By David Poulson
It’s a strange quirk of the news business that the most demanding job often goes to the least experienced reporter.
General assignment reporting often is what entry-level reporters endure until they land a beat, one allowing them to deeply learn a subject.
Those on general assignment lack the luxury of specialization. You have to be ready for anything. And what you don’t know, you learn.
I well remember my first few weeks on general assignment. My anxiety grew as I came to work each day. What story would the city editor have for me? Calculating tax bills from a new millage? Reporting on a deadly car accident? Assessing flood damage? Analyzing the cost of drought?
I could cover a murder, a political scandal, a change in middle school curriculum. I might write the obituary of a prominent resident or analyze the earnings of a local employer.
I remember writing a lot about the weather.
But I also remember when it felt like a switch was thrown. Rather than anxious as I drove to work that day, I became increasingly eager.
I took the stairs two-at-a-time to the second-floor newsroom. Bring it on, I felt like telling the city editor. I was ready for anything.
Part of that stemmed from growing skill and the quick knowledge gained in baptism by fire. But a lot of it was an increasing excitement at chronicling how a diverse community fit together. I may not have been able to go deep, but I could go wide. I knew how my city worked on a certain level, even if my knowledge of any one aspect of it was not particularly immense.
If I needed to know more, I was confident that I could figure out how to get it.
In his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes of what he calls the weavers, those who create the fabric and meaning of community by weaving together real relationships of diverse people.
Good journalists are weavers of a sort. They bring together data, anecdotes, people, experts and seemingly unconnected facts. They weave them into story. If they’re lucky – if we’re lucky – that story approximates the complexity of life and community. It helps the rest of us understand what’s going on.
Good academics, like good journalists, also recognize the value of weaving perspective and context from multiple sources. But the academy’s incentives poorly recognize their efforts.
Several years ago when I taught a writing workshop for researchers, I met Srini Rajendran, an economist from India who works at the International Center for the Potato, a development agency that has shared the World Food Prize for improving human nutrition.
Srini recently praised an interdisciplinary team that pushed him to produce real world innovative impacts from his research.
“Often economists think within their subject and believe that publishing their (research) in top high-impact factor economics journals is a great outcome,” he said. “But these colleagues made me think more in an innovative and different way to address issues with more interdisciplinary approaches which are much more needed in today’s world.”
But he lamented that good agricultural economics journals – the kind that advance careers – often don’t value publishing such efforts. They prefer the deep dive into their own domain rather than the research that draws from multiple sectors.
Going wide rather than deep is rarely the path to earning promotion and even academic employment, Srini said.
That’s frustrating. Narrow silos of expertise may get researchers tenure. But such intense specialization is an inadequate strategy for addressing the world’s problems.
David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, recently wrote in The Atlantic that highly specialized experts are spectacularly bad at predicting the future, especially within their own fields.
People who are far better at prediction are the scholars who are not vested in a single discipline, Epstein writes. “They took from each argument and integrated apparently contradictory worldviews.”
Not everyone gets that. In fact, the domain experts often double down on their woeful predictions even after they are proven wrong, Epstein says.
Likewise, some researchers are reluctant to talk to journalists, convinced that reporters lack the focused education and knowledge to understand their work. While practitioners of the scientific method, they give little regard to that part of it requiring the sharing of results. Their sharing is confined to a very few people in a highly specialized field.
But others yearn for connection. I once interviewed a scientist while I helped him pull water samples from an arctic lake.
“I wish I had your job,” he said suddenly.
I was astonished. At that exact moment I had thought the same thing about him. Uncovering the mysteries of climate change at an arctic research station seemed like pretty great work to me.
“You think this is pretty cool stuff, what we’re doing today?” he said.
“What will you be doing next week?” he asked.
Interviewing someone else, I said.
“You know what I’ll be doing?” he said. “Pulling these same water samples at another lake. I’ll be doing that every week this summer. I’ve done that for the past 10 years. I’ll do it for the next 10 years.
“You get to investigate cool new things every week.”
There is something more I took from that exchange than simply the grass is often greener on the other side of the fence.
I’m not arguing against deep knowledge and committed research among scientists and other academics. And in poorly staffed newsrooms, reporters should jump at any chance to develop deep expertise. Many nowadays have little time to dip below the surface of one subject before moving on.
But I’ve been thinking lately that the opposite of deep knowledge is not necessarily superficial knowledge. An alternative to both is connected knowledge. We shouldn’t be quick to assume that deep knowledge of a narrowly defined perspective is superior to connected knowledge.
Going wide is surely as important as going deep. Perhaps more so. Knowing how things relate, integrate, connect is valuable to scientists, academics, journalists and all of us.
We should chase it.
Two stairs at a time.
David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.