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Ever since I was little, I have appreciated that Clark Kent’s day job was journalism. Yes, his alter ego, Superman, stopped speeding trains, but he – and his girlfriend, Lois Lane – brought the world to readers’ doorsteps. Now I head up a nonprofit news organization whose superpower is teaming up journalists with academics to help address a crisis in American journalism by bringing research-based information to readers across the country.
Today, we’ve lost a lot of our Clark Kents and Lois Lanes – not just at city papers but at the thousands of smaller newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations that once met the information needs of their communities. Since 2008, about 30,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers – have lost their jobs, a 25% decline, according to Pew Research. The cuts have been particularly brutal for specialized, experienced journalists who were experts in their beats.
There are great efforts underway to shore up the watchdogs and chroniclers of local government, school committees, religious institutions, and communities at large. ProPublica’s local reporting network is helping community reporters tackle big, important stories. Report for America is placing hundreds of new reporters in local newsrooms.
The pandemic has exposed another key gap in meeting the public’s information needs: When the public couldn’t turn to their local news outlets for reliable health information (because their local media had laid off the health reporter and the science editor), the gap was filled by misinformation. And it’s not just health and science reporting that has been decimated – education, religion, environment, and business beats and expertise that were developed over years are no longer there.
The Conversation U.S. works to replace those experts’ work with journalism written by another source of expertise: America’s academic researchers. Our editing team of 20 – most of them with deep journalism experience with the subjects they edit – identify topics where researchers can help the public understand something going on in the news or in some aspect of our lives.
They find experts who have been studying that area for years or even decades (on topics as broad as Ukrainian history or as narrow as deepfake videos or zebra stripes). We make sure that the authors tell us about any potential conflicts in their funding or outside commitments. For example, we have prohibited scholars from writing for us about politics that donated to a specific campaign and have blocked scientists from promoting products they have helped develop. To build trust, we put disclosure statements right below the authors’ bylines.
We are also making a concerted effort to increase the public presence of excellent researchers of color, doing outreach to ensure we find them, offering them training, and tracking our progress.
Our team takes experts through a learning process that turns academic prose into plain language, making it journalism that explains without oversimplifying. The editing process is highly rigorous – most articles go through four editing rounds with three editors and then a copy edit before both the scholar and editor agree that it is accurate and readable, and we publish it.
We publish about 10 stories a day to our website, but our reach is far greater. Every piece is released under a Creative Commons license – meaning it is always free to read and republish. All our content goes out on the AP wire, to Yahoo! News (one of the largest news sites in the country), and MSN. Each day our three-person outreach team connects with scores of papers that are interested in our content.
Each month close to 700 news outlets publish our work, from the tiny Punxsutawney Spirit in Pennsylvania and The Birmingham News in Alabama to the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post. The editor of a two-person local news site recently told us, “Conversation stories offer timely content, often touching on topics that [we] would not acknowledge otherwise, providing insights and thorough information for readers to consider … Just today I received two compliments from citizens thanking me for publishing a story about pesticides. One said, ‘These types of articles are so important to educate the public'.”
Our approach is gaining traction. We’re reaching an increasing number of people with these fact- and research-based new articles. Readers now turn to us about 20 million times a month, about two and a half times the readership before the pandemic.
Members of the public need a better understanding of the complex issues shaping their communities, and struggling local news outlets need help explaining those issues. Experts have important information to share on those issues but need encouragement, editing, and a platform for their work. The Conversation stands at this intersection – strengthening newsrooms and drawing academics into the public square. It’s not the only way to fight the waves of misinformation threatening our democracy. But it is an important front in the battle for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Some ways to get involved:
- In addition to supporting The Conversation, consider donating to local news organizations in your community and subscribing to your local paper.
- Consider sharing evidence-based and trustworthy articles you find with friends and family on social media and beyond.
- Support the Institute for Nonprofit News, a growing membership organization of more than 350 nonprofit news organizations, and Local Independent Online News, an association that includes more than 400 publishers; both groups are working to ensure there is trusted news in every community.
- Support Report for America, which partners with local news outlets to increase the number of community reporters.
Original contribution by Beth Daley, Editor and GM, The Conversation U.S.