Integrate Think Tank with Mainstream Media & the Implementation Path
Senior Researcher of Zijin Media Think Tank
Professor and Doctoral Supervisor of School of Information Management, Nanjing University
Deputy Director of China Think Tank Research and Evaluation Center
In the wave of building new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics, “media think tank” went out as an unexpected achievement. Because in the original top-level design, it was not expected that media, especially the mainstream media, will play such a key role. The central and mainstream media (including the party newspapers and publication) which are represented by Outlook Magazine of Xinhua News Agency, People’s Think Tank, and the “Think Tank” edition of Guangming Daily, set the concept of think tank as a vital breakthrough, which had significant process in the concept exploration and pattern construction of how the media constructs new think tanks, and exert certain influence on policy and the public. However, to integrate think tank with media still faces a series of cognitive and operational issues that require further study and reflection.
1. Think tanks and the media are modern public institutions that are co-existing and commonly prosperous
Think tanks are non-profit institutions engaged in strategic research and public policy research, consultation, and communication. One of the basic functions of think tanks is to guide and shape the public opinions. Both the modern think tanks and modern media are the builders of public space. Without modern media, there would be no modern think tank.
In the American think tank system, there are few opportunities for think tanks to directly affect the administrative decision-making, and most of the think tanks have to rely on the mainstream media to influence public opinions and thus to influence the decision-making system. A considerable number of articles in the opinion and commentary editions of the New York Times and Washington Post that were written by people in the think tanks reflect the co-existence between the media and think tanks. The mainstream media in the West is known as the “fourth power”. Although this status has been weakened in the Internet era, their policy influence and public influence still cannot be underestimated. Such influence comes mainly from the in-depth study of senior journalists on public issues. From the perspective of think tanks, these senior reporters are very professional policy analysts. The mainstream media in the United States have a number of professional reporters who can make strong voices on major public agendas such as tax cuts, medical insurance, gun control, immigration, and cybersecurity.Therefore, modern think tanks naturally have the genes of the media, and modern media naturally have the genes of think tanks that are symbiotic and prosperous with each other.
The same is true in China's mainstream media. As the mouthpiece of the party, propaganda is the main task of the mainstream media. However, the initial architectural design of the mainstream media at the central level has intelligence functions and think tank functions such as information collection and analysis. For example, most of the central mainstream media has their own internal reference room, which is to conduct policy analysis and research and report research results. Local reporter stations at various levels also have the responsibility of collecting, organizing and reporting local public opinion to the central authority. The mainstream media generally set up editing departments based on the information fields. Each department has a group of senior reporters and editors, whose analytical and research capabilities are no less than ordinary scholars, and their grasp of practical issues is even better than that of ordinary think tank scholars. It has been observed that many think tanks employ senior reporters with media experience to engage in the dissemination of think tanks and internal reference work. This is exactly what think tanks have to say about the expertise of mainstream media.
The construction of new type think tanks with Chinese characteristics has activated the “think tank gene” of the modern media. Media think tanks are their endogenous and essential functions, which is an inevitable choice for the media to do so in the new political, social, and technological environment.
2. To integrate with think tank has become a critical strategy for the reform and development of the mainstream media
The development environment of the mainstream media in China has undergone great changes. Some are long-term, some are current, and some are future. To integrate think tank is a major choice for the media in responding to economic, political, and technological changes.
First, to integrate with think tank have enriched business model of the media. Although the mainstream media are mainly responsible for public functions, they must also accept the test of the market to improve their financial status. Integrating with think tank is an important path for media marketization, and there are already successful precedents in this area. For example, the Intelligence Services Division established by the British Economist provides research and consulting services to enterprises and has become a model for media think tanks. The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU), established in 1946, is now the world's leading business intelligence organization. Its business is not limited to business intelligence, and its authoritative products include economic, political and social population statistics forecasts; national and urban development forecasts; fact-based public policy research, etc. The Economist Intelligence Unit has 130 full-time research experts and economists, 75% of whom have advanced degrees, and its branch offices locate in 24 countries and regions, and 25 languages are used in the work. This has certain enlightening significance for the media community in China. To run a market-based for-profit consultancy think tank, activate and realize the media resources, whether this business model is effective or not, it still requires practice to test it.
