How researchers get heard

Bat Phone to the Gatekeepers

The way it used to work: Larry Summers, old-school thought leader, picking up his Bat phone.

Summers picked up the phone and called the Washington Post a couple days ago. (It was probably an email, but let’s be cinematic.) I have something important to say, Summers told the editor (who, recognizing the number, picked up before the second ring). The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, Summers went on — it’s in the right direction, but it could be inflationary. And it could come at the expense of other big public investments the country needs — something that, according to Politico, much of progressive Washington has been whispering as well.

And the Post editor said: By all means, say that on our opinion page.

So Summers did, yesterday. And this morning, everyone in DC is talking about it.

That’s the way it used to work — “it” being thought leadership by a public intellectual, who picked up a Bat phone to make it happen. Moving policy mountains with a single, well-timed op-ed in a nameplate newspaper. Heroic.

And that’s the way it still works — in too many researchers’ minds.

Here’s the way it really works now: Jessica Lessin, old-school gatekeeper, in spite of her online and tech chops.

Lessin edits the online subscription publication The Information, which has carved out a journalism niche by covering the business of tech with equal parts aggression and insidery schmooze. I signed up earlier this week, seduced by the headline to Lessin’s latest think piece: “The Nightmare Awaiting the News Industry.” Could there be another nightmare for the news industry? You mean, the last 20 years haven’t been bad enough? My credit card practically walked out of my wallet and swiped itself to get the answer.

Lessin’s nightmare turns out to be … AOC spending 13 minutes trying to fix the blurriness of a recent Twitch livestream she did for Lessin and 300,000 others.

Or rather, as Lessin writes, that she is “so glued to what this person might say,” writes Lessin, “that I am willing to endure her running commentary on the resolution of her forehead.”

For Lessin, this is the media future: authorities speaking directly to us and each other. On Twitch. On Reddit, quite infamously last week. Through the audio chats of Clubhouse. The consulting firm A16z has started its own publication “to spread ‘rational optimism’ about tech,” which matches McKinsey’s Global Insights.

And the news media is not in the frame for any of it.

“What this week made obvious to me,” Lessin writes, “is that there really are no gatekeepers at all. …Most people are going to get information directly from the source with no chance for journalists — or even nonjournalists — to push back and question them.”

Lessin sounds like a lot of scientists I know or read when she worries “how readers and listeners are going to decide whom to get their information from. I fear they are going to be wooed by personality and influenced by their own belief system … this trend is migrating from politics to every dimension, including finance.”

That’s the vapid, arrogant cry of the displaced gatekeeper, be they journalist or scientist. How ever will those poor, emotion-tossed souls sift through information without my benevolent objective guidance?

The answer isn’t to be found in nostalgia for a return to better gatekeeping. Nor will it be found in endless pitching, trying to replicate the Larry Summers model of thought leadership.

The new world isn’t just dozens of microphones on the ground waiting for you to pick them up and start talking to be heard.

But it’s no longer a Bat phone to the gatekeepers, either.

Takeaway: Try this constraint test: Look at the comms plan for your forthcoming piece of research and take out any part having to do with news media. Now ask: How would we reach the communities we want to despite this constraint? What creative steps do we have to take that will actually make our outreach and dialogue with our key communities stronger?