Political Science for the Masses
The professors behind the blog "The Monkey Cage" will this fall test how wonky they can be without turning away readers of The Washington Post. Regardless of its success there, the blog's move highlights how scholars can take their careers in unexpected directions by experimenting with scholarly communication.
The move to the Post represents the latest step in the the popular political science blog's rise. In less than six years, "The Monkey Cage" has gone from being a disciplinary “bulletin board” to -- in the near future -- appearing alongside the likes of Chris Cillizza's “The Fix.”
John Sides, the associate professor of political science at George Washington University who spearheaded the negotiations, said he received an offer from an unnamed publication this spring. He consulted a contact at the Post for advice, which incidentally led to the newspaper voicing its own interest. After meeting with both the corporate and editorial sides of the organization -- no, the Amazon founder and recent Post buyer Jeff Bezos wasn’t present -- Sides and the four other co-authors agreed to a three-year deal.
“[The editors] reassured us that they were interested in us because of what we had been doing, not because of something that they wanted us to start doing,” Sides said. “We didn’t have to change our stripes.”
Sides announced the move last Monday, rattling the blog's unusually civilized comments section. Apart from a handful of well-wishers, the more skeptical commenters could largely be sorted into two main groups:
1) How would the move affect the blog’s content? “I think that the vast, vast majority of our content stays,” Sides said. “The only tweak that it needs is to be consistently topical and consistently lively.”
2) What about the Post’s new paywall? “That’s something we thought about a lot,” said Sides, who negotiated a one-year exception. “I don’t presume that every reader is going to follow us.”
Those concerns aside, Sides said “We would not have done this if we thought we would lose readers. That would completely defeat the purpose.” If, after three years, the Post or the professors end the partnership, he said “we always have the themonkeycage.org.”
While the professors can now call themselves paid contributors to the Post -- Sides said they will take "a share of the revenue" -- they are not describing the change of venue as a major career move. “I don't think that having 'The Monkey Cage' at the Post will change my career,” Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, said in an e-mail. “I'll continue doing my research and my writing.”
Yet the blog's success is another example of scholars leveraging their online presence or tech savvy to expand their role in their fields -- either inside or outside higher education -- without abandoning it.
“ 'The Monkey Cage' is just a wild success story about this,” said Daniel H. Nexon, associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. “From a career perspective, [blogging is] obviously a new vector to greater visibility ... both within the discipline and outside the discipline -- and that opens up opportunities.”
Nexon’s career has followed a similar trajectory. After more than eight years of running the political science blog "The Duck of Minerva," Nexon recently announced he will become the next editor-in-chief of International Studies Quarterly. He said a major part of his pitch to the journal was a plan to build its online presence through social media and blog-like publications.
“In a sense, the idea for doing that ... definitely come out of my experience as an academic blogger,” Nexon said.
Nexon also pointed out that a blog’s free-flowing chain of command does not always translate to the more hierarchical world of traditional journalism -- a point that the co-authors of "The Monkey Cage" made sure to clarify before agreeing to join the Post.
“[W]e will post directly to the blog and not have to go through an editor,” Gelman wrote. “This is crucial. A key part of blogging is its immediacy and its informality.”
Gelman contributed to "FiveThirtyEight," the seemingly clairvoyant electoral prediction blog run by the statistician Nate Silver, when it operated as a stand-alone website. Once it was published under the banner of The New York Times, Gelman said, several contributors were turned off by the newspaper’s editorial process.
“It felt frustrating writing a blog post and then waiting weeks to find out if it could run,” Gelman wrote.
As part of their deal with the Post, new blog entries will be checked for spelling errors -- a process that Sides predicts should take no more than 15 minutes. “They’re not editing us in the sense that every post has to pass through a layer of redaction,” he said.
A small price to pay, Sides said, compared to the expanded audience and the resources made available by joining the Post.
"Part of the way that academic blogging ends up being successful is that it reaches out to journalists and others who function as force multipliers," Sides said. "They’re the ones who link to your blog post."
Granted, blogging is not a miracle cure. But for a discipline that has long debated how it can make itself more influential, it does at least represent an option.
“It’s given me an opportunity to try to have more influence in terms of putting political science ideas into the broader bloodstream of the news,” Sides said. “Scholars can have influence in a variety of ways through their own scholarly writing and teaching, but there has to be some kind of intermediary that can go between pure scholarly work and the kinds of information that policy makers and the news media might be interested in and want to consume.”