Regular readers will know that Croakey has been involved in an experiment to crowdsource ideas for a news site covering a health-related area of need.
Climate change and health was the topic chosen for the online publication, and a wealth of ideas for its development were generated during a session at the recent New News conference in Melbourne on August 25.
The exercise aimed to help kickstart a community of interest around the publication, and also to test the process in the hope that it may be useful to others seeking to generate new online news ventures.
In keeping with the spirit of the event, Croakey also put out a request for a volunteer scribe – someone to observe the session and to provide some reporting and analysis.
Fortunately, the Victorian committee of the Australian Science Communicators put us in touch with Dyani Lewis, a freelance science writer, podcaster and researcher, who generously gave her time to report on the event.
In the article below, she admits to some scepticism about the merits of crowdsourcing, captures some of the creativity and enthusiasm of the workshop, and says that only time will tell whether the experiment has been successful.
(If you would like to be part of a network interested in taking this project forward, please leave your details in the comments section or contact the Climate and Health Alliance’s Fiona Armstrong via: infoATcaha.org.au).
Will the ideas and enthusiasm from this experiment produce a result?
Dyani Lewis writes:
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?
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.
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.
• Dyani Lewis is a freelance science writer, podcaster and researcher based in Melbourne. Her writing has been published online at Cosmos, Science Alert, The WorldFish Center, MySexProfessor, and in The Age supplement, Voice. Her work can be found on her blog at www.archimedessoapdish.com.Dyani has been the associate producer for science and technology episodes on the University of Melbourne podcast, Up Close, for the past 18 months. Dyani has a PhD in plant genetics and a Master of Communication in Journalism and Professional Writing. She currently holds a research position in the field of population sexual health.
• Another report on the session comes from journalism student Katherine Bransgrove: Three journalists, one businessman, a health professional and an audience. One hour to create a new online publication. Can they do it?…
PS from Fiona Armstrong (added on 3 Sept)
The core element of our group’s discussion is that the publication needs to showcase (and illustrate) the benefits of healthy sustainable societies through user generated content that is underpinned by scientific content.
The key message for me was that it should be about showing not telling, and that it would help create a visual narrative about what low carbon living IS, feels like, looks like, and in doing so, illustrate what the benefits are – creating a pull rather than push factor.
PS From Croakey
Those participants who completed a short evaluation were positive about the process, although nearly everyone would have liked more time (the session only went for just over an hour.)
Nonetheless, it was surprising how much was achieved during this short time – a reminder perhaps of the power of goodwill (and deadlines). As Fiona Armstrong told us, the Climate and Health Alliance (an alliance of organisations and people in the health sector who want the threat of climate change and ecological degradation to human health addressed through prompt policy action) was established during a three-hour meeting, which also produced a constitution and press release.
The one disappointment, from Croakey’s perspective, is that only one member of the audience identified as being from a public health background – although it could equally be seen as a positive that so many people from media and online backgrounds were keen to engage with this topic.
This lack of public health engagement may reflect the timing of the session (a Saturday morning). Indeed, three public health people participated virtually – providing many useful suggestions by email (thanks to public health physician Dr Bret Hart, public health lawyer Rebecca Johnson and health broker Jennifer Alden).
As Rebecca Johnson noted, this publication needs “to scream” why it is relevant to public health people to get them engaged. She said: “Right from the get-go this epub needs to show me, a public health practitioner, why I need to care about these issues.”
If this is not already obvious to the wider public health community, perhaps this just underscores why such a publication is needed…
• Fiona Armstrong has begun an email list for those interested in carrying the publication forward. Contact her via infoATcaha.org.au or leave your details below.
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