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White Space for Opinion Pieces: A Simple Definition

I talk from time to time about “white space” — which I define as the room in any current conversation to make a unique argument that might change the conversation.

Effective opinion content relies on discovering and colonizing white space. That’s what op-ed editors look for. That’s what decision-makers looking for new solutions seek out. And that’s why researchers looking to provide that content need to develop an instinct for white space — and how your expertise and POV might intervene to fill it.

But all that’s…abstract. Hard to apply.

So let’s try this:

Tyler Cowen recently wrote a 10-point post on his blog Marginal Revolution about the supposed connections (lagging, leading, tenuous, non-existent) between monetary policy (the rates the US Federal Reserve sets) and the US labor market. Point #10:

You might notice that outside of emergency situations, such as 1929 or 2008 (see point #1), economists struggle mightily to demonstrate that money matters at all. I think Christina Romer has shown that surprise deflationary shocks do matter and are bad. After that, it is still up in the air, as indeed this analysis implies.

(He sums up his counterintuitive findings in one memorable takeaway: “Economists struggle mightily to demonstrate that money matters at all.”)

And then, the kill shot:

Everything I am writing is consistent with mainstream research economics, and the best and most sophisticated versions of Keynesian economics. I know it is not usually what you read on the internet.

For me, the three questions at the heart of this post encapsulate white space for researchers:

  1. What’s a question or issue people are talking about (or should be)?
  2. What does the evidence really say on that question?
  3. Can I apply what the evidence says — can I say it — in a way no one else is saying?

Or, more elegantly: “I know it is not usually what you read on the internet.”

Cowen publishes into white space all the time. He does it daily on his blog and in his Bloomberg Opinion columns — read his new one on why everything you’ve heard about Americans’ lack of trust in government is wrong. The title of his book: “Big Business: Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” is pure white space. He’s a white-space-occupying machine. He understands this fundamental quality of the expert-as-authority as well as anyone working today.

Even — especially — if you disagree with him, he’s worth your study.

Takeaway: A quick test if your argument is hitting white space: if you can say “yes” to the statement “I know it is not usually what you read on the internet.”