The Media Academic Research Treadmill

Several hundred media professors will converge on Denver, Colorado, this week for the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I won’t be among them (I’ll be at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where my fiancé is undergoing treatment).

I teach New Media at a leading school, so probably should (were not my fiancé ill) go to the AEJMC conference. I’d learn more about my profession, meet my peers, and probably learn how to teach better.

However, I’ve no interest in attending AEJMC. The reason was best described by Earl Wilkinson, executive director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association (now the International News Marketing Association) who attended the 2002 and 2003 AEJMC conferences. One of his motives for attending was to tap “into the academic research that is largely unknown by newspapers executives. I was a very strong motive.” While attending, Wilkinson found AEJMC to be an organization of academics with passion for what they teach, with a sense of fraternity that he wished newspaper executives could emulate.

“Yet my original selfish motive missed the target. What I found in the piles of academic papers laid out … was a lot of well-intentioned research that had little applicability to the realities of the newspaper industry. During the past year, we have gone through literally thousands of AEJMC abstracts at the Michigan State University archive and found a similar result.

“What we found, to put it bluntly, is academics talking to other academics — which is a noble form of communications, unless division after division, committee after committee didn’t also express to me their profound desire to help the realities of the newspaper industry. As I reported to the INMA Board of Directors last year, about 2 percent of of the research being done is applicable to the business of newspapers and you must have incredible patiences finding “leads” to the stories in that 2 percent.”

The words I quoted Wilkinson spoke in a presentation to the 2003 AEJMC conference. In that presentation, he mentioned the newspaper industry had just survived the toughest recession since the Great Depression and greatly needed practical research.

Seven years later, the news industries have just survived an even greater recession and greater declines and challenges. The media industries are screaming for practical research. Yet I’ve found nothing has changed from what Wilkinson found in 2002 and 2003. The vast majority of academic research has no value to the media industries.

Some academics might reply that much of their research is aimed at better teaching students to work in media, not helping the media industries themselves. My retort is that those students might not have industries to work in unless someone performs practical research to solve those industries’ problems. No one is more able than academics to do that research.

Medical schools, engineering schools, and law schools do research that solves their industries’ problems and advances the practices of those industries. If not 98 percent of media schools’ research should do that, then at least the majority of the research should. Not a mere 2 percent.

14 thoughts on “The Media Academic Research Treadmill

  1. I am not surprised to see a post such as this. It is easy to bash academics who study and teach journalism for not doing research to save the newspaper (or TV news) industry. The problem is that most news executives were looking for research that would save the industry as it has been structured. So i am not surprised Mr. Wilkinson didn’t find the research he was looking for. His business was in marketing newspapers in their current (at the time) form. This positions readers as consumers not citizens. Most academic position readers as citizens. Consumers are a means to and end (making money), while citizens are an end in themselves (an informed and engaged electorate).

    Academic scholars have studied many issues that could improve journalism, though these are not of much interest within the journalism industry. This includes research on the increasing fragmentation of the news with an accompanied lack of context, an increasing emphasis on immediacy to the detriment of fact-checking, an over-emphasis on pundits and the journalism of assertion, and an over-emphasis on the routinization of objectivity in the form of “he said, she said” formats in the news. Further, there has been study after study which has longed questioned the diversity of sources and coverage areas of newspapers and TV news. Whole areas of society are never represented in the pages of newspapers. Such internal factors affecting journalism are not new, having been analyzed and discussed at least since the Hutchins Commission Report. This research could certainly be used to improve or even “save” journalism.

    You suggest journalism schools should be more like the medical school model. I agree. But not in the way you suggest. Medical school researchers work to find new ways to treat patients. They do not do research to find new ways to save hospitals. This research may benefit the hospitals bottom line, but that is not the main purpose of the research. Likewise, journalism school faculty should do research that benefits the citizens, not the news industry. If the newspaper industry is benefited by this research, all the better.

    1. Andrew, with all due respect to your and your institution, your comment is an inadvertent portrait of the problem.

      Preliminarily, you dismissively paint Mr. Wilkinson as a marketer who positions readers as consumers not citizens. Ultimately, you position the problem as akin to that between medicine and hospital administration, construing the demise of newspapers as a business, not journalism, problem.

