Broaden the Reach of Research With Column Writing

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/baona
Many academics spurn writing for mainstream media outlets in favor of working on formal research. But they could miss out on career-building opportunities.
  • By writing for mainstream media, scholars can fulfill their business schools’ requirements for service while wielding greater control over how their expertise is presented to the public.
  • Academics who choose to write columns in consumer publications can attract professional opportunities such as invitations to teach webinars, give presentations at industry events, or serve on advisory boards.
  • Preparing ongoing commentaries for newspaper outlets is a way for scholars to expand the reach of their research and enhance the reputations of their institutions.

When faculty think about finding outlets for their research, their first—and often only—targets are peer-reviewed journals. Although some faculty might provide interviews to mainstream media outlets, fewer translate their research expertise for consumer publications. After all, many business schools base promotion and tenure (P&T) decisions primarily on the number of papers faculty publish in top-tier journals, not on the number of times they are featured as experts in the media.

But this narrow focus discounts how faculty can benefit from writing regularly for mainstream publications. The benefits include not only providing ideas for their teaching and scholarship, but also enhancing their professional reputations, increasing visibility for their research, and generating greater research impact. Moreover, scholars who establish public reputations as experts in their fields also enhance the reputations of their institutions. 

What does it take to write regularly for the mainstream? And is it worth it for academics to add this to their workloads? Here, two academics share their experiences as columnists for consumer publications. Dan Laufer is an associate professor in the School of Marketing and International Business at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Tamar Avnet is a professor of marketing and chair of the marketing department at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business in New York City.

Laufer and Avnet say that column writing offers faculty both tangible and intangible career benefits. They agree, however, that those benefits depend on the extent to which a writer’s academic institution views this work as contributing to its engagement, service, and impact goals.

More Attention to Crisis Management

Laufer began writing regularly for mainstream media in 2014, when he started contributing to “Crisis of the Week,” a column published in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Laufer was a member of a panel of experts who submitted 250-word commentaries discussing how different companies responded to high-profile crises. In his contributions, Laufer covered topics ranging from from Toyota’s response when its CEO was arrested for allegedly bringing oxycodone into Japan toa statement that Royal Caribbean Cruises issued after a passenger fell overboard.

As a result of his work with the WSJ, he was next approached by Radio New Zealand (RNZ) to write a commentary for its website based on his research on “crisis contagion.”  After that, he says, “I decided to contact the major media outlets in New Zealand with a proposal to write a monthly column on crisis management.”

When Laufer approached the business editor of the New Zealand Herald, he sent samples of his work for WSJ and RNZ, as well as a link to an interview about his research with a television news program, to show the range of his writing and to establish the public’s interest in the topic of crisis management.

In 2019, he was hired by the Herald as a monthly columnist and has written 25 commentaries for the publication. This year, he also wrote several commentaries for the country’s National Business Review (NBR). As an NBR columnist, Laufer not only provided written content, but also gave interviews for the publication’s podcast.

Laufer estimates that he spends approximately five hours to write a single column, depending on how much research he must do or how many additional experts he must interview. He also spent 10 minutes each month giving interviews to NBR staff members for its podcast.

Greater Exposure for Time Management Research

It was Avnet’s research on scheduling styles and time management, for peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, that attracted the attention of the consumer publication Psychology Today. Two years ago, she accepted its editors’ invitation to write a column and has written 13 commentaries since June 2021.

Her columns delve into topics ranging from how relying too much on clocks to keep time can negatively affect happiness to how to choose the most motivating diet or exercise program. “Writing for Psychology Today is a different experience as the audience is less academic and the writing needs to be entertaining as well as interesting,” Avnet says.

“By writing this column, I allow my research to be exposed to a larger audience, and I’m able to share my expertise with the nonacademic world.” —Tamar Avnet, Yeshiva University

Avnet writes approximately one column every three months, depending on the new findings she discovers in her research. “I try to share these findings with my audience as they come.”

The main advantage of this form of intellectual contribution “is to be able to promote one’s research beyond the narrower academic audience,” she says. “By writing this column, I allow my research to be exposed to a larger audience, and I’m able to share my expertise with the nonacademic world.”

Controlling the Message

Preparing an ongoing column also provides academics with more control over how their ideas are presented to the public, says Avnet. She appreciates that her column writing gives her “more freedom” in how she presents the implications and outcomes of her research.

Laufer points out that when faculty speak to reporters, they might spend a great deal of time answering interview questions to find that reporters have used only a few short quotes in the final article. But when faculty write their own regular columns, they can choose the topic and control the direction of each piece. An editor might make changes before publication, but those changes are often no different than those a journal editor might make to an academic paper.

“Journalists will choose the quotes they prefer to use, and this may distort the views of academics in a published newspaper article or a news clip on TV or the radio,” Laufer says. “Having greater control over the content minimizes the risk of being misquoted or taken out of context.”

What About Tenure?

Given that many schools base their tenure decisions primarily on academic publications, many professors might wonder, why add column writing to their workloads? Here, Laufer and Avnet hold different opinions.

