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.

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.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.