      In reality, citizens, consumers, people in droves aren’t abandoning newspapers because of newspaper business problems. They’re cancelling subscriptions and no longer purchasing copies at newsstands because what newspapers contain no longer satisfies their needs and interests. The continuing declines in readership since 1985 aren’t because of bad marketing, smudged printing, newspaper corporate dividends, or other business-related issues. People don’t buy newspapers because the journalism in it isn’t what they want or need.

      J’accuse! Failure of journalism has caused the demise of the American newspaper industry. The stories, focuses, formats, story selection, and packaging doesn’t satisfy the needs and interests of the American people. To paraphrase a previous presidential campaign, the Problem is the Content, Stupid!

      Nevertheless, the American journalistic establishment, including its academics, deny that obvious problem with an obstinacy not seen since the pre-reformation Catholic clergy. They’ll tell you the problem with newspapers isn’t their problem; the fault is anyone but theirs. A few years ago, Columbia Journalism Review Publisher Evan Cornog wrote a tongue-in-cheek commentary entitled, ‘Blame the Reader’ because fewer and fewer Americans are reading the types of journalism practiced in American newspapers and taught in their journalism schools. When suggestions are made that the newspaper problem is its journalism, more often than not the retort from journalists and media academics are shrieks that this would mean pandering nothing but pandering Britney Spears stories to the masses or other absurd extremes.

      The primary role of newspaper journalists is to provide the people with the information they need to live their lives better. To tell them what’s happening in their communities, what other people are saying, and what might interest them. The American journalistic community, having become self-appointed social studies teachers, has failed their primary role. It’s as if the hospital’s doctors were failing to cure the patients, something that’s not the hospital administrator’s fault. It’s why the people aren’t using them anymore.

      How to change American journalism so that it satisfies the people’s needs and interests, without pandering or perverting, is where media academic research is woefully lacking.

  2. I do media research and can tell you why no one gives practical solutions to the newspaper industry. The reason is discontinuous change. The internet has nearly supplanted newspapers. The damage is largely done. Newspapers will gradually vanish no matter what they do. The INMA guy is not unlike the buggy whip manufacturer in the early twentieth century wondering why academics couldn’t solve his problem with those new-fangled automobiles.

    During times of continuous change, old media simply adapt to new media, as radio adapted to TV. But during times of discontinuous change, there is no adaptation. Some forms will mostly fade away. Consumers simply have too many choices and too many ways to skip advertising (e.g., TiVo, online ad-blockers). And the barriers to entry have vanished, so there’s always someone willing to give away news content in order to gain a toehold, but find themselves replaced by another entrant willing to give away content, if the first decides to erect a pay wall.

    I sympathize with those who just want to teach their students. But where does that content originate? Via research. I choose to study how Twitter is gradually modifying the old media world, a modest contribution, but a contribution nevertheless. Students need to know why their potential employers are changing.

    Those who don’t contribute in some meaningful way to the body of mass communication research, be it old media or new media, be it applied or theoretical, are not living up to their doctoral degrees. As my mentor explained it, you don’t get a PhD just to teach. You get one because you love knowledge enough to add to it, which the derivation of the Ph in PhD — philosophy, love of knowledge, not love of teaching. Teaching is necessary but not sufficient to a life in academia.

  3. Hi Vin, I guess i wasn’t clear in what i wrote because i do believe the problems with journalism are due to how journalism has been produced, exactly as i said. The research i reference above is all about the form and content of journalism. And people in journalism education have been writing about this for years, as I suggested above. This research has been ignored or scoffed by people in the newspaper and television news industry. The only research that was of interest was administrative research which would sell more newspapers, not research that might require change in the routines and content of journalism. And it was you who posed the connection between medical schools and the medical industry. Medical schools solve medical problems, not the medical industry’s concerns. Likewise journalism schools address problems with journalism, not the journalism industry’s concerns.

    I stand by my claim that much of the problem facing journalism was due in fact to people in the news business (such as Mr. Wilkinson) viewing the reader/viewer as a mere means to profit and not considering what they actually needed to be informed citizens. I am often astounded how, for example, TV news only speaks to their viewers when conducting surveys or focus groups. A huge echo chamber is created where the remaining viewers confirm that no major changes are needed. The news industry needs to take seriously those who have chosen not to read or view their products. I, for one, do not blame the reader/viewer. I put the responsibility for the problems facing journalism on journalists, editors, publishers, etc.

