Think Tank Digital
Getting out in front of the Google news cycle
In the basement of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) headquarters in Washington, D.C., is one of the latest iterations of the digital revolution that has swept through the once fusty world of think tanks. The “iDeas Lab” at CSIS looks more like a web startup firm, an open-plan space of white desks, huge Macintosh monitors, and 20-somethings picking away at keyboards as high-end java steams nearby.
“I’m very proud of this space,” says H. Andrew Schwartz, senior vice president for external relations at CSIS. “The iDeas Lab is a collaborative space. It’s a multimedia production facility. It’s an intellectual collaboration space, not just with the people in the Lab, but with our experts.”
Grafting a multimedia storytelling unit into a traditional think tank was not a simple endeavor. “You’re basically taking experts who have been trained their entire life to write research papers and memos and things like that and saying to them, well let’s adapt and communicate in a 21st-century manner,” he says. “Not everyone was convinced right away.”
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Schwartz’s evangelism for all things digital at CSIS is part of what might be called Think Tank 2.0, an effort to build on what early adopters like Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) achieved online in the first decade of the century, when simply having a decent website marked an institution out as forward thinking.
CFR’s site (cfr.org) is a case in point. As late as 2005, it was still largely a repository of press releases and program papers. An overhaul of the site (partly led by the author, who was executive editor of cfr.org from 2005 to 2009) changed that, retooling a staff of junior researchers to highlight the latest analysis in text, audio, and multimedia forms that were relevant to the news cycle. (CFR’s new website launches in early 2017.)
All of a sudden, Google began driving traffic, which was then amplified further with social media. The effect on site traffic was dramatic—tripling in a matter of a year. Eventually, CFR launched a series of web documentaries—Crisis Guides—with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Three of the six guides were honored with News and Documentary Emmy Awards, prevailing over entries from such major media outlets as NBC News, the New York Times, and the BBC.
The lesson was clear: think tanks could reach their audiences using a tactic borrowed from modern politicians—speak directly to your preferred constituencies, going over the heads of the news media middlemen who once offered the sole route to a mass audience.
Today, going straight to your audience is standard practice. Indeed, many think tanks draw a million or more visitors a month, and they feature not only classics of the milieu (e.g., 150-page research papers), but also a range of new content, everything from blog posts, videos, and audio podcasts, to complex multimedia productions.
The Nieman Foundation, itself something of a media think tank, featured the Brookings Institution’s website on its own pages recently, noting the think tank was publishing 20 pieces a day and netting 1.5 million unique users monthly.
“Go back 20 years: for a piece written by a Brookings scholar to be perceived as impactful and topical, it would have to be published in the New York Times or the Washington Post,” Brookings Vice President of Communications David Nassar told NiemanLab.org. “Now we have the capacity to publish this content ourselves. Obviously, the New York Times is still important, but we have the capacity to deliver our own message as well.”
CSIS, along with a select group of other major institutions, is moving aggressively beyond the “archival” role of the modern think tank website and instead pushing into digital news gathering in ways that may be a harbinger of the future. For CSIS, this has taken the form of database analysis and state-of-the-art satellite photography.
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In November 2014, CSIS launched the first such effort—the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), employing satellite photography to identify exactly what China was doing in the remote and disputed depths of the South China Sea.
The project is led by Michael J. Green, CSIS senior vice president for Asia, and Paul Franz, iDeas Lab's director of technology, with input from Bonnie Glaser, CSIS senior advisor for Asia. Partnering with Digital Globe, a satellite imagery firm, CSIS produced an interactive look at China’s reclamation and construction on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef. The New York Times—one of the traditional arbiters of think tank value propositions—put the story and its imagery (of what appears to be a military base under construction) on its front page in November 2014.
“The idea behind that was that there are so many developments that are taking place in these maritime spaces around China, but there’s a lot of information that is not being discussed in the public realm,” Glaser observes. “So, it’s sort of in this gray area. It’s not, not all of it is classified. But not all of it is something you can read about in the newspapers.”
The impact of the photographs was immediate—hearings on Capitol Hill, requests from other media outlets for access. “There were many people in the military, the Pacific Command, who were very pleased that this information was out there because they were quite concerned about these developments and they wanted the administration to take a bit of, you know, tougher posture toward it,” she says.
There were also complaints from China’s embassy in the U.S. alleging unfairness. “It’s true the Chinese embassy on occasion complained that we’re not being balanced enough, but we have in fact looked at Vietnam and other land reclamation that’s going on,” Glaser says. That includes work underway on shoals and sandbars claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
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The iDeas Lab is part of a trend that began in the middle of the last decade, when the websites of research organizations like the Brookings Institution, CATO, and the Council on Foreign Relations moved away from posting press releases on their websites and began trying to get out in front of the news cycle—specifically, the Google News cycle.
Since then, think tanks, once known primarily for their output of thick academic policy studies that might (or might not) be widely read, have warmed to the potential of the Internet as another way—perhaps a better way—to influence the policy debate in Washington and beyond. Blogging, podcasts, and slideshows have become de rigueur. Many think tanks regularly produce sophisticated video and audio offerings—and not just of their own events. The Hoover Institution produces a video series called Uncommon Knowledge, which focuses on providing historical context to U.S. political debates. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) relies on photo essays to tell complex stories, and Carnegie Corporation, CEIP’s sister organization and funder, recently launched a multimedia look at nuclear security, part of a series of mini-documentaries (“Interactives”) produced by its staff.
With the support of Carnegie Corporation, CSIS’s Glaser has since launched a new website, China Power, which is aimed at providing accurate information on the extent of Chinese economic, military, and soft power. So many misconceptions exist among the public—even in Congress—about the extent of China’s military buildup, the size of its economy, its holdings of U.S. debt, or its strategic aims. “The idea was to try to address these misconceptions and to do it in a way that would be interesting to people. Then they could use the website as a resource tool,” says Glaser. “My audience really is broader. I’m also appealing to students, people who want to actually use data and download data. So, one of the original ideas when we were thinking about putting it together, this site, was to have a data repository where we would bring data that we’re using in our site and then people could access it and actually download it.”
The website is, indeed, a repository, but it also makes good use of the iDeas Lab team. For instance, one feature tries to place China’s one aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Liaoning, into perspective by stacking it up against U.S. and other countries’ active flattops. This includes a 3D model, comparative graphics of various carriers in active service, and video interviews with naval experts.
“We decided to organize the entire site around these questions,” Glaser says. “And I thought this would be a great way to promote it too. People see an interesting question, they want to get the answer. They see an infographic, they want to go explore it, read it, play with it, interact with it.”