Thirteen universities in the UK have launched a site to publish "news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public."
Or, in other words: No journalists necessary. Academics will write the posts.
Or most of them. The site has brought in what it calls "professional editors" to "unlock" academics' knowledge for the public. Or, in plainer language, to make sense of academic jargon and to write some of the posts.
This "new journalism project," as it inaccurately calls itself, is The Conversation. It is the offspring of a two-year-old Australian site with the same name and mission. It has laudable aims, including to "allow for better understanding of current affairs and complex issues." And it also hopes "for a better quality of public discourse and conversations."
But here's the line I most liked from the site's "who we are" page: "We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism." Geez, thanks, fellas!
I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before, but it's now so clear: The key to rebuilding trust in journalism is, apparently, to get rid of journalists!
Give the job to professors!
Academics writing on a website supported by academic institutions cannot replace journalists. The Conversation is engaged in public-relations. This is not a "new journalism project." Indeed, the home page runs items that link back to press releases. (Here's one example, and here's another.)
Matt Shipman , a science writer at North Carolina State University and the author of the Communication Breakdown blog, raised some of these questions in an interview with The Conversation's science and technology editor, Akshat Rathi. Much of what Rathi describes sounds like journalism, but not like The Conversation's description of itself. And the more it sounds like journalism, the less it sounds like a fresh idea.
How, Shipman asks, will The Conversation's writers preserve their impartiality?
There are two things which help us. First is that we make sure that the author (or authors) of every article discloses information about their funding and of any conflicts of interest. This is published prominently on each article. Second is that journalists who edit articles remain highly skeptical of everything that is written. Thus we ensure that whatever is being said is based on evidence. If there is a piece of information that we feel deserves justification, we ask the author to provide additional references and/or explanations.
That sounds reasonable, but would we still describe this as academics delivering information "direct to the public"? The funding for the site, from the universities, was accepted "on the condition that our newsroom will always remain completely editorially independent," Rathi says.
Again, this sounds like journalism. But watch out, because this sounds like public relations: "We hope that academics, who fear that their words may be picked out of context by traditional media, which a lot of scientists are often worried about, will use The Conversation as a platform to avoid letting that happen."
Meaning what? Academics will review the copy before it's published? In what non-traditional way will The Conversation solve this problem?
If you're tempted by this idea, and want to pitch a story idea, don't bother–unless you fit the mold. "We don't solicit pitches from freelancers," Rathi tells Shipman. "Unless, of course, you are also an academic."
News site, or not?
I say: Not.
[Thanks to Matt Shipman for alerting me to the launch of The Conversation.]