Second, as the multiple supply system for policy research in the new era has gradually emerged, the mainstream media must operate well a think tank in order to avoid being marginalized. Since the 18th National Congress, the national governance system has become increasingly open, democratic, and scientific. The construction of new-type think tanks with Chinese characteristics has changed the situation in which a small number of institutional policy research institutions have led the decision-making consultation system. The establishment of the mainstream media policy agenda and the monopoly position of policy interpretation have also been challenged. Under such circumstances, if the mainstream media does not participate in the construction of think tanks and lacks the right to speak in policy production and supply, it will inevitably be marginalized and become a mere consumer of content. In order to avoid being marginalized, the mainstream media think tank will help open up the entire industrial chain of the policy process, and it will create a value-creation situation in policy research, consulting, evaluation, release, and dissemination.
The status of the mainstream media is not static, and the influence of party newspapers and periodicals became very divided. The authority of the mainstream media not only comes from the empowerment of the party and the government, but more importantly from its own capabilities and influence, from in-depth coverage, exclusive reports, and insightful comments on domestic and international events, from the ability to shape ideas and thinking of the mainstream society (decision makers, industry and intellectuals). On January 13, 2018, the China Media Data Center of the School of Journalism and Communication of the Nanjing University and the Jiangsu Provincial Social Public Opinion Analysis and Decision Support Base of Nanjing University jointly issued the “MCI Index” to use a comprehensive evaluation system composed of 19 indicators to rank the effectiveness of converged communication for all media in China. In the fourth quarter of 2017, among the 829 media that participated in the assessment, People's Daily, CCTV News Channel, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, and The Paper ranked as the top five. The “seeking public opinion” channel of The Paper has built up an effective platform for the think tank to publicize, and many think tanks have settled in one by one, which has expanded the policy influence of The Paper.
Third, the integrative development strategy under the conditions of new technologies requires the media to integrate with think tanks. Since the 21st century, the emergence of the Internet and new media has in some sense subverted the entire journalism industry. Some people even think that the news industry has ended. Of course, the fact is not so pessimistic. The integrative development has become a common development strategy in the press and publication industry. Media convergence is reflected in technological convergence and business service convergence. The technological convergence is better understood and easier to accept. The integration of business service is complicated and difficult. The integration of media and think tank is viewed by many media as an important path for the development of operation and business integration, which helps to upgrade the business and helps refine and improve the content production.
3. The implementation path to realize the strategy of integrating think tank into media
Although to integrate the media and think-tank has become an important strategic choice for mainstream media reform, most of the media have found in the process of implementing strategies that top-level design is easy and the practice is difficult. The reasons are various and involve many issues such as concept, mode, mechanism, operation, maintenance and motivation. If these bottlenecks cannot be overcome, media think tanks can only be “always on the road” and cannot put it into practice.
First, it is a logical starting point for media think tanks to profoundly grasp the law of modern think tank construction. On the one hand, we have a relatively shallow understanding of the history and laws of the development of overseas modern think tanks. For example, when we talk about think tanks, we must consider the American think tanks, but we lack knowledge of their diversity. For example, Rand Corporation, a typical American think-tank, is essentially not an independent social think-tank, but a “Federal-funded R&D Center” serving the US military and government. It provides assessment services for American strategic science, military campaign, logistics, operations, and engineering. The large number of U.S. government’s decision-making consultations and assessment services are completed by “institutional” research and consulting agencies, but not undertaken by the social think tanks on the Think Tank Street in Washington, DC.
China’s media think tanks obviously cannot use Washington's independent think tank as a “prototype” for construction. China’s mainstream media is supported by the special policies of the party and the government. To integrate think tank into media should not only focus on profit-making purposes, and the fiscal funds invested and the market’s dominant position provided by the Party and the government can all be seen as their buyout and upfront payment of mainstream media services. Therefore, the main goal of the mainstream media think tanks is not to find new profit models, but to enhance the capabilities of mainstream media’s strategies and policy R&D, and the convergence capabilities as well as the dissemination capabilities of mainstream media’s strategies and policy research results, so as to fully explore the law for the construction of new-type media think tanks with Chinese characteristics.
Second, innovate the model and mechanism of the mainstream media think tank. The model of mainstream media think tanks should be diversified, and it should form a unique think tank model and corresponding operating mechanism based on our own resource endowments and cultural traditions. Taking the Xinhua News Agency as an example. The original internal reference system was profound and well-developed. There were also a large number of senior reporters who are good at writing internal reference, which formed a think tank model with the production, reporting, and dissemination of the internal reference as the core and the corresponding mechanism, reflecting the characteristics and innovation.
