This Friday I will be joining colleagues in international affairs, journalism, public policy and political science to talk about "Academics in the Media Landscape: The Role of Scholar-Columnist-Bloggers". The panel is part of Carleton's Visions for Canada, 2042 conference, which explores "the ways innovative collaboration among researchers and the community may be the most effective response to Canada’s future challenges." As part of that exploration, us scholar-columnist-bloggers have been asked to talk about trends in our corners of the blogosphere, and make some predictions and prescriptions for the role of scholar-op-ed-writers-bloggers in Canada as it hurtles towards 2042. Here are my speaking notes for that event. The event is open to the public, if you would like to drop by.
I want to tell you about three blog posts. Two that I'm proud of, and one that I'm not. And all three of which say something about the beauty, and the perils, of being a scholar-blogger.
One of my less impressive blog posts was about the television show Battle of the Blades. (Battle of the Blades was like Dancing with the Stars, only on ice.) In the post I argued that the Russian skaters Valeri Bure and Katia Gordeeva were the best team in the competition. But they were not getting votes because of something called "home town bias". People prefer to vote for people like them, which gives Canadians an advantage over Russians. When the post appeared on the Globe web page, it got lots of likes and shares - and Valerie and Katia won the competition.
So what's the problem? I was pontificating on a subject I know nothing about - ice dancing. I was wrong. I now believe Theo Fleury was a better dancer than Valerie Bure, and my post helped the wrong team win. What's more, I relied on slightly dubious research - an unpublished working paper - because it said something I wanted to believe was true.
Scholar-bloggers walk a fine line. We have to be entertaining and easy to read, yet accurate. Original, yet grounded in solid research. Opinionated, and yet non-partisan. Academics' salaries are paid by students and citizens. Because of this, we have a responsibility to think of the public interest when we write; to abide by certain intellectual standards. And we don't always get it right, as that Battle of the Blades post shows.
At the same time, having a salary gives scholar-bloggers wonderful freedom. Here's a post I'm proud of: the macroeconomics of middle earth. In it, I discuss whether Smaug should be seen as a monetary or a fiscal phenomenon. Here's a taster of the comments - Pavlos arguing "the dwarven nation of Erebor would likely be best approximated as an industrial capitalist superpower coupled with an unfortunate, highly deflationary, mercantilist monetary regime."
That is the magic of blogging: people from around the world can come together and talk about ideas. Participate in a virtual seminar with smart, thoughtful peers. But that magic is elusive. Blog communities need nurturing. This is one of the big struggles I'm facing right now. There is greater scope for creativity, putting out substantive content, and enjoying serious intellectual engagement, when I write on things like the monetary impact of dragons. But there are greater external rewards associated with publishing an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.
I see the tensions about where to publish increasing over time. One of the big issues for scholar-bloggers is "does blogging count as research?" I believe that, as universities grow increasingly concerned about outreach, reputation and impact, they will give "public intellectual" type activities more recognition. Rewarding blogging has an obvious upside for bloggers. Yet I would not like to see blogging go where conventional academic publication seems to be heading - that is, to a place where metrics trump content.
Yet there is much to be said for the traditional op-ed. One of my all-time favourite columns was a Globe piece called "Sorry, Canada never was the best place to live". It dove into the details of how the United Nations' Human Development index is calculated. But people read the post. They were engaged. Informed. For me, that's the biggest thrill: when people say, "we were talking about your piece and..."
In economics, policy wonk-ery is one of the most important things scholar-bloggers contribute to the media landscape. We bring in expertise that 99 percent of journalists lack. That means that new kinds of stories get covered, and old stories get covered in new ways. The rise of the economics-scholar-blogger is a win-win-win. It's a win for us bloggers, because we have fun. It's a win for traditional journalists, because econo-bloggers break new stories. But once the stories are out there, journalists can keep the stories going - as they did with, for example, the cancellation of the long-form census. And economics-scholar-bloggers are a win for smart, engaged readers because at least some of us produce original, well-researched, interesting content.