Citing the decline of science coverage in the mainstream news media, thirty-five of the country’s top universities have banded together to launch their own “news channel” for publicizing their best research.
In March, the consortium created a Web site, Futurity.org, to showcase edited press releases and stories written by member schools. Founded by the senior communications officers at Stanford, Duke, and the University of Rochester, the project has grown and evolved since then, with Futurity now on the verge of inking syndication deals with Google News and Yahoo News.
Unlike existing wire services for distributing press releases about scientific research, such as EurekAlert! and Newswise, Futurity is aimed at general audience rather than reporters, said Bill Murphy, one of the project’s cofounders and the vice president for communications at the University of Rochester. With that in mind, stories receive light editing in order to make them appealing to lay readers, but undergo no additional reporting. Moreover, Murphy emphasized the Futurity puts a lot of work into “presentation” and crafting an attractive Web site.
“With the decline of science coverage in the mainstream media, it’s getting tougher and tougher to find ways to get this information to the public,” Murphy said, “so we figured we have to adapt just like everybody else is doing.”
Indeed, with widespread cuts to science sections and staffs in print and television, a number of organizations have launched similar endeavors, from the National Science Foundation’s Science 360 Web site to the independent Science Daily site. However, all of them provoke the same criticism from journalists, who worry about the implications of bypassing traditional new outlets.
“Any information is better than no information,” veteran science reporter Charlie Petit told the San Jose Mercury News. “The quality of research university news releases is quite high…. But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side.”
Currently, Futurity is a shop of one under the direction of editor Jenny Leonard, who is based at the University of Rochester and worked in its communications office for nine years editing and writing for the school’s newsletters and Web sites. In an interview, she said that she posts roughly 60 to 75 percent of the fifty to sixty submissions she receives each week from member universities. She selects and edits them for newsworthiness and general appeal, she added, and does not try to give each school equal play. In that way, Leonard said, she is in fact “serving an editorial role,” but recognizes that Futurity’s content still stops short of journalism.
“The intention of the site really is to share information,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be a replacement for the type of reporting and analysis which is so essential to covering science and research completely.”
Clear and transparent labeling of Futurity’s content will be crucial, however. After his comments in the Mercury News, Petit followed up with a post of his own at The Knight Science Journalism Tracker. He argued that “press releases are fully entitled to public circulation,” but also that Futurity could be much better about explaining its material. He criticized the site for not linking to the original press releases upon which its stories are based and for not including a clear byline that explains the “provenance” of each article.
In response to such criticism, the University of Rochester’s Murphy pointed out in an interview that Futurity’s stories do include datelines noting where they came from. A story from Tulane University carries the dateline “Tulane,” for example. That device is not always the most effective, however. A dateline from the University of Colorado at Boulder simply begins with the word “Colorado”—a much less informative identifier. As for not linking original press releases, Murphy pointed out that, at the bottom of each piece, Futurity links to the home page of respective universities’ press offices instead. The idea, he explained, is to expose readers to other types of research happening at each school.