Middlemen, Marketing, and a Modest Proposal

During the heady days of the dot-com bubble, “disintermediation” was one of the hot buzzwords. E-commerce proponents proclaimed the death of stores, the shortening of supply chains, and the impending arrival of a new world in which producers sold their products directly to consumers.

What the cool kids didn’t realize was that in many industries, middlemen were doing a lot more than just ringing up purchases and stocking shelves. People would rather buy a gallon of milk and a pound of ground beef from the local grocer than order a whole cow direct from the farm, no matter how much theoretical savings the latter strategy could reap. Even in cases where e-commerce did eliminate the local stores, it often created whole new classes of middlemen in their place. Blockbuster died as Netflix appeared, record stores only shut after iTunes opened, and Amazon danced on Woolworth’s grave.

Ironically, the news business has undergone the slowest, strangest, and least predictable change in the whole e-commerce marketplace. A decade ago, it seemed simple. Journalists, regardless of their medium, sell information. The internet makes information available for free. Therefore, Old Media should die and people should get their news directly from the sources. So why hasn’t that happened yet?

Like the cow, primary news sources are a poor substitute for the finished products most people want. Yes, anyone with enough persistence and time could probably contact Arab and Israeli political leaders, the NBA players’ representatives, and the lead scientists from that cool study that came out last week, but persistence and time are in short supply. It’s worth hiring someone to do the legwork for you and write up a cogent summary. It may not be popular in some circles to admit this, but journalists provide real value to society.

Unfortunately, we’ve already gone a long way toward eliminating them. Newspapers are closing down, consolidating, or shrinking. The radio dial is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Clear Channel. TV newsrooms have shrunk dramatically. Instead of news carefully researched and reported by journalists, we get stories hastily dashed off by a few remaining employees. Despite skyrocketing demand for information, we’re faced with a plummeting supply of the very people who make it understandable.

Or at least we would be, if another industry hadn’t stepped in to fill the void. While reporting jobs continue to vanish, the marketing and public relations industries are growing by leaps and bounds, often hiring the same folks who previously wrote objective news. A journalist used to make dozens of phone calls to get the details, quotes, sound bites, and images to flesh out a story. Now he only has to look at the press release and download the b-roll.

The internet makes this new PR-driven world accessible to anyone. Organizations that couldn’t have afforded a public relations campaign in the past can now set up an account on a press release service and start publishing their own “news.” If that sounds like the “direct from primary sources” utopia, don’t be fooled. Press releases come from people with a specific angle on the story. Ideally, reporters would take these releases as starting points, following up with their own questions and then tracking down sources with divergent opinions. In reality, the declining number of journalists leaves the remaining ones swamped with work, increasing the odds that they’ll just rewrite the press release and run it as a story.

This problem is particularly acute in science reporting. I skim through piles of press releases about new research findings just about every morning. Some of them then appear, more or less verbatim, on hundreds of news outlets later in the day. It’s too easy to say that those reporters should have waited until they could research the story properly. In our media-saturated environment, 60 seconds could be the difference between getting a top-ranked headline on Google News and vanishing off the bottom of the list. Better never than late.

Of course there’s a whole parallel universe of science bloggers, public-minded researchers, and celebrity science popularizers who now make a living presenting smart analysis of the latest findings. Unfortunately, that’s an opt-in system; people who don’t seek out good, well-reported science news are becoming less and less likely to encounter it.

This isn’t a problem we can just shrug off. Science underpins every aspect of modern life, and the biggest challenges humanity now faces cannot be addressed without it. If you’re wondering how a major political party can survive being taken over by climate change denialists, or how vaccine-preventable diseases can suddenly reappear in industrialized countries, or why we can’t seem to fix our healthcare system, here’s your answer. A scientifically illiterate public is at the mercy of shysters and lunatics.

Effective journalism isn’t sufficient to solve ignorance by itself, but it is essential. Even if we did an impeccable job of teaching science in public schools – and we don’t – we’d still need thoughtful reporting on new research to be the rule, not the exception. So how do we get there?

We should eliminate the middleman. This time, though, let’s eliminate the right one.

First, instead of putting out press releases, scientific journals, funding agencies and academic institutions should add one small requirement for all publications: the authors must write a brief, plain-language summary of the work, explaining the significance of their results for the general public. This summary must be written by the authors, not a paid PR person; if the name of the summary’s author doesn’t appear in the citation for the paper, it’s plagiarism. The PLoS “Author’s Summary” is a good model for this.

Second, all journals that want to be indexed in PubMed or other publicly-sponsored databases should be required to upload their tables of contents – with links to the abstracts and plain-language summaries – to a central site on their publication date. This site must be open to everyone, and should use a uniform format for all of the summaries. The full text could be behind a paywall on the publisher’s own site, but the title, abstract, and summary would all be easy to access without navigating through weird interfaces or restrictions.

Third, no journal or institution would be allowed to release information about publicly-funded research ahead of time, “under embargo,” to a select group. The publication date would be the day everyone would have access to it, including reporters.

Finally, the teeth: any paper accompanied by a press release or sent out under embargo would be automatically banned from consideration for future tenure or grant review. Yes, I’m serious.

What would this Draconian intervention accomplish? For starters, it would eliminate the PR-driven stories that are the crux of the problem. With no press releases, news outlets could either skip science entirely, or do real reporting on it. There’s no doubt the public is interested in science, so the publications that make the investment in reporting on it would draw the hits. Those that aren’t interested in doing it right could focus on something they’re better at, such as gossip.

“But it will put the PR people out of work,” I hear someone shout. Perhaps they’ll be able to get jobs in journalism now.

Some might object that eliminating embargoed access would slow down science reporting. Nobody would be able to print a news story the same hour the research paper came out, so the public would hear about new findings days or even weeks after the peer-reviewed publication appeared.

To that, I say “good.” Besides ensuring that all public discussion about the work can refer to the primary published data, it might help relieve some of the breathlessness of stories about “revolutionary new” discoveries. Scientific publications are not hurricanes; hearing about them a week later won’t kill anyone.

These ideas aren’t new. I’ve talked to several scientists and journalists who’ve made similar suggestions, but the conversation always ends with “of course it’ll never happen.”

It certainly won’t if we accept that attitude. Instead, let’s move the idea forward and see how far we can push it. Scientists often complain about the quality of science writing, so here’s something they could do about it. If they instead decide to throw their hands up and declare this proposal impossible, they should make a counterproposal – or stop complaining.

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