Avnet notes that although her university shares her commentaries on its social media platforms, it does not take her work as a columnist into account as part of its P&T requirements. Scholars who are in similar positions, she says, might choose to wait until they have achieved tenure to pursue this work.

That said, she emphasizes that the additional exposure she receives through her column benefits her career. “Research published in academic journals takes time to reach the business world,” she says. Through her column, her research can “reach the business community much faster.”

Laufer, on the other hand, says that his university both highlights his column on its marketing platforms and views his work with the media as part of his service to the university. “Faculty are evaluated on engagement activities, which count as part of their service, and commentary in the media falls under this category,” he says.

When academics and their institutions do not factor media exposure into P&T decisions, they miss out on several benefits, Laufer stresses. The increased exposure they receive as a result of their public commentaries can translate into invitations to present at industry events, teach webinars for a company’s executives, or serve on advisory boards.

At the same time, by reinforcing the reputations of institutions as knowledge powerhouses in their communities, this exposure can help schools impress potential corporate partners, encourage alumni to donate, and attract prospective students.

Laufer’s NBR column, for example, led to an invitation for him to give a presentation to high school teachers in Auckland on how to teach their students about crisis management. Such opportunities, he says, will “increase the demand for crisis management courses at universities.”

How to Get Started

Laufer and Avnet say that their experiences highlight several strategies for effectively landing a job as a columnist and for integrating that work into their workloads: 

Create a portfolio of work. Academics might be tempted to go straight to pitching a regular column to a publication. But they might be more successful, Laufer advises, if they first write standalone commentaries for a range of publications. By establishing a portfolio of work, they can demonstrate to newspaper editors that they have the range of ideas required to launch a new column.

Write consistently. It’s true that academics likely will receive some professional benefit from offering occasional commentaries or one-off interviews to reporters. However, the more frequent and consistent their commentaries, the more aware the public will be of their expertise and of their universities, Laufer says. “Stakeholders are much more likely to know a schools scholars from newspaper columns than from academic publications.”

Keep it manageable. Columns can be weekly, biweekly, or monthly, but a monthly column might fit best in a busy academic’s schedule. “I write a monthly column to limit the amount of time I need to spend on it,” Laufer says. 

Limit commitments. Once academics establish their reputations as columnists, they likely will be approached by other publications to contribute their expertise. But scholars should protect their time by being selective about which invitations to accept, Laufer says.

“I limit my commentary, unless it is a global media outlet such as The Wall Street Journal or The Guardian,” Laufer says. For example, he recently did agree to give an interview with The Academic Minute, which is broadcast on 70 radio stations in the United States and Canada.

“Stakeholders are much more likely to know a school’s scholars from newspaper columns than from academic publications.” —Daniel Laufer, Victoria University of Wellington

Identify ongoing sources of inspiration. While it might seem daunting to have to come up with an idea for each month’s column, academics can start by mining their own research for topic ideas.

Avnet streamlines her column-writing process by taking topics primarily from her research activities. That approach can be both inspiring and challenging, since the research process moves at “a slower pace than the column requirements,” she says. “I don’t want to repeat myself.”

Laufer draws his topics from conversations with practitioners and other academics, as well as staying from current events. One of his recent columns, for example, stemmed from the controversy that Budweiser faced after Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, promoted Bud Light on her Instagram feed.

Know the goal. If faculty are considering writing for mainstream media outlets, they should first determine what their goals are and what they want to accomplish, says Avnet. For instance, if their goal is to expose their research to the business community, they could target publications such as Harvard Business Review. If they want to reach consumers, they could consider newspapers, podcasts, and radio programs with broader audiences.

Know that it gets easier over time. Writing regularly for a media outlet takes more time at the start, as new columnists grow accustomed to meeting deadlines and setting up interviews with experts. But as the column builds its audience, the time commitment decreases, Laufer says. “At the beginning, writing my column probably took seven hours a month,” he says, “compared to the five hours it takes now.”

Greater Visibility, Greater Impact

Even with the effort involved, Laufer has found the research he conducts for contributions to media outlets has several upsides. It provides useful material for his teaching and generates ideas for future research topics that will be of interest to industry practitioners, he says. It also can attract opportunities to collaborate with industry and government.

Laufer has published a paper on writing for the media for any academic interested in adding “columnist” to their curricula vitae. More recently, he gave a webinar on the topic for the members of the Academy of Marketing Science. In October, he will deliver a seminar to faculty at the University of Auckland Business School in New Zealand, where he will discuss ways to engage with the media to generate impact outside academia.

“Faculty need to ask themselves how they want to demonstrate impact,” he says. “In addition to writing for academic publications, what other activities are they involved with related to their area of expertise? Do they want to collaborate with industry? Help the public sector develop policies?”

When academics write regularly for mainstream publications, this work aligns well with most business schools’ desire to generate societal impact, Laufer emphasizes. “Media commentary in their area of expertise enhances the reputations” of academics and their schools, he says. “Based on my experience, I believe writing a newspaper column is well worth the effort.”

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Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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