I think it was John Rother, the former policy chief and public face of AARP, who told me the secret of a good policy brief. A good brief, he said, must first and foremost answer those two classic taunts we heard on the playground: “oh yeah?” and “so what?”
This fascinating analysis of news reporting between 1955 and 2003 made me think of John’s wisdom. Apparently, news reporting has taken up the call. As the Joan Shorenstein Center’s “Journalist Resource” reports, scholars Katherine Fink and Michael Schudso at Columbia University find that journalists more often today explain the “so what?” and “why?” along with the who, what, when, and where of old-school journalism.
“Contextual reporting,” as they call it, grew from just under 10 percent of all articles in 1955 to about 40 percent in 2003.
It struck me, that while journalists have increasingly wrapped their reports in context, they’re doing so because social media and the internet have made it imperative that they provide more than just the facts. Researchers need to do the same.
“No one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube,” Jonathan Stray wrote at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab.
“What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain.”
That’s how we see our services—helping researchers move their valuable work up the food chain by giving readers a context for understanding why it matters.
Today, we all need help filtering what matters from what doesn’t. A good blog post can do that for readers. A weekly post on a topic can do more than advertise the release of a new report. It can help wrap that report in a context, and answer those two important questions, “oh yeah?” and “so what?” We often use the day’s news to set the stage, and then branch out and give the reader some insider understanding of the topic, drawing from the report at hand or the client’s research base.
An example: The National Marriage Project recently released, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.” One of the most important findings was that middle-class women, not just poor women, are delaying marriage, but not childbearing. We helped readers better understand the “so what” by writing a series of blog posts for six weeks that wove together findings from the report with the research of others on topics like the fall in teen pregnancy, the reasoning of working class and poor women for having children without marrying, the rise in cohabitation, young adults’ views on marriage, among other topics. While the media has reported this delay in marriage for college-educated young people, they often overlook the trends among those with less education – the majority of American youth. These blogs helped unfurl some of the ideas in the report. And as a result, they were covered and shared widely by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Slate, the Washington Post, and many others
This is a good example, too, of how a blog also allows you to unpack some complicated ideas in short doses.
In the end, a blog—whether an ongoing commitment or a one-shot push to coincide with the release of a book or report—is contextual journalism on a smaller scale.