The law professor Katie Rose Guest Pryal is writing a new series for The Chronicle of Higher Education (full disclosure: my wife is the Chronicle’s executive editor) on how scholars can write effectively for the public. The first two installments are good primers about how to figure out whether you’re ready to do public writing and what you’re going to write about.
Pryal, though, insists that, when you pitch an editor, your pitch must be relevant to current events in a particular way — it must hang on a news peg. (A “news peg,” to be reductive, is an event or topic currently in the news.) She quotes the history professor Sarah Bond on how to do this: “React to the world we are living in. Did you see a parallel with Cicero in Trump’s State of the Union rhetoric last night? Write about it. Are there early Christian saints who had similar #metoo moments to women of today? Write about it.”
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be caught dead reading either of those pieces, and I don’t know many editors who’d want to run them. Lashing your pitches to news pegs is traditional, and sometimes works. It’s also an approach that’s (as in the examples above) often forced; exhausting in practice (as you chase news cycle after news cycle); and too narrow for those researchers who want to advance ideas that are relevant to current discourse but bigger than just the news and maybe even transgressive.
In other words, if you want to do more than just get published — if you want to actually change the conversation — you need to be strategic, not reactive.
The news peg is real, but it’s not everything: that’s a myth. Plenty of editors and outlets are looking for pitches that synthesize data, evidence and analysis to explain why everyone’s thinking about problem X incorrectly; to warn them about something not yet on their radar screens; to reveal the hidden patterns behind disparate phenomena in new ways; to spotlight a new (or old) solution obscured by dogma or group think. Not in the rush of hot takes, but in their wake, in the white space only the researcher expert can reach.
That’s your competitive advantage as a researcher.
Excellent new example: Ted Nordhaus’s recent essay “Ignore the Fake Climate Debate” in The Wall Street Journal.
Here’s how it begins:
Beyond the headlines and social media, where Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump and the online armies of climate “alarmists” and “deniers” do battle, there is a real climate debate bubbling along in scientific journals, conferences and, occasionally, even in the halls of Congress. It gets a lot less attention than the boisterous and fake debate that dominates our public discourse, but it is much more relevant to how the world might actually address the problem.
In the real climate debate, no one denies the relationship between human emissions of greenhouse gases and a warming climate. Instead, the disagreement comes down to different views of climate risk in the face of multiple, cascading uncertainties.
Finding white space isn’t about chasing the news. It’s about telling us something relevant to what decision makers and citizens are (or should be) worried about that “is not usually what you read on the internet,” in Tyler Cowen’s ever-resonant phrase.