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New News: an experiment in online science reporting

Writing

When it comes to science writing, there is ample free content on the internet, and much of it – especially from the blogosphere – very high quality. But can an online publication that relies on free, crowdsourced content still be of high quality and have a viable business model. This was the topic of a workshop run as part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. I went along as an observer and reported back to the Croakey blog, here.

Or, if you’d prefer to read without clicking, here’s what I had to say:

Experiments, as any honest scientist or amateur chef will tell you, can be tricky. Do you have all of the ingredients you need, and are the incubation conditions just right?

Last weekend, a bold experiment in new media and health journalism was conducted at the Melbourne Writers Festival, as part of the New News conference.

The ‘Incubator’ workshop had the ambitious goal of crowdsourcing a new online publication on climate change and health. Melissa Sweet, Croakey blogger and event facilitator, laid down the challenge: to produce a smorgasbord of ideas that could be taken forward beyond the day’s event.

The crowd that gathered for the workshop were thirty-odd online media enthusiasts curious to see how the experiment would unfold: how a crowdsourced publication might work, how it can be funded, and whether a good website idea alone would be enough to give it legs.

And it was, or is, a good idea – the topic of the site itself attracting several participants. Climate change and health was selected from ideas pitched to Croakey earlier this year for development at the workshop.

As Fiona Armstrong, who pitched the idea, pointed out, “Climate change poses serious risks to health, but there are many benefits for health from climate action and from shifting our society to one that operates within ecological limits.”

I was as curious as anyone in the room about whether this experiment would work. Science journalism can be a frustrating area to work in – and often to read, for that matter. There is so much to report, yet often little support for it – in traditional media, at least.

Just this week, both Leigh Dayton, the sole in-house science journalist for The Australian, and Deborah Smith, science editor at the SMH, left their posts amid significant cut-backs at their papers.

To shepherd everyone through the process, Melissa enlisted the help of four panellists: content expert Fiona Armstrong from the Climate and Health Alliance, media industry leader and ex-editor of The Age Paul Ramadge, digital news consultant Bronwen Clune, and business development consultant Daniel May.

Everyone at the workshop was more or less on the same page about content and target audience. They wanted the website to be broad, attracting an audience with specialist interests in health and climate change, as well as the general public and climate change “fence-sitters”.

They wanted the site to be trusted, to be the go-to place for news and information on climate change and health. And to be trusted, they wanted the site to include contributions from experts in the field, with links to original source material to back up their stories.

Clune’s group focussed on the format of the site content. By challenging, or ‘disrupting’ the typical way that science journalism is perceived – text-heavy, dry, technical, full of clichéd ‘breakthroughs’ from the ‘cutting edge’ – the format could be tweaked to contain more narrative-driven, incremental stories to engage readers. Other ideas proffered for the site were video story-telling, geotagging, and a strong social media presence.

But is crowdsourcing the best way of obtaining trusted content?

There are, of course, a few great examples of crowdsourced publications, the giant being Wikipedia.

Crowdsourcing can work, but strong editorial control is needed. Subject matter experts, such as active researchers in the field, could be directly involved in running the site, or could be enlisted as external content reviewers. Contributions from in-house journalists could be combined with syndicated content and crowdsourced articles written by the public. The public might also be involved in quality control, with content providers rated on substance and trustworthiness.

The question on everyone’s lips, my own included, was what is the business model for the site?

If everyone is getting their news online, surely then online media publications can thrive. Only, they often don’t. The crux of the model: advertising, subscriptions, and perhaps a pay-to-post fee. Advertising could incur a traffic-driven cost, and subscriptions could follow a free trial period. Funding from large institutions such as universities could also be considered.

In the end, though, content is king, as they say. Without valuable content, the advertisers will not flock, the subscribers will not pay, and passionate members of the public will certainly not pay to post on a site that is not read.

Again, there are some success stories: both Crikey and Choice magazine survive largely on the merit of their content.

Despite my own scepticism, enthusiasm in the room seemed not to be in short supply.

Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at The University of Melbourne was impressed. Simons tweeted:

Extraordinary. I think this experiment might actually work. #newnews #chnews crowd sourcing a new publication.

I hope Simons is right.

But whether the enthusiasm generated in an hour of brainstorming is enough to set the foundation for a viable publication that can develop after the whiteboards have been cleaned and the Twitter hashtag fallen from use, is yet to be seen.

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2 thoughts on “New News: an experiment in online science reporting

  1. Dunno – active researchers, particularly academics, have little time for activities with no research- or career-enhancing benefits. Scientists from industry may be more likely to have time, but may be constrained in other ways. For this to be viable, the publication would have to have recognized impact factor, which a new, crowd sourced publication would not. Or the scientist would have to get credit for public outreach – that may be key, and will vary by institution and field.

  2. Yes, I agree – researchers are generally time poor, even if they do want to explain their work to the public. I also think that there’s a role for science writers in all of this, and its an important role – to understand, digest, critique and put in context the research of others, rather than relying on researchers who may not be critical of their own work is crucial. And it should be supported financially.

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