How researchers get heard
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No Such Thing as Discount Content

When I worked at The Nature Conservancy, I used to declare: “Nobody gives our content a Nature Conservancy discount.”

Which was to say: If the content sucks, nobody’s going to read it just because it came from us. Or because we think it’s important. Or because we need to promote something this month.

If you’ve worked in an NGO, you can imagine how thin that message eventually wore. Still, 20-plus years of working with researchers has taught me that research-based opinion content should follow a pretty simple formula (which I’ve outlined at length in previous emails) if you want elite media to consider publishing it (as opposed to publishing it yourself):

  1. There’s a Problem in the World and It Needs to Be Fixed
  2. What’s Causing the Problem — and Why Haven’t We Solved It Already?
  3. So What’s Next? Here’s a Solution That Will Work
  4. Resistance to the Solution and How to Overcome It
  5. What’s at Stake/The Call to Action

The formula works for opinion editors because it’s all about urgency and novelty:

a) It’s linked to an urgent problem that’s resisted solution (or that might not even be obvious to your audience);

b) It offers a new solution that’s based in your expertise; and

c) It frames all that with a call-to-action that crystallizes why we need to act on your solution now.

The formula works for researchers because…well, first, because it’s a formula. Most researchers have trouble — at least initially — with writing in the opinion idiom, which in many respects is the opposite of idioms for researchers.

But the formula also works for researchers as calling card. The insight-into-problem/insight-into-solution pairing is a classic trait of the public expert. The formula provides the rest of us the essential service of expertise — it expresses the essence of expertise, if you will.

Read lots of opinion content and you’ll see this formula enacted over and over. The order of the components might change, as might how much space each section gets. Break the formula (such as leaving out a solution), and you alter and probably diminish the impact of the piece within the expectations and context of an op-ed. You might then be writing or videoing a different kind of piece — reportage, memoir, cri de coeur — and it might well contain opinions. But it’s not opinion content in the sense that it a) serves that problem/solution need for your audiences, and b) advances your identity as an expert who can do that.

A high-profile example of this formula-breaking appeared in The New York Times Sunday Opinion section two weeks ago — a longish piece (“What’s Killing Pacific Whales?”) by three scientists on the mysterious mass deaths of gray whales in the Pacific:

  • The piece introduces the problem — an “unusual mortality event” in North Pacific grey whales, with at least 167 carcasses washing ashore since January. Many of the carcasses have been emaciated, which echoes reports of malnourished whales returning to their Baja California breeding grounds this spring and far fewer calves than normal being born.
  • But instead of telling us why the problem hasn’t yet been solved or offering a solution, the authors spend the vast majority of the piece detailing the research efforts into finding out the reasons behind these “whale falls” and speculation about those reasons. Such whale falls have happened in the past. Climate change is altering the ocean and making it less hospitable for sea animals — and it’s clear the authors think that climate change is at least a factor in this mortality spike. “In the coming months, scientists will gain a clearer picture of what’s been happening,” the authors tell us.
  • Then, they wrap with this call-to-action:

In the coming months, scientists will gain a clearer picture of what’s been happening. In the meantime, we can help these animals by supporting the creation of more protected areas in the ocean, like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. These places are strongholds of biodiversity that provide resilience against threats like climate change. NOAA is also working with the private sector to modify shipping routes and adjust fishing techniques. The health of these gray whales depends on the health of the ocean. So does ours. We must do everything we can to better understand and protect that world.

What a weak ending — especially because the rest of the piece piece doesn’t mention collision with ships, fishing or the dearth of protected areas as being potential factors in the whale falls. I wouldn’t have let that ending through as an editor for an NGO. No discount, I would have said.

The “opinion” of this Opinion piece seems to be: We need to make the ocean healthier, and the deaths of these gray whales is a warning sign to us that we’re failing at that. But is it? Shouldn’t we wait until “scientists gain a clearer picture of what’s been happening”?

What is this piece doing in the Times’ Sunday Opinion section at all?

One possible answer to that last question: Opinion section editors who have print editions often still think about the “mix” of pieces in those print editions. They want variety and diversity. The Times’ editors might have thought it was time for a science piece, or a climate change piece, or a natural world piece. They might have even thought they needed pieces that offered relief from the rest of their opinion-heavy content.

And it did get into the Times Sunday Opinion section, after all. Isn’t that a win for the issue?

Which issue?

Which solution?

For whose awareness of what, precisely?

And given the dwindling number of opinion content researchers are getting to write for elite media, do you really want to take a chance pitching a report on your pet cause — no matter how important you think it is?

Instead: Develop a solution about a problem decision-makers care about — or should care about. Frame it with strong arguments and a killer POV. Wrap it with a call-to-action that we can’t ignore. Then pitch the hell out of it. Then rinse and repeat with the next issue, solution and call-to-action.

That’s the horse I’ve bet on for 20 years of doing this — and it’s the horse that almost always wins.

Because even when you get a discount, it isn’t one.