Disrupting Wonkcomms

Last week, Jill Lepore took to the pages of the New Yorker to denounce “disruption.” Lepore wasn’t content merely to document the ways that the term has been overused into near-meaninglessness. No, Lepore aimed at debunking the very idea of disruptive businesses. “Disruption,” she proclaimed, is “a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.”

Strong words.

Also laughably false. As Vox’s Timothy B. Lee put it, “Disruption is a dumb buzzword. It’s also an important concept.”

Indeed, if you don’t believe that businesses can be disrupted, I’d invite you to express your disapproval via an afternoon post delivery of a 35mm Kodak photo of the front page of today’s Rocky Mountain News.

We’re already seeing disruption in the legacy news business. I have some nagging worry that the same sorts of businesses that are creating such concern for the New York Times—namely, explainer journalism sites—might ultimately prove equally disruptive to think tanks.

What Is Disruption, Anyway?

Given the way that “disruption” is applied to Every. Single. Thing, particularly in the tech world, you might be forgiven for not knowing what it really means. The New York Times actually laid the theory out quite clearly in its now-infamous memo on digital strategy. Here’s the Times’ infographic, as cleaned up by Vox:

Disruption infographic from New York Times' digital strategy report, as redrawn by Vox

As Ezra Klein explains, the really important feature here is that “the poor quality and low profit margins of the new product that prevent the incumbent business from recognizing the threat.” But because new entrants are typically able to innovate more quickly, the quality of their offerings gets better. Eventually, they reach the stage at which their product is good enough. The end often comes quickly for incumbents.

So how is this related to think tanks? We’ll need one more digression to get there…

Stock and Flow

Most here are probably already familiar with the the content strategy concept of stock and flow, a metaphor that Robin Sloan borrowed from economics. The nutshell version, via Sloan:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

For most of their history, think tanks have mainly delivered stock content. By contrast, most journalism has been flow content.

Traditionally, a lot of the business of wonkcomms has been that of (a) convincing journalists to write flow pieces covering the release of new think tank stock pieces, and (b) pitching older stock pieces to journalists as those pieces become relevant to whatever flow pieces are currently forming the news cycle.

But then the Internet came along. Suddenly there were these things called blogs. They let think tank researchers connect directly with a bigger audience. And think tanks very quickly learned the same lessons that journalists had learned: if you want an audience, you need to talk about the things the audience cares about. And so researchers began producing flow content of their own.

In the wonkcomms world, we continued to rely on journalists, whose platforms still reach far more people than any think tank blog. But we weren’t nearly as reliant as we used to be. Here’s Klein again:

Now, the people who were once sources [for journalists] can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay—at least not at first—but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Klein is talking about sources more broadly, not just think tanks, but the basic point holds. Journalists no longer enjoy exclusive access to sources, and without sources, journalists aren’t really journalists anymore, they’re just writers. And the post-Internet supply of writers is much bigger. Many of those writers are happy to write simply for exposure. That dynamic drives down wages for journalists, while simultaneously taking eyeballs—and with them, ad revenue— from the outlets that employ them, depressing wages even further. Journalists were laid off, papers closed, more journalists were laid off.

And then a few journalists realized something. If sources—like, say, think tanks—were going to write flow pieces, maybe journalists should move the other way, and write more stock pieces.

And thus, the VoxesFiveThirtyEights, and Upshots of the world began to appear.

Disrupting Think Tanks

My suggestion that Vox or FiveThirtyEight or the like might someday disrupt think tanks has met with pretty universal skepticism, both from others in the think tank world and from reporters. At the risk of offering up an unfalsifiable argument, I’d submit that this attitude is exactly what one would expect from an industry in the early days of step 2 in the infographic above.

Consider Vox’s card stack on affirmative action and the Supreme Court. It’s quite good. But no one—including the author of the stack, I suspect—would argue that it’s a suitable replacement for The Century Foundation’s latest work on the subject, The Future of Affirmative Action. The former is just a few paragraphs long. The latter collects research from over a dozen leading researchers. I mean, there are 106 footnotes in the introduction alone!

