Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Nick Kristof joined us this week for a small roundtable discussion on his work. This time last year we helped Nick select the finalists for his 2011 Win-A-Trip contest, and we’ll be helping again on the 2012 contest—more on that below. The roundtable was a welcome opportunity to continue our relationship, and as CGD’s media relations coordinator, I was pleased that much of the discussion focused on the writing process and communication strategy around Nick’s development-focused weekly column. The conversation touched on many challenging questions, including how to balance negative development stories, which are common in mainstream media (e.g., starving kids in Africa) with the more positive development stories (e.g., thriving kids in Africa), which so rarely get told. Many of the issues he raised are very relevant to CGD’s media and policy outreach. Here are some highlights from the chat:
Writing the news: the ‘plane crash’ mind set
Nick explained that journalists are in the business of writing about planes that crash, not planes that land safely. It’s negative news, but readers know that for every plane that crashes there are many more each day that land without a hitch. The difference with writing about developing countries, he said, is that most Americans don’t have the greater frame of reference. They just don’t know, for instance, that there are millions of people with successful businesses and good, healthy lives in Africa, as former CGD senior fellow Steve Radelet shows in his book Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way. Without that counterbalance, the “plane crash” stories about Africa fill people’s understanding of the continent. Although Nick admitted that he tries to write positive pieces more often than many other journalists, even he feels tied to the typical news model. Or maybe readers tie him to that model?
Even with his loyal readership, Nick said his columns focused on U.S. politics often get far greater attention than his international-focused ones.
Taking the cut: What’s the cost of an important but less-read story:
Each week, Nick has to decide which issues to highlight in his column, knowing that some development topics—such as micronutrients or what is going on in Egypt, where he happens to be this week—are more difficult to get readers to pay attention to. And of course readership numbers are a significant measure of success for news publications and individual journalists alike.
Likewise, a research organization like CGD—whose success is based not on metrics like “number of children vaccinated” but rather effect on policies and influence of ideas—has a similar challenge. How do we engage our wonky readers, while also appealing to policymakers and reporters who help our ideas become impacts?
Nick’s feedback: Stop preaching to the choir. Build the choir.
Nick also criticized development organizations for spending too much time talking to each other and not enough time getting different voices to advocate for development issues. He argued that a four-star army general advocating for investments in girls’ education is much more effective, and more likely to get media coverage, than Hillary Clinton praising the issue (although we are very glad she is doing it!)
Another part of Nick’s advice, as well as a personal goal of his, is to try to reach new audiences especially young people in the United States. This is part of the motivation for his annual Win-A-Trip contest, where students—often with limited international travel experience—join him on a reporting trip to the developing world (read the 2012 announcement and guidelines here).
Overall, Nick’s visit provided a fresh outlook for our communications strategy and continued efforts to be a development “think and do tank.” CGD will be taking this advice to heart as we continue to connect important audiences (such as the media) with our research ideas and work to engage new audiences better. Thanks again to Nick for joining us at CGD and for sharing his thoughts with us.
Announcing the 2012 Win-A-Trip with Nick Kristof Contest: CGD to Help Judge
The 2012 Win-A-Trip with Nick Kristof contest just kicked off and we are excited to start helping review the applications. The winner of the contest will be a college student with excellent writing skills and a unique story to tell (read about last year’s winner here), and if you represent a part of America that isn’t regularly tuned in to international development issues, even better. The contest guidelines are available here and you should email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and application materials.