(Bruce Trachtenberg is executive director of the Communications Network, an organization of people who work for or on behalf of the nation's grantmakers. A version of this post appears on the Commnetwork blog.)
I'm pretty sure we didn't pop any champagne corks, do fist bumps, or high five each other, but I recall a feeling of exhilaration the first time -- probably in the 1990s -- I pressed the send button on e-mail with an attached PDF version of a report detailing findings from an initiative underwritten by a foundation where I worked. My colleagues and I -- freed from the labor and time-intensive process of distributing print publications -- thought we'd truly entered the digital age. In a blink of an eye, reports of any length could be on their way to key audiences in seconds.
Fast forward almost twenty years, and even though the PDF is still very much with us, that habit of turning reports, white papers, books, policy briefs, and the like into digital facsimiles and e-mailing and posting them online is on its way to being labeled an OLD new media practice.
In fact, just last week, the Center for Digital Information held a roundtable discussion with the title "Beyond the PDF" that showed off some impressive examples of how think tanks, foundations, and policy institutions are taking advantage of the best the new technology has to offer -- interactive graphics and visualizations, mapping tools, online databases, multimedia, and touch-interface smartphone and tablet applications -- to do what Jeff Stanger, the group's executive director, describes as more effectively "injecting” information into public policy debates and other social change discussions.
For anyone who cut his or her teeth in a world where print and print-like products were the gold standards of information dissemination, it takes a moment (sometimes longer) before you realize that a game can actually do a pretty good job of informing people about the challenges of trying to come up with a manageable federal budget or that a cartoon-like presentation can answer the question "How will the affordable health care act affect me?" at least as well, if not better, than traditional text presentations.
Those examples -- and others that detail the differing political beliefs Americans hold, the potential threat to developing countries from climate change, and how Americans cope with high energy costs -- demonstrate that by embracing the power of new digital technologies, we can turn static, often dry data into useful online engagements that hold great promise for thoughtfully informing and advancing public dialogue on topics such as health, education, the environment, the economy, national security, international affairs, and global development.
Another advantage that true digital publications offer is the ability to comprehensively measure the depth of user engagement -- from number of visitors to page views to which information garnered the most attention and interest. It’s far better knowing that people are paying attention to your materials than wondering if they're getting read at all. Still, that level of measurement is no substitute for the higher bar that any material disseminated to influence thinking or behavior must ultimately meet to be judged a success: Did anyone do any thing different as a result? Did they take action?
Ironically, whereas the now (in some quarters) scorned but still ubiquitous PDF offers great efficiency and obvious cost savings over its traditional print counterparts, these newer digitally native products come with both a higher price tag and greater time demands, not to mention the requirement for people with new skills to do the work. It's a fact that shouldn't dissuade us from turning more information products into digitally native forms.
Gabriella Fitz, co-director of IssueLab, a nonprofit that archives, distributes, and promotes the extensive and diverse body of research being produced by the nonprofit sector -- and someone who probably sees more traditional research reports than most people -- agrees that "more and more social cause research should be presented in interactive formats. The fact is that people don't have the time to read forty-page white papers."
But Fitz also worries that the research smaller foundations and nonprofits produce might get ignored "just because they don't have the budget to produce these kind of interactive pieces." And she acknowledges that "a lot of folks default to PDFs because they simply don't have the skills or creative encouragement to do it differently and don't have the money to hire those who do." Still, she's optimistic that "we can work on the skills and the creative encouragement." The money, on the other hand, will probably remain a hurdle too high for some.
On that point, Stanger says organizations doing the research need to take the lead in making the case that the cost of not embracing the new "threatens the vital informational role" of foundations, think tanks, and policy institutions. "In a society increasingly accustomed to information in digital form," he adds, "credibility, authority, and relevance are attributes that will be reserved for research organizations that successfully adopt new interactive forms that are native to digital media."
-- Bruce Trachtenberg