How researchers get heard
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You’re Not Lana Turner

There is nothing glamorous about pitching opinion pieces to editors. Of all the tasks researcher/public experts tend to hate — public speaking, camera work, public meetings — pitching opinion is probably the most universally despised. I agree. You have to either write the piece ahead of time or come up with a cunning pitch with a news hook. Then you DM an editor you probably don’t know who will probably be supremely dismissive or indifferent to your great idea. The most likely response is no response (which is a no, mercifully); the second most likely is to get initial interest followed by months of getting strung along followed by no response, a bardo during which you realize you’re now being ghosted. You then repeat the process with the next editor until you either get a yes from an outlet you probably don’t even read or you give up, only to repeat the whole mad cycle with your next pitch in hopes you’ll eventually land the big one. It’s like you’re a waiter in Hollywood, except you have a PhD. And as in Hollywood, for every Lana Turner discovered at the soda fountain, there are 1 million of you still waiting for your big break.

This is the perpetually supplicant, perpetually precarious existence of the content freelancer. And even when you do land a pitch, the value of that single score erodes quickly after publication — meaning that, to maintain their own market value, freelancers must keep feeding the beast. They’re only as good (and probably only as solvent) as their last gig and their next. Stop freelancing for a while — or don’t land anything for a while — and editors and the rest of the market will find it hard to remember you ever existed.

To broaden your audience as a public expert sometimes requires that you freelance. Too many researchers, though, approach “public scholarship” or “public writing” as if it were only about freelancing, only about being affirmed by the gatekeepers, only about getting the biggest audience possible. (In their defense, the media work overtime to make us assume this is the natural state of affairs.)

Some of the most successful researchers/public experts I work with never pitch and don’t care about gatekeepers validating their ideas. For them, being a public expert means working in public with a particular public— socializing and developing their ideas in dialogue with a smallish, slowly growing but devoted audience of fellow researchers, collaborators and partners, policymakers, corporate leaders and/or practitioners.

Success for these public experts is way beyond getting content accepted by a gatekeeper. It’s about having a community whose actions matter to the problems the experts care about that also gives the experts consistent feedback on their ideas — that improves those ideas through debate or even initial rejection. That kind of community is far more likely to adopt your line of argument and spread it, even (or especially) without you knowing it. And that kind of community is usually far more receptive to your most transgressive ideas than a harried generalist editor to whom you have to explain the 101 of everything.

I’m not against pitching commentary to elite media. It still makes up a fair amount of what I do for my clients. It can be a 10-1 bet (like submitting to Nature or Science) or much, much worse; but the payoff — the leverage to new audiences — could still be worth it, depending on how you value your time. Just recognize that, most of the time, it’s grinding, discouraging work. And that if you’re not also doing the bulk of your public expert work for and with your particular public, you’re not opening yourself to 95 percent of the benefits and gratification of the role.