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"Futurity" service launches to promote university research as traditional science journalism declines

A publicity-driven research news service made a splash this week, introducing a consortium model for distributing information about discoveries made by dozens of universities while also sparking more hand-wringing about the contraction of science journalism.

The service is called Futurity, and it includes a Web site where research news from some of the nation's top universities, such as Yale, Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley, is aggregated. Futurity also acts somewhat like a news wire service, as it will provide stories to Yahoo News, Google News, MySpace and Twitter, among others, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Yahoo will treat Futurity stories as news, (though many journalists and news outlets would not) and include its content with other news items from more traditional sources, such as the Associated Press and The New York Times, the Mercury News reported.

Once submitted by university staff, Futurity stories will be edited again for newsworthiness and to make them appeal to lay readers, Bill Murphy, one of the project's cofounders and vice president for communications at the University of Rochester, told the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

Futurity is aimed at keeping up with the proliferation of online news and content, such as blogs and social media, according to its Web site. It also is trying to fill the news gap created by the recent reduction in science, medical and other research coverage in newspapers and magazines and on TV. Today, fewer than 20 U.S. newspapers have science sections, whereas 20 years ago, nearly 150 did, according to the Mercury News. CNN eliminated its science and technology team late last year, in another sign of the times.

Jenny Leonard, based at the University of Rochester and a former communications staffer there, is in charge of editing Futurity, and told the CJR that she serves in "an editorial role," but that Futurity's content isn't quite journalism.

"The intention of the site really is to share information," she told the CJR. "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."

Futurity follows other recent innovative approaches to getting university research posted on news sites, such as content partnerships that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has with US News & World Report and LiveScience.com (the content on those sites is clearly marked as provided by the NSF). The NSF also launched a site, Science 360, aimed at posting reports on NSF-funded research written by university staffers and researchers, as well as linking to reports on NSF-research written by journalists on other Web sites.

Some journalists have had mixed reactions to Futurity. "Any information is better than no information," Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle and US News & World Report, told the Mercury News. "The quality of research university news releases is high. They are rather reliable. But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side."

Cristine Russell, a former Washington Post science reporter who is president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, says it is "not surprising" that new initiatives are emerging to fill the void created by the dramatic losses of staff science writers and space in the news media. But press releases and stories prepared by research institutions are "not a substitute for independent reporting by science journalists," she said, adding that Futurity's content should be clearly labeled as generated by the sponsoring institutions.

"However, in the Internet marketplace, the lines are becoming increasingly blurry," Russell says. "In this time of transition, this is a crucial topic for the science writing community to address."

On Twitter, some journalists raised concerns about whether Futurity would compete with science news Web sites, like this one, and whether consumers would be able to tell the difference between Futurity's not-really-journalism and journalism, that is, stories written by reporters trained to bring more context, depth, skepticism and objectivity to their work.

Bob Finn, the San Francisco bureau chief for the International Medical News Group, says that Futurity and its consumers would benefit from complete transparency on its site as to who is managing and editing the site and how it is funded.

"I'm not suggesting that anything's amiss," he tweeted. "All they'd have to say is, 'Futurity.com is edited by (name) at (place). Funding comes from (source)."

Andrew Alden, About.com's geology expert and a geology blogger at oaklandgeology.wordpress.com, tweeted: "Futurity.org: a step above the press-release outlet ScienceDaily in that some stories are rewritten. But still no personality."

Robert Roy Britt, editorial director of Imaginova, which owns LiveScience.com, was even less sanguine.

"There are so many misconceptions in the public about basic science and health issues that the last thing we need is to see additional visibility given to press releases posing as news, which is what Futurity.org seems to be aiming to do," he says. "Some press releases are well done, but others are overblown and lack context. Others are downright inaccurate or make outrageous claims. None tell the whole story."

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