Academics Writing for the Public

23Feb16

In January, I helped bring Anne Trubek to Middlebury to do a workshop for faculty called “Writing for the Public.” Anne is a friend and a great writer with a diverse resume, so when she announced that she was adding campus workshops to her Thinking Writer slate of online courses, I jumped at the chance to bring her to Vermont.

It was a great couple of days, as Anne worked with 15 faculty to discuss the mechanics of popular publishing, how to craft a pitch, what topics make sense for what venues and audiences, and what distinctive perspectives academics have to offer and how best to write to those strengths. Anne also called attention to how unusual the phrase “writing for the public” is, noting that everyone else except academics simply call it “writing.”

She encouraged us to develop a pitch and start working on an article to discuss with her and our peers, which I did. This was shortly after the public squabble between NBC and Netflix at the Television Critics Association about Netflix’s unreleased viewership numbers. So I developed a pitch that would address that timely controversy, trying to explain Netflix’s unique business model to industry outsiders and make the case for why we should care. I drafted the piece that night, Anne & I hashed out edits over breakfast, and then I sent the piece to five journalistic venues.

That was Thursday January 28th. The only one I heard back from quickly was a friendly acquaintance who edits a prominent culture site, who passed due to overlap with previous coverage. Silence for the next week. (Anne says this is not uncommon.) Then a week later, I got a positive reply from The Atlantic, who asked for potential revisions, which I turned around quickly. Then more waiting, then a positive email saying they’re waiting for the right time in their cycle to run it, with some final revisions (especially since the timely hook was now stale).

That right time was today, as the article was published: “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings.” For me, it’s a piece that straddles genres: too off-the-cuff & speculative for scholarship, too depersonalized for a blog post, too rudimentary for posting to a more academic audience on a site like Flow or the late-lamented Antenna. I see it as a form of public media literacy, hoping to raise awareness of how underlying business models impact how we engage with and talk about television. I hoped it would get people interested in the behind-the-scenes systems of our major communication media.

It did get one notable person interested – shortly after the article came out, I got an email from a producer at the public radio show Marketplace, who was hoping to have me record an interview about the topic. Thankfully the scheduling and technology worked, so my interview appeared on tonight’s show.

I share this here, both as a more permanent link as part of my revitalized blogging, and to share a sense of how such a popular press piece comes into being. And, admittedly, to support and promote Anne’s workshops as a valuable way to learn how to write (for the public)!



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