Before I went to graduate school, I spent some three years working for a series of daily newspapers. I was only 22 years old when I started, and I loved the work. Being a newspaper reporter gave me a licence to pick up the phone and ask anyone any question that interested me, something I might otherwise hesitate to do. A colleague commented that journalism was an ideal occupation for shy, curious people.
In those three years, I worked a number of beats: business and labour in Marshalltown, Iowa; education in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and in York, Pennsylvania -– at the late and lamented The Gazette and Daily, reputedly the only left-wing daily in the United States –- city hall and the courthouse.
(The Gazette was well known to journalists across the United States as a pioneer in investigative journalism, a craft that was later immortalized by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann in All the President’s Men. When I was there, we didn’t go after the President, but we gave York City Hall, the York Police, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, with its unguarded crossings, a lot of grief. And woe betide the police if someone was charged with resisting arrest, but not charged with anything else.)
As a young journalist, I had opportunities that young people rarely enjoy. I became acquainted with bank officials, the president of a manufacturing corporation, labour leaders, judges, city officials and prominent lawyers. It was fascinating learning about the worlds they inhabited and, through them, gaining a better understanding of business, politics and law.
As time went on, however, I began to chafe at the daily midnight deadline. On most working days, I had an hour or two to research an article and write it. After that, it was on to the next piece. I became increasingly conscious of the fact that I was just scratching the surface of each issue I researched, and I wanted to go deeper. So I applied for graduate school, got accepted to political science and political economy programs at a number of universities, and quit the Gazette.
I liked graduate school even better than I had newspaper work, but nothing is perfect. I loved researching African politics and city politics, my chosen areas of concentration, but, as I began publishing my research, it became clear to me that I was missing something I had taken for granted as a newspaperman: A readership.
The bleak reality of academic publishing is that most of us get very few readers. Most of our readers are the same few people we meet at conferences, plus our students –- many of whom would not have read what we wrote had we not assigned it to them. Then, a decade or two ago, the internet changed everything. By then I was a senior academic and secure enough to be able to try something unconventional without having to fear career death.
Combining an academic research career with a few hours a week devoted to blogging has allowed me to scratch my journalism itch –- the unfulfilled desire to go deeper -– while addressing my dissatisfaction, as an academic, with the inability to reach more than a few readers.
Blogging is a wonderful opportunity for academics to fill a niche that conventional academic writing ignores. Academic journals are full of facts and ideas that are bound to be interesting to many non-academics, but that potential readership only rarely delves into journal articles or monographs, because, from a layperson’s point of view, academics take forever to get to the point.
Interesting facts or ideas that emerge from academic research can’t be laid out the way journalistic research is, for very good reasons. A body of academic findings must be placed in a theoretical context, and an academic article or book must set out explicitly how the findings in question are related to the literature.
Theory and literature reviews are unlikely to be perceived by a non-academic as desirable reading material. Blogging allows us to gather the interesting things we have learned in our academic research and lay them out for a wider readership.
This is not only an interesting and satisfying thing to do, it is also a potentially important asset for academia as a whole. Though we live in the wealthiest society in world history, attempts to allocate some of those vast resources to public purposes face heavy resistance. Blogging gives us an opportunity, by presenting our findings to the public at large, to demonstrate that the resources universities command are valuable to society.