How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

You Are in the Explainer Business

We all agree: Researchers aren’t journalists, and research-driven organizations aren’t in the journalism business — at least as we’ve understood that business for the last century plus.

But let’s also agree that the old model of how research works with journalism — research as a kind of raw material that journalism turns into public attention and then action — is also no longer broadly viable.

From a 40,000-foot level, we have far too much research chasing far too few journalists — and fewer with each passing quarter.

On a local level, at least in the United States, the research-to-journalism pipeline is all but gone.

We can mourn the passing of this model.

But we should also be transitioning to a new one.

My argument: Researchers and research-driven orgs are now in the explainer business — a vertical adjacent to traditional journalism. One that has clear potential to directly speak to and attract audiences as well as partner with journalism on a more equitable basis.

Explainer content, in case you haven’t encountered it, doesn’t break news. Instead, it seeks to contextualize the news fully so that audiences can understand and perhaps form judgements about the development underlying the news.

Example: Vox’s David Roberts explaining the Green New Deal.

Explainer content might seem like a niche enterprise. But as Emily Gaudette wrote recently about this shift in a perceptive piece for Contently, the explainer has quickly eaten all of digital media. Journalism has gone all-in for explainers. So has B2B marketing.

Research communications, however, has yet to catch up.

In an age of increasing complexity — of climate change, CRISPR, AI, the Green New Deal and increasing levels of social mistrust in expertise — it’s a good bet that the explainer’s appeal will only intensify.

The bet researchers and research-driven orgs now face: is there an audience for research- and expertise-based explainer content — content more sophisticated than the sometimes-facile explainers of Vox or Five Thirty Eight, and clearly more objective than that from B2B providers or consulting firms?

And can they reach those audiences?

My bet: As the research-to-journalism pipeline collapses, there won’t be an alternative.

More in tomorrow’s post.