The think tank Guangming Daily newspaper took another route. Guangming Daily’s theoretical articles have a greater influence in the academic world. On December 25, 2014, the Theory Department set the “Think Tank” edition and established the Think Tank Research and Publication Center. The Guangming Daily’s think-tank model mainly includes two aspects. First, it developed its own special think-tank products, and jointly developed the “China Think Tank Index” (CTTI) with the China Think Tank Research and Evaluation Center of Nanjing University, unifying the vast number of and promoting the construction of a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics; second, using its brand advantage and channel advantage, Guangming Daily organized various think tank forums famous universities and colleges to expand their influence in the policy research community. For example, it jointly organized the “China Think Tank Governance Forum” with Nanjing University, the University Think Tank Forum with Fudan University, and the Luojia Think Tank Forum with Wuhan University, and all of them are brand think tank forums. Therefore, Guangming Daily’s think tank model has distinctive characteristics.
Third, the media think tank must balance the relationship between knowledge products and service products. The products provided by think tanks are mainly two types: first, knowledge products are the research results, including internal reference, research reports, papers, etc. These products can be counted by pieces. However, if the main product of a think tank is knowledge product, then this think tank is not fundamentally different from traditional policy research institutions, and it is hard to say that it is a modern think tank; second, it is a service product based on advanced professional knowledge, including evaluation services, planning services, consulting services, system integration, data surveys and conference services, etc. Taking the People’s Think Tank of People’s Daily as an example. This think tank-based full media has three publications (People’s Forum, Academic Frontier and National Governance), three networks (People’s Forum Network, Academic Frontier Network, and National Governance Network), one survey company and one research center, which is a media enterprise that carry out diverse business such as forum meetings, subject research, video broadcasting, and book publishing. Obviously, in this business model, people’s think tank did not mainly produce knowledge, but instead formed a think tank business model that focuses on providing knowledge services. Perhaps this model is suitable for people’s think tank, but if most media think tanks are based on providing service products, this actually turns the original broadcasting and advertising business units into the think tank department, which also means the failure of the transformation of think tanks. The media think tanks must form into a moderately sized and substantive knowledge production department. Only in this way can we form certain policy originality capability and assessment & investigation & consulting capability, and such media think tanks are successful. If media think tanks do not have serious academic research capabilities, it is easy to create a situation where there is no “think” but only “tank”, and weak research capacity is the culprit of most media think tanks. In 2016, Rand Companies completed 490 research reports and published nearly 500 papers and monographs, and it did not exclude academic research. The media think tanks must balance the relationship between the production of knowledge products and the production of service products. It is very important to form a research team of a moderate scale.
Fourth, the key of media think tank is to form an effective evaluation and incentive mechanism. People are the key to the success of the strategy of media think tank. Whether or not the evaluation and incentive mechanism is reasonable and effective is the key to stimulate people’s subjective initiative. The biggest shortcoming of mainstream media think tanks is the talent, especially the shortage of talents who work on research and consultation, who are rare in the talent market. The outstanding policy analysts have earned millions every year so that the mainstream media cannot compete with securities and financial institutions, and it is difficult to introduce policy analysts from universities. Therefore, mainstream media think tanks have to rely on their own training.
First, we need to change the evaluation incentive mechanism. We must design the input-output performance orientation and evaluation incentive mechanism according to the rules of think tanks, so that the person who wants to do things and the person who can do can stand out in the new assessment mechanism; second, it must make full use of the brand advantage and market advantage of mainstream media, and establish part-time expert team. If the part-time team's evaluation and incentive mechanism is done well, part-time experts can play a catalyst role. The core of the part-time expert evaluation incentive mechanism is to recognize their works; the rights and obligations must be clearly stated; the think tanks and part-time experts must form a legal employment relationship; the mainstream media must use their platform to publicize their part-time experts, provide platforms and services so as to form a win-win situation.
The mainstream media think-tank strategy is an important path choice for media reform and development. It will help improve mainstream media policy research and dissemination capabilities, strengthen the mainstream media's mouthpiece position, promote their intelligence and information functions, and enhance the business level and professionalism mainstream media. But whether the strategy can produce actual results or not, the key relies on the determination of the reform, the grasp of the construction rule of think tanks and the reform of the mechanism.
This article is an excerpt from Li Gang: “Integrate Think Tank with Mainstream Media & the Implementation Path”, The Press, 2018, No.2