July 13, 2011

Think Tanks, the Media, and the Future of Ideas Distribution

The Washington Post Think Tanked Blog is covering a news announcement this week that I have some thoughts on.

Time magazine and the Center for a New American Security have partnered to produce a new video series, Command Post. The series will examine key national security issues over the course of a week. Command Post will be co-hosted by CNAS President John Nagl and Time Pulitzer Prize winning national security correspondent Mark Thompson.

“Command Post will work to inform the American people about principled, pragmatic defense and security policies that will keep the country strong and safe,” said Nagl in a released statement.

The CNAS-Time project marks another collaboration between the think tank and media outlets of the kind that has been criticized in the past. The venture raises the question of whether think tanks, which may be beholden to their funders, make good partners for mainstream media.

Questions usually end with a question mark, so allow me to ask and answer the question. Is it a good idea for media organizations and think tanks to collaborate in the production and distribution of informed content? Of course it is, and this isn't a new phenomenon, rather a natural evolution and adaptation for both media and knowledge organizations like think tanks - indeed think tanks are simply catching up with academia in this regard.

The way information flows today is different than the way it did when fewer options existed. One of the criticisms mentioned in the Think Tanked article is the suggestion that think tank content is inherently biased or a form of propaganda due to the funding model of Think Tanks. Perhaps, but in my experience with think tanks, most think tanks produce legitimate ideas formulated through research and critical analysis - and yes one can often find good ideas even when a bias exists.

I also think this criticism is largely overblown, because it starts with the premise that important leaders and decision makers are incapable of evaluating the legitimacy or credibility of information. Because important leaders and decision makers in the US often shape information towards desired conclusions (particularly in political campaigns), folks sound silly to me when suggesting leaders are being unduly influenced. Seriously, are you suggesting an idea is genuine crap? Since when did the quality of an idea matter in highly partisan politics? Influence with ideas is often much more complex than critics of think tanks allow for in their criticisms.

Partnerships with media organizations isn't new to the Center for New American Security, which currently has two Senior Fellows consistently contributing on the Foreign Policy website; Marc Lynch and Tom Ricks. The extension of a media collaboration model to TIME magazine represents the traditional media outlet TIME expanding their new media models in new ways, not CNAS expanding themselves in new ways. If anything, CNAS can be accused of doing exactly what they are best known for doing - developing a larger influence enterprise through new media social collaboration models towards the purpose of distributing their ideas horizontally to broader audiences. How terrible! Think Tanks traditionally produce high quality content, so why wouldn't content distributors like TIME look to collaborate with organizations like CNAS that produce higher quality content. Indeed, some of the best ideas in the Navy discussion come from Think Tank folks, and too often the distribution models for those ideas are so small - nobody ever reads those ideas.

We have seen Think Tanks approach new media and the distribution of ideas in multiple ways attempting to capitalize on modern information network models. For example, The Heritage Foundation Foundry Blog is one example of an in-house publishing model for distributing the ideas of the Heritage Foundation outside their traditional backgrounder and report model. Center for American Progress also has a traditional content model of backgrounders and reports, but for their new media model they established Think Progress as an external, collaborative network for social networking their ideas horizontally. Most traditional think tanks, both partisan and non-partisan, have developed internal models for content distribution that now extends to blogging. CATO for example operates multiple blogs (here, here). CSIS uses multiple types of social networks to push ideas, and I would note CSIS and Lowy Institute both do a great job moving their ideas socially through Twitter - which is where I know a lot of researchers get exposed to their content. It isn't a stretch at all to say The Lowy Institute leads the Navy discussion among all think tanks globally because they do a better job than other think tanks promoting their ideas socially. This report, for example, is widely read and perhaps the most frequently publicly discussed think tank content produced in 2011 related to maritime affairs in the Pacific.

How powerful is social networking models for moving ideas produced from Think Tanks? In the global information distribution model of today, The Lowy Institute is leading the public naval affairs narrative by being the leading think tank content and ideas provider... and they are leading from Australia. The Indians read their work, the Japanese read their work, the Koreans read their work, obviously the Americans do, and it is safe bet the Chinese do... and in global social communities like Twitter where a policy discussion has been known to break out in public with many eyes watching, their ideas are prominently featured in the debates. Think about it.

CNAS is evolving into what can be described as a Think Tank 2.1 model where the traditional think tank model distributes their ideas with intent to influence through a social network, and they leverage the new media presence of traditional media brands to do it. It is effective, after all, the article I quoted regarding this new partnership between TIME and CNAS comes from the Think Tanked blog - published under the traditional brand Washington Post.

This is the future of think tanks, because influence can be measured a number of different ways for purposes of fundraising. Which scenario has more influence on you? When you find an interesting article from the AP while conducting a Google News search, or when a colleague you have high esteem for sends you an email and says "Read this!" and it links to an interesting article on some obscure blog brand like Information Dissemination? When colleagues I have respect for share a link with me, whether via email or Twitter or Facebook, it can have much more influence on my impression of the content than it would when I simply find an article reprinted in CLIPs.

That social model for information influence, enhanced by broader distribution through traditional media brands like Foreign Policy or TIME Magazine, is what CNAS is looking to take advantage of as a way of forwarding their ideas. The CNAS information model increases the probability that some staffer on the Hill will be informed by CNAS information and then forward that information to their Congressman or Senator, and through the consistency of good content generation, CNAS then competes for influence in the idea space among the decision makers in government.

This is a topic I've discussed at length with the folks at USNI many times - who do get it btw. Steve Waters and John Morgan didn't want to hear it, they already know everything - just ask them - which is why they need to go, but I honestly believe a similar model of leveraging partnerships within the Navy academia knowledge capital communities (USNA, NWC, NPS, NDU, etc) and think tanks who focus on naval affairs (Brookings, Hudson Institute, CATO, CSBA, CNAS) would allow a traditional media and publishing organization - USNI - find other partners in the Navy community (SNA, Navy League, NWC Foundation) to help build an idea influence enterprise network for broadly distributing relevant, credible Navy information to broader audiences. Because USNI Proceedings is a periodical, and not a news daily, there is no reason partnerships couldn't work with a traditional news organizations in print (WashPo, NYT, LATimes, Virginia Pilot, San Diego Union Tribune), TV (NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN), or radio.

Collaborative partnerships are the most productive way information can be moved today, and social distribution is the most effective way to be influential with good information. All CNAS and TIME are doing is proving that both organizations apparently understand how the model works better than everyone else, and in the end both brands will be enhanced by the effort.

Need an example how brand influence is expanded when it is implimented correctly? The Foreign Policy brand today vs before they revamped themselves leveraging their social model is a perfect example. Still an influence periodical (perhaps more influential today with broader name recognition), FP is also an influential contributor to the daily narrative on important foreign policy issues. One would be hard pressed to suggest CNAS hasn't also benefited greatly from brand exposure with the presence of Tom Ricks and Marc Lynch writing on the Foreign Policy website. Bottom line, the social information model works when content is good, and think tanks produce higher quality content than most organizations - after all it is their job to do exactly that.