line quote manages to miscommunicate what you have been on about completely, or to a significant extent. Writing your own stuff means taking control of your public messaging.

Some have lamented that too many academics write these days free of charge for sites like the Huffington Post, thereby destroying journalists' jobs. I have got to be honest, I sympathize with this concern. I have, in the past, written free of charge for papers like Toronto's Globe and Mail or The Conversation. I have also written for The Guardian, but being the paper that it is, it paid without me even asking for it. I would probably still write free of charge for non-profit outfits like The Conversation. However, I think it's problematic to write free of charge for commercial outlets. It messes up the market for these sorts of creative outputs. It's also problematic because you subsidize with your freelancing the columns of these papers' staff columnists, some of whom are, well, dreadfully uninformed at the best of times.

I have accepted last year an invitation to write for the Kingston Whig-Standard, the local outlet of a massive conservative Canadian media conglomerate. The that time editor of the paper offered a column on anything I fancied writing on and a smallish fee. To that deal I agreed. It wasn't so much about the money, to be honest, because after paying taxes, it's really more of a token of gratitude than actual pay. The principle though, that you should get paid for such work is right. It's quite ok if the paper at one point tells me to go away and reallocates their limited freelance writing resources to another writer. That that person should then also be paid for their work is only right. Incidentally, that's why I have never written for the Huffington Post. It's also the reason why I hold newspaper subscriptions. People producing original content for your consumption should be paid.

It's funny how that column writing venture panned out. The paper (initially unbeknownst to me) enters my columns into a pool of content produced by any number of other freelancers and on a few occasions my columns ended up being reprinted in other papers owned by said conglomerate. Some probably saw more readers than my piece in the Toronto broadsheet. The paper also puts up the columns on its website. Initially they tweeted my columns but that has since ceased (I do that myself now, big deal). To my surprise, despite the smallish print circulation of the paper, my content also ended up with a reasonably wide reach. Nothing comparable to The Guardian, but still. I discovered that folks in Thailand had once a lively discussion about one of the columns. You never know where this stuff ends up! - The other week I ended up in the cinema. An elderly man sitting right beside me, whom I had never before seen in my life, thanked me for writing the columns. Apparently he is looking forward to reading them every weekend. Well, I'm sure there are also folks that really dislike them. It's inevitable.

Talking about reach. Yes, I tweet links to my columns and share them on google+. My tiny twitter followership is still tiny by Justin Bieber standards. It went from 70 or so to a bit under 300 people these days. Among these people though are a bunch of influential tweeters. If any one of them retweets links to my pieces they quickly attract a significant number of additional readers. The flip side is that there is plenty of sneering and one-line commenting on such occasions that one cannot reasonably and intelligibly respond to. - How a US Member of Congress ended up amongst my followers? Who knows. May be join him to find out whether it's quite worth it :). I'm @schuklenk


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