The following are notes for a panel discussion with Andrew Coyne, Tavia Grant, Kristina Partsinevelos, Chris Ragan and Chris Waddell, organized together with Stephen Gordon, at the CEA meetings at Ryerson University on Saturday, May 30th. Program information here. Registration info here. Media info here.
At the 2007 Canadian Economics Association meetings, there was a panel called "How to talk to the media". At this year's meetings, we're having a panel called "Why can't we be friends? Economists and journalists in conversation". The changing titles reflect both how much Canadian academic economists' relationship with the media has changed, and how little.
Eight years ago, journalists would ask the questions, and economists would answer. Economists needed to know "how to talk to the media" because traditional media - print, radio, television - was the primary way for economists to get their research findings and opinions widely circulated.
Fast forward to 2015. Twitter and blogs have changed the interactions between economists and journalists from question and answer sessions to conversations. It's now possible for academic economists to uncover a news story - like Stephen Gordon did with the cancellation of the long-form census. We can shape the questions that are asked, and the way journalists think about a story, through tweets, blogs, and other before-its-news coverage.
Moreover, if we don't like the way that journalists are covering a story, we can report it ourselves. The move to digital has created space for academic economists' voices.
First of all, on-line space is cheap, so there's room to accommodate niche programming on obscure subjects such an economist's take on the technical details of how the UN's Human Development Index is calculated.
Second, the paying audience for digital is different from the paying audience for print. My guess is that the typical Globe and Mail digital subscriber is younger, busier and more educated than the typical print subscriber. I would also guess that the digital subscribers are more likely to be people working in business or finance, and have money to invest (why else would you need stock analysis available on your phone 24/7?). Media content is, at least to some extent, demand driven. If digital subscribers demand more coverage of the kind of topics economists can write about, like RRIF withdrawal rules, editors will create space for economist-driven and created content.
Yet changes in the economics profession are also altering the relationship between academic economists and journalists.
Economists have more to offer now, because our research speaks more to people's everyday lives than it did in, say, the 1980s - a product of the empirical revolution in our discipline and the concomitant openness to methodologies like those of behavioural economics.
There are also greater institutional and other incentives for research dissemination. The growing importance of university rankings, most of which are based to some extent on a university's reputation, means that senior management carefully track and note positive media mentions of the university's name. Funding agencies are looking for indicators of impact, dissemination and community engagement, in part to justify their own existence. In this, the media can help economists help themselves.
So, from where I sit, the relationship between economics and the media is much better than it was 8 years ago. But there are still challenges.
I worry that econobloggers are taking jobs away from journalists. If the work I do for the Globe and Mail adds to the newspaper's net profits then, in theory, there should be more money available to pay journalists' salaries. But does it work that way in practice?
And there are lots of simple, practical things that journalists could do to improve the quality of their conversations with economists. But that's a subject for another post.