If I’m writing legislation about affirmative action, there’s no way that the Vox piece is good enough to be of serious help.

But suppose I’m a busy legislative aide who needs something to hand to my even busier freshman Congresswoman? Is a Vox card stack good enough?

Maybe it’s still not. But I don’t think that anyone in WonkComms land believes that a 24-page PDF with 106 footnotes is the perfect solution for our legislative aide, either. The question is whether we in think tank land can hit on an optimal solution before explainer journalism sites reach the minimal customer need threshold and drive think tanks out of business.

Vox is pushing iterations to its site on a near-daily basis. My team at The Century Foundation does well to persuade one fellow per month to release something that’s not a lengthy PDF, an 800-word op-ed, or a long journal article.

I don’t much like those odds.


Joe Miller is the Director of the DC studio of Soapbox, a design and digital agency that focuses on creative communications for ideas that matter. He has led digital strategy projects at Eastern Research Group, The Century Foundation, and the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to his shift to content strategy, we was a senior staff writer at FactCheck.org, a copywriter with the Mack/Crounse Group and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke and the United States Military Academy. He received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia, his MA in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and his BA in philosophy from Hampden-Sydney College.

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8 comments on “Disrupting Wonkcomms
  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    excellent piece, Joe. First off, Lepore’s piece, I think, was a bit more nuanced than you make her look to be. In my view, it’s a piece worth reading. That said, I agree that disruption is a worthwhile discussion in the think tank context.

    Thomas Carothers once pointed out that a Washington Post reporter had told him that the Carnegie Endowment was a competitor for the Washington Post. Puzzled, Carothers asked how that could be. “You are a content provider, and people can go directly to your website, bypassing us.”

    As you rightly point out, that is not just good news for the think tanks, as Vox et al can encroach on the think tank space, becoming favorite village explainers. Think tanks may face major challenges there, and it may be a tricky space to compete in. Personally, I think it’s worth focusing on the hard and deep tasks that media does not have time for.

    Incidentally, if you’re interested in searching what some of the disruptors have to say (on, for example, disruption), you may find our search page useful which specifically focuses on some of the most prominent policy voices outside think tanks.


    • Joe says:

      Fair enough, re: Lepore. I thought the first half of her piece was really quite good. The second half then transitioned in a very odd way from, “Disruption isn’t real” to “Please stop disrupting journalism.” The fact that she pretty much admits that something very like disruption is happening to newspapers everywhere should have been at least some evidence that she was overstating the case against disruption in the first half of her piece.

      I agree that we should be thinking harder about the work that we can do that the media can’t really afford to do well. One danger of going down that route, though, is that it moves us from competing with journalists to competing with academics.

      Our distinguishing factor vis-a-vis academia has always been that we are connected to the policy community in a way that few academics can manage. If journalists eat into that advantage, then I’m not sure what we still have to offer as an improvement over an academic post.

      There’s almost certainly some space we can stake out, but I’ll confess that I’m not sure what it is exactly.

      What I’d really love to see, though, is a think tank that actually took a genuinely-digital approach, a la Vox and become the sort of place at which there are nearly as many designers and developers as there are researchers, and experimentation happens daily rather than monthly.

  2. […] the navel-gazing side, I argue that explainer journalism might be just as disruptive to think tanks as it looks to be for traditional media. Explainer sites like Vox aren’t good enough to […]

  3. […] know I’ve already talked about think tank disruption. And I know this may sound a bit broken-record-y. […]

  4. […] particularly thought-provoking post last year by Joe Miller looked at how disruptive innovators like Vox and FiveThirtyEight posed a […]

  5. […] particularly thought-provoking post last year by Joe Miller looked at how disruptive innovators like Vox and FiveThirtyEight posed […]

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