    1. Andrew, I get your point now! Sounds like what you and I, each in our own way, are pointing to is an unwillingness among practicing journalists, editors, and publishers to change. The more readership, viewership, and listenership of news declines, the more obdurate journalists, editors, and publishers become to change; the more they strive to preserve the old forms and old practices.

      However, I do think that a segment of academics are their allies. For example, I recently encountered a senior and influential academic who told me that the computerized data harvesting methods which Adrian Holovaty (chicagocrime.org, everyblock.com, etc.) has been pioneering AREN’T journalism. Or another who tells me that a story isn’t actually published until its in print.

      As for Earl Wilkinson, while I know scores of newspaper business executives who fit the portrait you paint, he’s not one of them. Among the folks I know at ASNE, NAA, APME, INMA, or WAN, few have done more than Wilkinson to help newspapers as a means of both citizenship and public engagement. A true crossover character, it’s too bad he doesn’t work in a newsroom. – Vin Crosbie

  4. If the problem is the journalism, the contents, and not the business model or the format, then there must be some kind of journalism if we can find it that would get people back to reading broadsheet newspaper pages once a day rather than web pages or mobile phones. Could it be the compelling narratives of Mark Bowden and Michael Lewis? Fox News in print? A return to small-town weekly coverage? Should j-school researchers be inventing apps? Or the perfect device for mobile journalists? (But this would imply new business models and formats.) As a working journalist, I have many questions a j-school researcher might work on, but most involve new kinds of content that require new models and structures.

  5. I come to academic research after 25 years in the media business. I totally understand what Vin, and by extension Eric Wilkinson are saying. Often times the academic research I read when in still working in the commercial side of the industry fell flat. It might have been interesting but didn’t seem applicable. Sadly, this was, at least in part, because we often were looking for research to back up our preconceived ideas, plans and theories. That practice was akin to the lawyer who looks for case law to support his side, regardless of the overarching truth of the situation.

    More troubling to me was the invention of so-called proprietary research tools developed and promoted by major media firms (I speak in this case of advertising and media buying agencies). These were conceived from the beginning as sales tools but represented as solid research. Frankly, they were considered internally as being contrived pieces of window dressing, yet treated outwardly as guiding research of real value. When you already take that (cynical) view of the value of research — that it is something that can be leveraged to sell a service or point of view — then it becomes difficult to appreciate and value more empirical academic research.

    That said, I also look at some academic research as sorely lacking in real-word grounding. Often it is hard to accomplish great things in academia with limited funds coming from grants and such. Meanwhile, major corporations can direct millions toward their own research to support their own needs and, occasionally, expected outcomes. Neither is perfect, and each side can learn from the other. The newspaper industry, unfortunately, squandered its opportunity to lead with new technology over a decade ago. For those like Mr. Wilkinson to dismiss the value of scholarly understanding of the new media consumer says much about why the newspaper industry is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the typical media consumer.

  6. This forum just came to my attention, so I thought I’d respond.

    Eight years ago, the INMA Board of Directors encouraged me to conduct outreach to the academic community to see if there could be creative linkages that would add value to the newspaper industry. U.S. newspaper executives are often dismissive of the academic community, though there are tighter connections between industry and academia in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific (INMA’s nearly 5,000 members are in 80+ countries).

    I found AEJMC to be the most efficient way to peer into the world of journalism education. I attended their conference. I was invited to speak two or three times. I was fascinated that so much research and academic study was being done on the newspaper industry – yet none of it was being considered by people who could make practical use of it.

    I networked with many AEJMC members and leaders, who openly and clearly yearned for a deeper connection to the industry they dedicated their livelihoods analyzing and supporting.

    The beauty of AEJMC and journalism education is insatiable curiosity. There will always be people entrenched in their views. Yet AEJMC members encouraged me to dig deeper and make connections no matter how politically incorrect. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by passionate thinkers.

    So with INMA and AEJMC mandates, I poured through the thousands of academic papers. INMA created a link archive to the best papers. (It was funny that a few authors didn’t like the idea that the general public could so easily access their work.)

    What we concluded, simply, was that in the loose and decentralized process of deciding what subjects got researched across mostly North American universities – from graduate students to professors to foundation-funded institutions – there wasn’t enough material being produced that was practically useful to newspaper publishers. I didn’t ascribe any emotion to it. I didn’t have an agenda. I wasn’t looking for any specific answers to industry questions.

