Professors Explain Why It's Hard to Write Online

They’re not wrong.

Four people staring at an old computer
Gregg Newton / Reuters

There comes a time in every writing-inclined person’s life when they decide between a few paths. Two common paths are journalism and the academy. Do you want to write research that, though it’s less widely disseminated, is arguably more rigorous than most journalism? Or do you want to write journalistic pieces that, though less technical than academic work, often have more impact because of their readability?

More importantly, do you want to move to Fremont, Nebraska, after grad school to join a small liberal-arts college, or to New York or Washington, D.C., two of the country’s most expensive cities, to live on a blogger’s salary in a one-bedroom apartment with mice? Do you want to complain to your therapist about the academic job market or about the editor who just doesn’t understand Your Art?

You see, there are upsides and downsides to both. That is why four prominent researchers—Austin Frakt, Aaron Carroll, Harold Pollack, and Keith Humphreys—recently penned an (academic) article about the joys and pains of writing for a mass-media audience as an academic. All four regularly write about policy in popular news outlets—particularly prolific are Frakt and Carroll, who write for The New York Times’ “Upshot” column.

First, the rewards. There’s the impact, aka “eyeballs.” “Even the most-respected medical journals attract only a fraction of the eyeballs of major media outlets,” they write, noting that, “We have all received far more inquiries ... about our popular writing than about our journal publications.” News outlets also have less interest in rigorous articles on obscure topics, and this tendency to wonder “so what?” about one’s work can be useful for researchers. “Writing for mass media forces academics to ask this question of everything they write and to answer it clearly for their readers,” they point out.

Of course, they say, you could also just respond to interview requests from journalists (yay!), though by doing so one “runs the risk of being misquoted.” (Never happens, we swear!)

The challenges associated with news writing, meanwhile, are ... well, they’re challenging. News organizations are fast, so you’re more likely to get scooped, but we are also pretty loose, so you’re more likely to be able to repurpose your work for multiple places, they argue.

News outlets are also less formal than academic journals, and “the expected brevity and aversion to scientific jargon can lead you to feel that you are omitting important caveats and details,” they write. We have no time for your p-values, your explanation of the methods, your this thing: ∫. The news audience is reading your work on a four-inch screen, often while defecating. You’re gonna want to keep it simple. This just-the-facts-ma’am, if-it-bleeds-it-leads attitude can seep into a researcher’s academic writing, for better or worse. “It invites a few raised eyebrows from others, who expect a more academic tone,” they write.

Then there’s the real rub: “With exposure can come brutality in the form of hate tweets and irate emails. Expect more of them if you stick your neck out. Some of us find this to be a minimal irritant and easily ignored. For others, it could be significant, especially considering the tendency for women and minorities in the public eye to attract Internet trolls.” (More fodder for your therapist, see above.)

Finally, they say, researchers shouldn’t expect writing columns and op-eds to replace academic publishing as a means to career advancement:

One should never assume mass media writing can—or should—replace the normative routes to professional status. It is an “and,” not an “or.” A pile of op-eds from an academic without a strong scholarly record will come across as too much icing and not enough cake.

Wait, is my life entirely icing? Is what I’m doing with my time not impactful enough? Am I not reaching my fullest potential? (Perhaps all writers—journalists and academics alike—should just cut out the middleman and become therapists instead.)

However, when this reporter complains to her therapist about struggles she’s having at her mass-media-writing job, her therapist asks her what she would rather do instead. My answer, after a long, $40 silence, says it all:

“Well, nothing.”