In Good Company (Fall 2004 Trust Magazine article)

Oct 01, 2004

In August, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey showing that, for the first time since the Vietnam era, foreign affairs and national security issues were looming larger than economic concerns in a presidential election and that Americans were concerned about eroding respect for the United States.

And a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that voters see the GOP as the more religion-friendly of the two major political parties but increasingly support embryonic stem-cell research, a religiously linked issue.

Also in August, the Pew Internet & American Life Project Internet released its survey of which day-to-day activities -- communicating, transacting affairs, getting information and entertaining themselves -- people do online and which they prefer to do in traditional offline ways. The nation’s press was reporting on the third annual national survey of Latinos (this one focused on politics and civic participation) by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation. And Stateline.org delivered its daily menu of the top stories in the 50 states.

In other words, it was an ordinary period of activity for these projects, which have developed a reputation for generating impartial, substantive, topical and timely information on a range of important and often polarizing subjects. The difference was that, starting August 1, they were all operating under the umbrella of the Pew Research Center, a newly formed subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Andrew Kohut, director of The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, is the PRC’s president, and Paul Taylor, a veteran journalist who most recently was assistant director of Information Initiatives at the Trusts, is its executive vice president. The PRC is located in Washington, D.C.

"These projects are among the Trusts’ most cited resources by the media and by audiences inside the Beltway, in statehouses and beyond," says Donald Kimelman, the Trusts’ director of Information Initiatives and chair of the research center’s board. "They have helped to inform the public debate on cutting-edge issues. The time has come to both preserve and build upon this important mission, and the new subsidiary will help accomplish that."

Trust asked Kimelman to elaborate:

Q. What are the immediate gains?

Kimelman: Consolidation gives us some modest administrative economies, but that’s not the driving force. Programmatically, we can launch new information projects and, when appropriate, wind down mature projects more quickly and efficiently than is possible now.

I should back up and say that while these projects are quite distinct, they have developed similar skill sets that play out in some mix of public-oriented activities: opinion survey research; behavioral survey research, data analysis; media content analysis; news and information clearinghouse; convening; broad public education; and targeted audience education.

The projects are led by former senior journalists or academics who have the same instinct for news and share a broad-gauged curiosity that ranges across the realms of technology, demography, politics, economics, international affairs, religion and civic life.

Moreover, several of the projects are in the process of expanding their field of vision. Given all these affinities, the possibilities for even closer collaborations are promising.

In the new subsidiary, these projects will now have greater capacity and flexibility to move more nimbly into and out of research areas. Start-up periods for new initiatives will be sharply reduced, for the PRC would already have the infrastructure to conceive of, incubate, launch and house new research projects. It’ll be easier for existing projects to broaden their ambit—or to narrow them, or to conduct short-term investigations that do not justify the multiyear commitment that the Trusts typically makes to its information projects.

Issues change rapidly. The new PRC is well positioned to adapt to the every-evolving terrain.

Q. Does the PRC have a defined niche?

Kimelman: Oddly, in this "information era," the world seems even more susceptible to misinformation, propaganda and half-truths—all fueled by great passions that both animate and divide us.

There was a time when the press could serve as a referee for factual disputes. But in many newsrooms, the norm of objectivity has taken a backseat to the snappier sound bites and seductive market shares offered by the shouting-head culture of opinion journalism.

Universities, academies and institutes remain our most credible sources of fact-based research, but they are organized for thoroughness rather than timeliness and often lack the metabolism to inform fast-moving policy debates. Think tanks are capable of quicker turnaround times, but most of them promote ideological agendas.

So there is a vacuum that we hope the Pew Research Center can help fill.

Q. Obviously the projects differ in subject area, and they have a slightly different, if often overlapping, array of research instruments, dissemination strategies and target audiences. What are their similarities?

Kimelman: An evaluation the Trusts commissioned in 2001 noted that they have earned this strong reputation for themselves and for the Trusts because they share these characteristics (let me read them to you):

  • A nose for emerging, newsworthy trends and issues.   
  • A capacity for conducting complex research and explaining it in plain language.   
  • An ability to turn around research quickly enough to keep pace with the flow of news.   
  • A dissemination strategy that relies on news media coverage to "broadcast" findings to the public and politicians, and that relies on appearances before committees, commissions and conferences to "narrowcast" findings to relevant policy communities and other influential audiences.   
  • A rigid commitment to nonpartisanship, neutrality and independence, with no policy agendas.

Q. A "subsidiary" means what?

Kimelman: Subsidiaries are familiar structures in the corporate world. Not to get too technical, they are their own legal entities that have some common interest with the parent organization, which doesn’t exercise day-to-day operating control. They are less familiar in the nonprofit world, but the same legal relationships and strategic calculations apply.

The PRC is a "wholly-owned subsidiary" of the Trusts. It has its own bylaws and articles of incorporation as a nonprofit organization. It has its own governing board (with a majority of its members appointed by the Trusts’ board), which has oversight of the center’s operations, including setting policies and approving budgets (including employee compensation and benefits).

The Trusts supports the subsidiary through its normal grantmaking process, and the projects retain the independence in their work that they have always had. The subsidiary gives these projects a cohesive and common identity.

Q. You previously mentioned partnerships.

Kimelman: The primary funder of the PRC remains, of course, the Trusts. But it is not the sole funder. Even now, two of the projects have generated money from other sources: the Pew Hispanic Center has raised both grant money and in-kind support from the Kaiser Family Foundation to jointly conduct annual surveys of the Latino population. The Global Attitudes Project has raised money from the Hewlett Foundation to expand the number of countries it surveyed.

The PRC will seek to expand upon that trend, leveraging its reputation and expertise to bring in additional resources.

But because of its sturdy base of support from the Trusts (which currently totals upwards of $15 million annually)—and its close identification with the Trusts—the PRC will not allow itself to go off-mission, or its research agenda to be distorted or its reputation for impartiality to be weakened in any way by other demands. It will always set its own agenda and, where appropriate, seek financial and intellectual collaborations with foundations, think tanks, universities, organizations and others that have an interest in its kind of research.

Q. What’s next?

Kimelman: In December, the PRC will move into new offices at 1615 L Street in Washington, and in January the Trusts and the center will jointly hold an event to formally launch the new enterprise.

The Pew Research Center can be found on the Web at www.pewresearch.org.

Under the PRC Umbrella
  • The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs by delivering timely, impartial information to national opinion leaders, including federal government officials, journalists, policy analysts and national advocacy organizations, without taking a position on policy debates. pewforum.org.   
  • The Pew Global Attitudes Project is a series of worldwide public opinion surveys that currently covers 50 populations (49 countries plus the Palestinian Authority). The project encompasses a broad array of subjects ranging from people’s assessments of their own lives to their views about the current state of the world and important issues of the day. people-press.org/pgap.   
  • The Pew Hispanic Center aims to improve understanding of the diverse Hispanic population and its experience in the United States and to chronicle Latinos’ growing impact on the nation. The center informs debate on critical issues through dissemination of its research to policymakers, business leaders, academic institutions and the media. www.pewhispanic.org.   
  • The Pew Internet & American Life Project explores the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care and civic and political life. It aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through collection of essential, relevant data and timely discussions of real-world developments as they affect the virtual world. www.pewinternet.org   
  • The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an independent opinion-research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. It is best known for regular national surveys that measure public attentiveness to major news stories and for polling that charts trends in values and fundamental political and social attitudes. people-press.org.   
  • Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, non-profit online news publication that reports each weekday on state government. It provides information about political activity in the 50 state capitols and helps fill the coverage gap in an era of declining news media presence in statehouses. www.stateline.org.
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