    And I reported that back to the AEJMC membership – along with a list of recommended subjects specifically suggested by INMA members in the trenches looking for insights on growing audience.

    The academic community feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I could sense torches, pitchforks and a midnight revolution.

    Then nothing happened.

    I concluded, over time, there simply wasn’t a strong enough central governing mechanism within academia to practically do anything about it.

    To the INMA Board of Directors, I reported back that academia represented a weak 2 percent proposition if they were looking for hidden research gold. And I pointed them to the gold that I found.

    Meanwhile, if the academic community wants a tighter connection to news publishers, they’re going to have find a way to nudge research at their discretion toward the fascinating and challenging subjects publishers consider actionable.

    When that day comes, INMA will be a willing and able conduit.

  7. Wow. If only this conversation, and others like it, could be held in newspaper staff meetings and J-school classrooms over and over again until everybody gets it, journalism might not only survive, but thrive; and citizens might care.
    Jim Reilly, former newspaperman lurching toward New Media to be reborn

  8. Good post and comments.

    There is another factor that bears some scrutiny in this: the demonstrable lack of interest in R&D among newspaper leaders themselves.

    A number of years ago, I made the remark at a conference that each year the dairy industry spends more money on R&D for yogurt alone than the entire newspaper industry spends on R&D. And we know pretty much everything we need to know about yogurt.

    The newspaper industry remains a multibillion enterprise despite its withered. And yet even now, what passes for R&D at newspapers can be found in nothing more than marketing budgets that conduct focus groups (ughh…) that are specifically designed to produce the exact results desired by publishers.

    Newspaper marketing departments don’t do real, honest product research — they produce spin designed to sooth battered executive egos and fool advertisers. Compare that to the way marketing departments operate in industries where there is an actual interest in innovation: those marketing departments are engaged in fundamental research that leads to actual development.

    You could make the case that newspaper new media departments — now nearly all folded into the old school muffler of the traditional newsroom, which results in pure narcosis — were a stab at R&D.

    However to make that case you have to ignore the simple fact that new media departments — often lead by visionaries — where actively restrained from doing things that might threaten the traditional business. They weren’t Research & Development so much as the were React & Defend.

    Other than early experiments by the late, lamented Knight Ridder and Frank Daniel’s support of the early work at NandoNet, we have yet to see an publisher of consequence put up a few million a year to fund a PURE R&D division. Any of the top 10 publishers could afford it, even now. But they don’t.

    And yet some actual R&D would produce meaningful near-term results.

    So absent any desire to actually innovate within the industry, why should academia? Give me one publisher — ONE! — who decides to invest in pure R&D to turn the tide in the industry and I think we would see important things happen.

    Any other mature industry beset by the kinds of technological and demographic earthquakes newspapers face would head right to the lab. In the newspaper industry, leaders have headed right to the golf course instead….

    Lastly, I want to offer up an impassioned defense of Earl Wilkinson and INMA. I’ve known Earl and his organization for more than 12 years and I assure anyone reading this that few people in the world know more about the industry than Earl, few people in the world think more deeply about the industry than Earl, and few people are willing to take the risk to state the blunt truths about the industry than Earl. Globally, INMA has been the force for significant efforts to reform the industry’s antiquated practices. This is an important organization that has fought the good fight. They deserve the applause of anyone hoping to see a better day and new thinking in newspapers.

    INMA rightly dropped the “marketing” portion of the acronym some years ago. For anyone to suggest that it’s simply a “marketing” association misunderstands both INMA’s work and results. And it also misunderstands what marketing departments do in grown up industries.

    Granted it’s an easy mistake to make if you come from newspapers — our view of marketing is enfeebled and shallow. Our view of marketing is tricking advertisers with the latest crazy ABC circ rules. But that’s not what marketing should be…

    Rant off :)

  9. Interesting conversation. Thanks for that. Well, I’m here to say we at WAN-IFRA have had a much different experience. I’m run the Shaping the Future of the Newspaper project for WAN-IFRA. We produce six major strategic reports for the news media industry each year. One of them is the World News Future & Change Study. We collaborate with three major universities globally, and plan to collaborate with more in the future.

