This post first appeared on the PBS Mediashift website.

Remember that 1980s television commercial for Reese’s peanut butter cups that had two people, one holding a jar of peanut butter and the other a chocolate bar, bump into other and exclaim: “Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate” and “Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!”?

Maybe we need to arrange something similar for the news industry and academic researchers. “Hey, you got academic research in my mobile revenue report” and “Hey, you got mobile revenue data in my academic research.”

Mmmmm, delicious!

Accidental or intentional, the collision between media scholars and media executives remains an elusive event, especially now. Why? Why doesn’t the news industry join forces with academia as we see with other industries like medicine, engineering and technology?

Well, there are plenty of hurdles like different jargon, different incentives, different time frames and different priorities.

But in general, the issue comes down to a simple peanut-butter-and-chocolate-like situation that doesn’t have a happy ending, according to one of the most respected media scholars in the country, Steve Lacy, School of Journalism director of graduate studies at Michigan State University.

Lacy said it goes something like this: “The media scholars say: ‘You ought to run your newsroom like this’ and the industry executives say: ‘You ought to do research on this.’”

Hmmmm, frustrating!

Declining attention to research

This wasn’t always the case, Lacy said. There have been periods of time when the two groups have worked together. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the American Society of News Editors hired academic researchers to address various questions for the newspaper industry. The Poynter Institute had training sessions specifically to help media scholars get information from industry. And the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications in the ‘90s invited editors from news industry trade journals to its annual conference to talk about how to get published in industry publications.

The Newspaper Research Journal, a refereed journal that was established in 1979 by AEJMC, had plenty of newspaper and other media companies as paid subscribers, said Sandy Utt, co-editor and associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis.

Today the number of industry subscribers stands at 0.

Accidental or intentional, the collision between media scholars and media executives remains an elusive event, especially now. Why doesn’t the news industry join forces with academia like other industries?

“I don’t know, do they still even have corporate libraries? I never hear from newspapers. Not once and it’s not because we’re not trying,” said Utt, who has been co-editor for the past 14 years.

She said the Journal is hoping to make better use of online tools offered by the academic publisher SAGE Publications, and AEJMC has added a “Research You Can Use” tab on its homepage.

News organization budget-cutting could be the primary driver for the decline in subscriptions to the Newspaper Research Journal but there’s no question about two key drivers shaping this environment:

  • The news industry is struggling to keep up with the challenges and the opportunities that technology, millennials and advertisers are bringing to the table. Challenges abound. Opportunities are available.
  • The news industry is paying more attention to research in the form of digital analytics, metrics, A-B testing and algorithm performance. And who knows how many new data collections are on the way, perhaps a slew of numbers about ad viewability or free standing inserts.

Collaboration heaven

With so much data and so many questions, shouldn’t this be nirvana for the collaboration of media scholars and news companies? Perhaps but it’s not that simple, says Ken Doctor, one of the industry’s most respected analysts who runs and spent 21 years in the newspaper business.

One problem, he said, is not enough research projects focused on the No. 1 issue facing today’s news executive: What business model will sustain journalism?

“As we've said repeatedly, this era doesn't surface an audience problem, but a revenue problem,” Doctor said in an email. He hasn’t seen much academic research that would help in that regard but, of course, it’s not too late to start and the more research about business models the better.

Another issue is related to the changing audience. Researchers could maybe help by trying to answer some of the basic questions about how people are consuming news and generally using the new powerful devices they carry around.

“The area is broad — and ‘audience development’ is growing as a discipline — so that may be the best place to dig in,” he said.

A new focus on connections

In an effort to help encourage the digging-in process and usher in a new period of cooperation, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and The Associated Press are launching a new initiative that aims to accelerate research-driven media evolution.

Research is one of the cornerstones at RJI, located at the Missouri School of Journalism, and whether that’s done in-house, by a visiting fellow or through industry collaboration, we just want to make sure it is as meaningful and useful as possible.

One of our goals with this new initiative is to find and fund timely applied research that may fill in gaps of knowledge in journalism or explore emerging issues to help guide new strategies.

The AP has already been working with academia in various ways — hosting academic seminars, making AP data available to researchers, participating in student competitions — but this effort will focus on bringing in more players and sharing information and insights through a series of events.

“We’ve had a great association with the Reynolds Institute over the years, involving projects with both students and faculty,” said Jim Kennedy, senior vice president for strategy and enterprise development at AP. “It’s a natural next step for us to work together to create more opportunities for collaboration between the academic community and the industry.”

The effort will be kicked off with a panel discussion of scholars and industry executives on Wednesday, Feb. 25, in New York City during Social Media Week. The subject of the discussion will be “Setting or chasing the agenda: Who controls the news?” Detailed information can be found here.

We hope the panel will be just the beginning of mixing chocolate and peanut butter and matching industry needs with academic strengths. Delicious, indeed.

Randy Picht  
Executive Director


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