Information Dissemination: Think Tanks, the Media, and the Future of Ideas Distribution

26 July 2011

Courtesy of Stephen Yeo, a comment on two posts on the future of how think tanks could communicate in the future. Raymond Pritchett from the Information Dissemination blog has published a commentary on a post from the Washington Post’s Think Tanked blog by Allen McDuffee on a new partnership between the Center for a New American Security and TIME Magazine. While McDuffee wonders if this is good for journalism, Raymond Pritchett is more optimistic and argues that this is the future of ideas distribution.

His post, Information Dissemination: Think Tanks, the Media, and the Future of Ideas Distribution, is based on a simple premise: we trust traditional media more than new social medias. Just as we trust people we know more than people we do not know. I wrote about this in a study of how DFID learns from research and evaluations.

The idea is this: The Center for a New American Security (NCAS) and TIME Magazine will collaborate on a series of videos examining issues of national security. This way,  NCAS’ research will be in effect disseminated by TIME Magazine’s communication channels. As the article argues, this is not new. Newspapers often collaborate with research organisations or NGOs to develop features; academics work with broadcasters to put together documentaries; etc.

The article names a few of these collaborations.

McDuffee asks is this is good for journalism. Galrahn says: Yes! Not only is this good, this is the future.

I say that not only is this the future, but this is also the past. Traditional media has always played a campaigning role. The Economist begun its life as a campaign against the corn laws.

As a pro, it allows traditional media to keep up their investigative capacity without having to spend in researchers. But this is only possible if the think tanks in question have a significant endowment to undertake independent and long term research. Readers benefit too; but only if the media take advantage of more than one think tank to ensure a certain degree of plurality.

As a con, however, I would argue that this approach may limit the capacity of the media to investigate the sector the think tanks themselves are attempting to promote. The best example I can think of is the collaboration between The Guardian, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PANOS, CGD, ODI, IDS, and others (although not all are formal partners -even though their researchers have full organisational support to actively post opinions). Together, they publish the Global Development section of the online site of the paper.

This collaboration is nothing more than an advocacy exercise in favour of the Aid Industry. Criticism is hardly ever published (in fact, when it was being set up I was asked if I would be interested in blogging but they were only interested in blogs ‘making the case for aid’). The risk then is that the traditional media, that we trust, can be co-opted by the think tanks that provide it with content. Think tanks are not value or interest free: they have their own agendas -not always only to reduce poverty (as most international development think tanks would argue) but also to stay in business.

However, it is undeniable that this is a way forward. But I hope, only one way.

An alternative to this is setting up a new traditional media. Stand alone blogs or magazines that may allow the think tank to disseminate information almost independently from the research process -free from its constraints. This can also help to raise funds.

A brilliant example of a successful stand alone publication linked to a think tank is, managed by CEPR -the top post on has 650,000 views, by the way; you’d have to be crazy to try to compete with them instead of simply work hard to get your research published through the site.