    The study was first conceived of several years ago by Dr. Erik Wilberg, a prominent media consultant and professor at the prestigious Norwegian School of Management. The study was targeted to newspaper companies in the Nordic countries. Two years ago, I partnered with Erik and Francois Nel, a South African academic working at the Univ of Central Lancashire in the UK. With Erik’s partnership, Francois and I re-wrote the 22-question survey instrument to be appropriate for media companies around the world, and expanded the array of questions to include revenue patterns and projections, money-making and cost-savings strategies, and training/development/cultural change strategies in multiple media companies around the world. The survey is sent out in 10 languages. We at the SFN project produce the graphics and analysis, along with the academics, and finally, we produce a report together, which is available to WAN-IFRA membership. We will publish our second report in September. We have fantastic results. I can’t tell you how wonderful it’s been working with all of my colleagues.

    Here’s the caveat: This type of industry research does not “count” toward fulfilling academic research requirements. It’s not academic enough. But my colleagues are more than willing to cooperate because they 1. Believe in practical and powerful industry research, and 2. The research results inform future research studies that should be made, and 3. Some of the existing research can be parlayed into other academic research.

    We hope we can expand our academic partnerships. We are in final stages of negotiation with a few top ranked American universities to assist us on the study as well. We are working with London School of Economics on a new revenue consortium to benefit media companies. In this case, LSE and Brunel (UK) University have created a case study template and academics and industry practititioners can follow the format to create case studies on exemplars in the new revenue realm.

    We’re also about to launch a new benchmarking study, to be explained later, which is a perfect hybrid between academics and industry professionals sharing the extraordinary research workload.

    I am very optimistic that we have found the secret sauce in bringing the best of both worlds together: academic and industry practitioners on the same research team. I would be glad to make last year’s report available to anyone who wants it, and the new report when it is released next month.
    –Martha L Stone

  10. Martha, I applaud your efforts, always.

    However, the type of research you’re talking about is of a different kind than what I *think* is the the thrust of this conversation. If I understand you correctly, what you’re describing is assembling and analyzing existing best practices/attitudes within the industry, etc. Certainly that’s very valuable. Especially so because of the WAN-Ifra global reach.

    But what I’m hoping for — and what I think Vin and Earl are one about as well — is research being done outbound from the industry: i.e. analyzing the fundamental shifts in media consumption/patterns, deep study of public appetites from products, anthropological studies of contemporary media consumption, basic research into new means of communicating with the public, meaningful development of new tools, etc.

    Example: Apple takes about 10% of revenue and throws it at pure R&D to study things that might never become a product because the 1 out of 100 that survive might change everything. I would love to newspapers do the same…

    To its credit, the Knight Foundation did step up to the plate on this with their efforts to fund some open source projects. But still….

  11. Hello Bob…nice to hear from you if only virtually. Yes, indeed, we are taking a different tack with our research. It is clearly a hybrid. It is not academic research, nor do I wish it to be. However, it is not just qualitative data we are publishing as you presume we publish through our SFN project. We don’t do just best practice case studies.

    I also realise you’re talking about bonafide academic research in these passages and how academics should be doing more relevant research for our industry. But that’s just the point. I believe we should be working with them so we create relevant research TOGETHER. We should develop a better dialogue. We should be working together to create an academic-industry practitioner association. We should seek funding together to build better research.

    We are doing that now with the Future & Change Study, which is 100 percent quantitative data. This is the study we execute along with the academics. The study seeks to determine how much revenue each media company respondent is earning this year, how much revenue they will need to make up for lost revenue in the next year and five years, and how they will go about achieving that through revenue-making strategies (new product development being the number 1 answer by far). Then we ask about their product development strategies and their targeted areas for investment and cutbacks. We also ask about their appetite for change across the organisation, and plans for training and development across the value chain. We then analyse the topline trends and correlations for different sized companies, different regions of the world and so on.

    Right now we’re also working on aggregating all known data about digital media usage patterns and revenue patterns by making partnerships with 70+ research companies around the world. The data is published in our World Digital Media Trends yearbook, which we’ve published for five years. It’s also not academic research, but it answers the questions you have in a different way.

    We’re working on getting funding for other, much more profound research that answers some of your other questions, and we absolutely will make academics a key part of our research team.

    So perhaps this is a call to action. Let’s absolutely be proactive about creating relevant research for our industry. This will require us to work alongside academics to design studies and surveys that will ultimately move our industry forward.

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