Closing the Divide

There has been a lot written in the media lately about how doomed, well, the media business is. Newspapers are experiencing falling circulation and cratering revenues. Traditional news sites are struggling to retain writers and make money. Things look pretty bleak.

And yet, if you look at what media actually does, things couldn’t be better. The media business is the business making money by delivering information to customers, full stop. Today’s digital economy produces more information than at any other point in human history. There is more information out there, and more of a demand for media, than ever before. The problem isn’t that media is doomed; it’s that old-fashioned media that can’t generate revenue in a digital space is doomed.

Here at S&S, we think that there is still plenty of room to grow in the media space. More importantly, there are a number of crucial services that the media still has to provide, particularly as information continues to expand. Specifically, we think that the biggest unmet need today is in what we call the “knowledge-practice divide,” the gap between those who produce new and unique knowledge (scientists, academics, researchers) and those who put that knowledge into practice (executives, policy makers, and entrepreneurs).

Why is this so important? Let’s look at an example. In 2010, Catherine Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, two well respected economists based at Harvard University, circulated a paper that purported to prove that, past a certain point, high levels of public debt acted as a major drag on economic growth. In short, excessive public spending could threaten the nascent economic recovery then underway. Major media outlets, political operatives, and pundits around the world immediately picked up the story and ran with it, despite the fact that the paper was almost immediately criticized by large portions of the academic community.

Reinhart and Rogoff became darlings of half the political spectrum, and their paper directly informed a number of policymakers until 2013, when Hendorn, Ash, and Pollen of the University of Massachusetts published a paper demonstrating that Reinhart and Rogoff had made a simple math error, and their conclusions were therefore highly suspect.

By this point, though, it was too late. Elections had been won and lost, and policies written, based on the 2010 paper.

Why did everyone get this wrong? There are a number of reasons, including politics, but a major cause is the media itself. Major media outlets, whose job it is to fact-check policymakers and inform the electorate, failed to investigate Reinhart and Rogoff’s claims or give credence to dissenting opinion.

This is symptomatic of a larger problem facing media today: finding relevant information, accessing it once it’s been found, and understanding it once it’s been accessed. Today’s digital economy produces information at a dizzying rate. More importantly, as the internet continues to evolve, the sources of information have multiplied. If you, as an individual, want to sound off on a particular topic, you don’t need to be published in the New York Times; all you need is an idea and a WordPress.

On the plus side, this has resulted in an explosion in the amount of information available. However, for a journalist, executive, or someone who needs to put a particular idea into practice, it makes it much tougher to find the information you need. Who do you listen amongst the cacophony? Google will give you the information but won’t tell you who is right.

Even if the information is clearly available, it may not be accessible. When it comes to the generation of new knowledge, academia still leads the charge. However, much of the new research being done today is quickly buried in academic publications and locked behind a pay wall. Paying to access this information can quickly become exorbitant.

Once the information has been accessed, those who can use it may not understand it. Academics notoriously write for one another, not a lay audience. There is good rationale for this – the peer review process, which typically controls access to most academic journals, is meant to ensure the integrity of the academic publishing process. At this it mostly succeeds. However, it has the unfortunate side effect of making most academic research incomprehensible to anyone without an advanced degree.

All of these factors have combined to create a significant gap between those who create knowledge and those who put it into use. To their credit, outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have recognized this gap, and are looking for ways to close it. They typically take one of two ways: they either hire experts to translate complex topics for them, or they have their journalists attempt to do so. Both of these have problems.

When Larry Summers writes for the NYT, his goal is typically not to make some complex economic idea understandable to the typical reader; it is to make the case for a particular policy or idea that he already supports. This means that information delivered this way is filtered or spun.

When the typical newspaperman attempts to do the same, results are typically mixed. Most journalists working at major media outlets are not trained as economists, or ecologists, or physicists, or whatever. This means that the information is either translated and filtered through the journalist themselves (and their occasionally-limited understanding of the topic at hand), or is filtered through the journalist’s sources. Both of these factors increase the distance between the generator of knowledge and the user of knowledge (the reader).

So what’s to be done? Information is everywhere, but it’s wildly scattered; the really valuable information is often inaccessible or exorbitantly expensive; and it’s often not understandable by those who can put it into practice. This combination results in miscommunication, selective filtering, and spin throughout the media space. In other words, the gap between knowledge and practice is vast, and it hasn’t gone away despite the explosion of available information. If anything, more information is enlarging the gap.

Targeting this gap and closing it is exactly why we started S&S back in 2011. Our goal was to create a media organization that can convene experts and sources of info on a specific topic and translate it to a lay audience, without filtering it through conventional media outlet. By bringing together experts in a field, whether academic, business, or technical, and working to translate their knowledge to a lay audience, we are aiming to help arm practitioners with the latest knowledge in their field in order to make their lives easier, and, at the end of the day, to help build a more informed and functional economy, government, and society. This editorial direction has guided us to this point, and it will continue to guide us going forward.

We’re very interested in knowing what you, our readers, think of this idea. Have we done what we set out to do? How could we do it better? Any topics you think we’ve left out? Let us know what you think in the comments below!


This is a modified version of the presentation that James Hacker gave during the K.E.Y. Platform 2014. 


Image Credit: Haxorjoe via Wikimedia Commons


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