Labeling and transparency, however, are likely to become even greater issues for Futurity once it finalizes its syndication deals with Google News and Yahoo News. If that happens, its posts will be listed online next to similar items from traditional outlets like the Associated Press or The New York Times, making differentiation vitally important. Science Daily, which also publishes rewritten (but not re-reported) press releases, includes a clear “press release” label in parentheses in all of its Google News returns. Both Murphy and Leonard said they would consider a similar arrangement, emphasizing that Futurity is very much a work in progress with many operational details yet to be worked out. (They also said that Futurity is discussing collaborations with news outlets themselves, though they declined to go into detail. If that happens, the way that the National Science Foundation labels its content at U.S. News & World Report and LiveScience.com could be instructive.)
Since the interviews with Murphy and Leonard, Futurity has already revamped its “About Us” Web page in order to include more details about the project. “We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes,” Murphy said. “We’ve been very up-front with anybody who has asked about what we’re doing. It’s very important to keep people’s confidence.”
Indeed, Futurity hopes to attract even more partners to join its effort. Membership is currently limited to the Association of American Universities (AAU), which includes sixty-two schools, thirty-five of which are now part of Futurity. Since Monday’s public launch, however, the group has received about six requests to join from AAU universities, Murphy said, and about fifteen from non-AAU universities. For now, Futurity is charging each school a $2,000 membership fee, however, and Murphy said that some eligible universities have declined to sign up for financial and other reasons.
One of those other reasons seems to be leeriness about being edited. “Granted, there are fewer staff journalists on the beat these days so setting up another clearinghouse for university science stories would seem a good thing,” commented Earle Holland, who heads the office of research communications at Ohio State University, at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. “But the system now in play allows an editor at the site to revise the institution’s submitted story with no check-back with the original author to insure that the revision is still accurate. Without that, there’s no way the original PIO writer can assure the researcher that what’s being sent to the public via Futurity reflects the original work. That’s the reason that Ohio State is not among the institutions listed as contributors to Futurity.”
Some universities also seem to be mulling over whether or not joining Futurity is worth the effort—since the site asks members to submit only the two or three best releases from the sometimes dozens they produce each week. According to a post at the Voice of San Diego, “Rex Graham, UCSD’s director of media relations, said he was impressed with the website, but still needs to find out more about it. ‘It’s nice, but show me the traffic,’ he said.”
More traffic may be in Futurity’s future, however. With the public launch this week, the site’s Tuesday traffic spiked to about 3,700 unique visits, Murphy said, and the group plans to use the membership fees it has collected to invest in online advertising and other promotions. He added that before the project even existed, the University of Rochester was starting to get an increasing number of hits on its press releases.
“We had one story in The New York Times [in 2006] where, the last time I heard, 220,000 people had come back to read the original release,” he said. “It was about light going through a tube so fast that it appears to go backwards and we have a piece of animation to show that, so people are actually rewarded for coming back to [the original release]—it’s something they wouldn’t get in the news story.”
Such trends explain why, in a series of recent posts at The Observatory, Ohio State’s Holland and Matthew Nisbet, a science communications expert at American University, have vigorously debated the evolving roles of scientists, university press offices, and journalists when it comes to explaining important research to the public. With climate change, biotechnology, and personalized medicine at the forefront of domestic and international policy right now, such dialogues are crucially important to the wellbeing of journalists and lay citizens alike.