This week a new nonprofit news site is launching in the U.S. Given the thousands of online news sites that already exist (an estimated 170+ of them nonprofit), you might be questioning why you should care. But you should, because this one is a bit different.
The Conversation is an independent news and commentary site produced by a team of professional journalists who work closely with academic authors to leverage the academics’ expertise, apply it to important issues, and make it available to the public.
We recently made a grant to The Conversation through Special Projects, because their work struck us as potentially illuminating on a couple of dimensions. As pretty much everyone who reads news knows, since the advent of the Internet, journalism around the world has been struggling. Two big challenges dominate, at least for those who care about democracy:
- The old journalism business model no longer works. Many newsrooms have had to reduce staff or close entirely. According to a recent report on the State of the News Media in 2013, employment of full-time editorial staff in the U.S., which peaked at 57,000 in 1989, had fallen by 29% by the end of 2011. The same report found that the number of U.S. newspapers with daily circulation has fallen by about 14% since 1990.
- What remains is much more fragmented, and often much more ideological. So far as television goes, much has been made of the ideological extremity of Fox News (“regularly watched” by only 20% of Americans) and MSNBC (regularly watched by only 11%). They are pretty different. A recent Pew study, which the Hewlett Foundation helped support, found that “consistent conservatives” expressed overwhelmingly positive views of Fox (74% favorable). Meanwhile 73% of “consistent liberals” held an unfavorable view of the network. Talk radio is notoriously ideological, though much more popular amongst conservatives than liberals. Seven of the top 10 outlets are considered conservative, the rest are independent or moderate—and have grown from 400M in the 1990s to 1.4B in recent years. Given the breadth of online news sites it is essentially impossible to register their ideological tones, but suffice to say that many occupy a quite specific ideological niche. In short, people have a very hard time agreeing on what the facts are, much less on what to do about them.
The Conversation touches upon both of these problems.
On the business model side, the plurality of The Conversation’s funding comes from universities, at least in the U.K. and Australia (the two countries where it has been active to date). Academics benefit from an increased audience for their research, and the universities themselves benefit from increased visibility. Free to read, share, and republish, The Conversation makes its articles available to other news outlets for distribution (see recent publications by the Washington Post here, here, here, and here). In short, the financial side appears promising.
On the ideology side, public trust in institutions is falling across the board. There is some hope that university researchers will be viewed as credible sources of information, at least by some subset of the population. A recent U.K. study found that “90% said they trusted scientists working for universities.” But U.K. scientists may fare better on the trust dimension than American ones. Huffington Post recently found that “only 36 percent of Americans reported having “a lot” of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don’t trust it at all.”
Another source for the same data actually gets to the point of The Conversation—a members-only American Sociological Review study: Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. The full study has a handy chart showing the changes in trust of science by ideological affiliation, but unfortunately, it’s only accessible if you pay for it and figuring out how to even show the chart here, in a legally permissible way, would take a few days to sort out). On top of that, the whole study is a bit hard to read (for a layperson), and it’s very long—all challenges with the accessibility of academic knowledge that the Conversation is designed to help overcome.
In addition to the challenges of presenting complex information in a way that a lay audience can understand it, The Conversation also recognizes the challenge of being pigeonholed ideologically—and thus either being ignored entirely, or helping to further the growing problem of U.S. political polarization. Academic authors must “abide by protocols that help rebuild trust in journalism: they sign on to an editorial charter; disclose funding and conflicts; abide by community standards; and write in areas in which they have demonstrated expertise.”
Given all of this, I’m cautiously optimistic that The Conversation can find a good foothold here in the U.S. at a time when our public, and our policymakers, badly need to re-find more sources of agreed-upon facts and expert knowledge. I would welcome your thoughts!