How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Lie of Timely

Like most of you, I’m horrified, ashamed and frustrated by many of the events of the last eight days — much less the last three months — in the United States.

Is this a turning point? we might ask.

Not if the last 50 years — Watts 1965, Newark 1967, Miami 1980, LA 1992, Cincinnati 2001, Ferguson 2014, Baltimore 2015, Charlotte 2016, etc., — are any guide. The lens of public and political attention will sharpen for a while and then swerve away… until the next awful moment.

How do we sustain focus on what’s important for change? And how might research play its part in that refocusing?

Too much research communications — like the rest of communications — is built on timeliness as a proxy for relevance.

Which, as we’re seeing with structural racism, public health and many other issues, often fails to direct and sustain our attention to solving wicked problems.

Our findings, insights, ideas, solutions — they’re novel, they’re urgently needed, they might change or even save lives. Big stakes.

That’s why we’re bothering to get them out there.

But it’s not enough to be important. We must also be extremely timely. Timeliness is a proxy for importance, especially with elite media. If it doesn’t have a hook, don’t bother. Don’t bother pitching it to media. Don’t bother trying to get attention. (A headline from Axios this morning sums it up: “Coronavirus is old news.”)

Timeliness, though, can be a corrosive habit, eroding all other values. We develop Patty Hearst Syndrome about it, to the point that when we publish content that’s important but not timely, we’re a little defensive and lecture-y. “You don’t care about this, but you should” is our message.

I wrote last Friday about a New York Times op-ed that delivered an important message about the dangers of failing dams in the United States.

The promotional email sent out by the Times is instructive. Written by James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, it reveals the hypocrisy about timeliness as a proxy for importance.

Bennet’s email begins:

Q: What’s a magnificent, critically important technology that’s almost always really dull to read about? A: A dam. Actually, that’s just one answer to the question. There are surely a bunch of others, many of them connected to infrastructure of one sort or another — including, for example, the public health infrastructure.

Bennet also lauds the AP for last year covering the shaky dams in Michigan, and then plays the pity card that so much of journalism is playing these days. He writes:

Spotting dangers like this and putting them on the public agenda before disaster strikes is a critical role of journalism, and it’s one that’s getting harder for media organizations to play. So many are going out of business; so many that remain are focusing on the buzzy, national stories of the moment. And our politics seems all but incapable of responding to investigations like the AP’s — as sensible as it would be right now to make a big investment in infrastructure.

Please. By his own admission above, Bennet would almost certainly have rejected the piece on dams before the Michigan disaster — when it presumably might have done more good, but it would have been considered “almost always really dull to read about.”

Warning about a problem before it happens isn’t newsworthy. But after the disaster, now we have a news hook. Now we have confirmation that the problem was and is, in fact, real.

Bennet, of course, doesn’t seem to recognize the contradictions in his email or his news judgement, or his complicity in a paradigm that seldom covers what’s important until it’s too late to make a difference.

As researchers and research communicators, we know better. And yet we also know the timeliness game with media and play it compulsively, even if the board is disappearing faster than a display ad in an alt-weekly.

Pitching the Times is like buying a lottery ticket. The reject rate is astronomical — of course it is; and yet we keep pitching. We play because landing a pitch for an op-ed seems both confirming and transformative. As with Nature or Science magazines, we fantasize that landing a pitch in the Times will hasten transformation for the world and ourselves. Elite and/or public opinion will turn, and action will follow. Funding will flow — to solve the problem, yes, and perhaps to our own projects as well. Our personal recognition will increase — that’s not what this is about, of course, but still. We will mark time differently going forward: before our piece appeared in the Times, and after.

Meanwhile, we save our “important but not timely” stuff for our books and reports, our talks, our drinks or tweets with colleagues.

There are ways to use “timely” but not be a slave to it. To build a core audience for your important but not timely work and insights and keep its attention. To use repetition creatively.

If you need a push in this direction, it might come from recognizing the complicity of “timely” in the inequities of the moment.