Is academia the new journalism? #academicblogging

Increasingly the boundaries between the journalistic and academic professions are becoming muddled, with both embracing the practices and norms of blogging as the process of publishing and sharing are disrupted (yep, that’s a correct Christiensen-referencing use of the word) by online platforms and social media. I’ve written about this idea before, with an particular focus on the way academia (and research funding) can adapt to facilitate this process.

Politics Inspires, an initially JISC-funded project based around the politics departments of Oxford and Cambridge, recently held an afternoon workshop on the practices and realities of academic blogging around politics. A superb set of panels encompassed the project itself (which has now been taken into the departments and is clearly established as an ongoing concern), LSE Blogs, Crooked Timber, and The Conversation – each using academic bloggers to respond to and analyse current events in politics and policy.

From the more traditional media end of things we had a speaker from the Guardian Politics blog, from the less traditional media OpenDemocracy. And from a more analytical end we saw speakers from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism, with the whole event led by Stuart White of the Public Policy Unit at Oxford.

For such a wide variety of speakers there was an unusual consistency of message: everyone was very clear that the academic voice was one that could and should make a valuable contribution to public life, and that academic blogging (be this group or individual, mediated or not by news values) had a key role to play.

However, despite an increasing emphasis from research funders on public engagement, and from departments and institutions looking to extend their public profile – academia has been slow to engage, perhaps because of an unclear link between practice and measurable benefits. How can you tell when your blog is successful?

It seems clear that the journal article is no longer a primary means of research dissemination – even though expectations and funding do both provide a continued stream of articles. The blog has the potential to become this – giving the academic control over how their research is reported (unlike the traditional PR route) and sitting on the open web… often under an open license.

For newsrooms too the idea of a quick, lively and responsive medium has proved popular. Andrew Sparrow’s Guardian Politics blog responds to (and occasionally defines) the news agenda of each day. And he often looks for and links to academic blogs (he gave the example of the wonderful revolts.co.uk as an academic blog source many journalist/bloggers use as background for stories of backbench insurrection in the House of Commons.)

So are academics becoming journalists? Clearly there is something special that an academic can bring to the reporting of any story, and that is a deep – lifelong – understanding of the micro-issues behind the headline. We’ve all had experiences where something we feel we understand well is reported badly – for me most articles (and frankly, many thinktank reports!) on higher education are largely unreadable for this reason. Academic blogging offers a chance to add a knowledgeable and historically nuanced voice to the public understanding of a story.

But journalistic values – being able to react quickly, write accessibly and promote your work – can be incredibly helpful for academics looking to drive interest in their work and enhance their own profile. Blogging, of course, is astonishingly addictive: especially when it starts conversations and helps you make connections that lead to collaborations and friendship. For work that links to public policy or current affairs this is coupled with a real chance to inform, and maybe shape, debate. One speaker wondered whether “direct influence on policy-making via blogs could be counted under the REF” (in which case maybe I’ll be expecting HEFCE QR to flow direct to followersoftheapocalyp.se?)

From a theoretical perspective Bill Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute postulated the existence of the Fifth Estate – a citizen publishing revolution based around the communicative and knowledge generating power of networks…. “sourcing, creating, distributing/leaking, networking and exhibiting collective intelligence.”. Very connectivism, which for me emphasised the range of academic positions that were converging on the idea of online communities as learning communities.

Of course, something like this fifth estate doesn’t get to stay an emergent, commons-focused space for long. Organisations like the advertising-led Huffington Post, and (specifically) the government and foundation funded “The Conversation” are capitalising on this willingness to write purely for recognition and building businesses on the back of free blogger content. And in a lesser, but somehow more insidious way, those institutions who are supporting academics in blogging are seeking a bewildering range of metrics and impact measures. (But –again- what *is* success for a blogger?) In both cases, the commodification of free labour is foregrounded – prompting one to question why the writer should not profit from their own work.

[that last part about The Conversation spawned a whole other twitter conversation with some of the editors there, which I have storified – A Conversation about The Conversation]

Stylistically, the spectre of “buzzfeed” hangs over both academia and journalism – the temptation to ramp up hits can lead to the listicle and the headline tricks that bloggers like you don’t know you are missing out on (etc). What buzzfeed evolves into may be interesting… I like especially the way that sites like UsVsTh3m play with the format to sneak a distinct leftist politics and social commentary into the memes and nostalgia. But whether articles are experimental or long form essay, accessible or specialist, they represent a willingness to share and communicate that is laudable and useful.

For instance – as the event unfolded in Oxford bloggers, academics and citizen commentators around the country were converging on the twitter hashtag #caredata – critiquing the use of NHS patient data from a range of expert perspectives. The focus was a parliamentary committee questioning ministers and civil servants – an otherwise routine event that was amplified and expanded upon by the Fifth estate in a perfect illustration of the way journalism and academic engagement are informing and shaping an ongoing national debate.

A blog should have a voice – it should be personal, conversational and there should be less concern for complete accuracy than there is for having the confidence to test out (as the writers on  crooked timber sometimes do) half-finished ideas. And – I would add – it need to be confident in the space it wants to fill. One contributor suggested that a blog is the first rough draft of journalism is the first rough draft of history – but is the blog not an oral history where a newspaper article is the official version?

The first ebook collection of “Politics Inspires” posts, “Democratic Wealth”, is freely available as is a podcast of the “Academic Blogging” event  – with both released under an open license. Also, keep an eye on the @PoliticsInspire twitter account.

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