Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bypassing a disappearing media

As the traditional news media shrink, it’s no secret that “frills” — science, religion, world news – are falling by the wayside. (Even here in the Bay Area, several days a week business news doesn’t manage to have its own section.) The trend seems to be that in a few years, most of the newspapers will be running wire service copy, with original reporting only on the easy news to find and cover: fires, government press conferences and sporting events.

Science has always been an especially difficult thing for the media to cover, since journalists are typically very weak in math and science — and a lot of science majors can’t write. MIT and the Knight Foundation have been running a mid-career program for 25 years that helps science journalists strengthen their skills, but today there are few places for them to work. Soon, science journalism will consist of, and, with their respective dead tree glossies only a memory.

Now Duke, Stanford and Rochester have created a university science news service to publicize their science breakthroughs directly to the public, bypassing the disappearing science media. Their website is (catchy domain) and a total of 35 members of the Association of American Universities have joined the effort thus far.

The member university press releases are screened by Futurity and then distributed via e-mail, RSS feed, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The news is supposedly picked up by Yahoo and Google (among other sites), although I haven’t been able to find evidence of that so far.

From reviewing the Futurity website, the pace of articles has picked up from one a day in the spring to about two dozen a week right now. On the website, articles are formatted to look like news articles rather than the press releases that they are.

The service was in beta since March, but got a press writeup Wednesday in the Mercury News that was widely reported around the web. (Inside Higher Ed covered it on Tuesday). A few highlights of the Merc story:

“We've been really concerned. Our preference would be to have the level of coverage of science and research that we enjoyed for decades," said Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications at Stanford.

"But the major news organizations haven't had the resources to provide that independent, objective look at what we are doing. It's been declining."

In recent years, newspapers have seen eBay, Craigslist and other online sites lure away huge amounts of advertising dollars, and they have responded with significant cuts. Whereas 20 years ago nearly 150 U.S. newspapers had a science section, today fewer than 20 do, and those are often dominated by health and lifestyle coverage.

Reporters covering medicine, space and environmental issues have taken buyouts or been laid off across the nation. In December, for example, CNN eliminated its entire science and technology team. In February the Boston Globe closed its science section, an action the Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle had taken several years earlier.

Lapin said without as many science reporters, the universities were looking for new ways to keep the public informed.
Merc reporter Paul Rogers got a reaction from Charles Petit, whose concern about direct university PR would be the absence of any skepticism of university “breakthroughs.” (Gary Schwitzer expressed similar concerns about medicine coverage). I think the problem is only slightly worse on Futurity, since science reporters often have to hype their stories to get space and few are qualified to spot the flaws in the studies anyway.

Petit edits a blog for the MIT/Knight program called Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and cited the Merc article (quoting him) in his blog Wednesday. Petit (apparently sarcastically) quotes a Duke press release that says “There are no ads, no interruptions, and no agenda.”

I would agree with Petit: of course there’s an agenda — to make universities look good. That’s what PR departments do. I’m not clear whether the effort is calculated to improve college rankings, to support tuition increases, to help researchers get industry and nonprofit grants, or merely to make the taxpaying public more positively disposed to paying for science research. But even (relatively) low cost efforts like this have some purpose.

Petit’s recommendation is that the articles should have the byline of the university PR person to make clear the source. I’m skeptical that this will happen — the goal of PR is to make PR look like news, as has been happening for decades.

One other thing that is somewhat troubling is the elitism of the group, which seems as though it would be capped at 62 (the members of the Association of American Universities).
Carnegie Mellon
Case Western
Iowa State
Johns Hopkins
Michigan State
New York
Stony Brook
Penn State
UC Berkeley
UC Irvine
U. Chicago
U. Colorado Boulder
U. Iowa
U. Kansas
U. Michigan
UNC Chapel Hill
U. Pennsylvania
U. Rochester
UT Austin
U. Washington
Wash U St. Louis
AAU is intentionally elitist, an intentionally small group that has added only two new universities in the past decade. Interestingly, the nation’s two most prestigious science schools — Caltech and MIT — are not part of the initial 35 Futurity members, nor are a few leading universities like Harvard, Michigan and UCLA.

Top ranked peer review journals are elitist too — but they screen (mostly) based on the quality of the specific research, rather than the status of the researcher or his/her employer. Thus, the peer review process provides more of a meritocracy (allowing access to quality research from obscure locations like teaching schools) that fits the Mertonian ideals of open science. The journals (and their professional societies) are also issuing their own press releases, although not with a dedicated Twitter® feed (let alone a TwitterFeed).

Google Scholar is even more meritocratic, since it measures the impact of a specific article rather than using the publication venue quality as a proxy for article quality. But then using that as a way to track science would go back to the cacophony of the Internet, rather than the orderly release of selected PR favored by the elite university news managers.

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