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Part of my work involves developing websites for clients to communicate their message in a suitable way. This one (maxbingham.com) is based on Joomla! which is a content management system. Of course, setting up a website these days is easy. There are many systems available and each has its own benefits. I have tried out many systems and felt that Joomla was the best for my particular needs. One of my sites (microbes.me), is based on WordPress.

The challenge involved in a successful website is not how it works. It's the content that matters and that takes time to develop and setup. That is where I can add value with well written, accurate and engaging narrative.

Please get in contact if you want to develop a bespoke website for your message. 

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24 Science News - a cautionary tale of crowd sourcing

Last year I decided to try a little experiment that I hoped would develop into a shining example of crowd-sourced wisdom and web 2.0'ed glory. I started developing a crowd-sourced science news service. It's called 24 Science News and here's how the experiment turned out.

The idea

Whether or not you subscribe to the idea that there is a crisis in science journalism, one thing that was clear to me last year was that the quality of reporting of science was erm... variable. There were certainly some examples of shoddy journalism and it was clear that much of this stemmed from mis-understandings between journalists and scientists. I will not go into this further other than to say the solution in my mind was to get the scientists to start supplying their own news to the world. By side-stepping journalists the whole issue of mis-understanding would disappear. Simple. 

Well, it didn't turn out to be simple. In fact, I realised quite early on that this was no small task and that I would require considerable resources that I didn't have. The idea itself was quite simple. Set up a platform that allowed scientists to publish science news that mattered. This would not be a platform for publishing PR (like existing services such as Eurekalert or Futurity) but balanced stories about science. It would differ from a blog in that it would be multi-author and the style would be news. It would differ from existing science news services (e.g. New Scientist) in that it would be largely written by scientists as opposed to journalists. It would be the HuffPo or NowPublic.com of science. 'What could possibly go wrong?' I said to myself.

I wrote thousands of words of materials and policies and then set about writing the news. I imagined, à la Wikipedia-style, that I would hit a tipping point where readership would be such that contributors would start to appear out of the blue. I always knew that contributors of news would be tiny compared to consumers of news. As I learnt at the Science Online London conference this year, crowd sourcing science and open science suffers from a classic case of free-riding. You can consume the content but you don't have to provide content yourself. That makes sustaining such ideas a question of big numbers (of readers in my case). I sort of had this in the back of my mind but largely dismissed it. It was just a question of time, patience, writing articles and many, many readers, I thought. They would come, wouldn't they?

You can see the result here. I managed to get some articles up including a timely interview that got linked to from the BBC News website. Great! I thought a few more of those kinds of stories and my news service would fly. 

The result

At the same time I started talking about the idea more openly. I felt I had enough content to not look too much like an fledgling, wet-behind-the-ears wannabe media tycoon. I begged my scientist friends to start contributing materials. They all thought it was a great idea and some content did arrive. And then the crunch came. I started talking up the idea with various contacts in the know. They were journalists, writers, students of science communications, economics students and business analysts. The noises were not good. Apart from finding out that crowd sourced science news portals of the past have been less than successful, it was the business model that would blow this idea out of the water. Ad-supported news was and is simply not sustainable. I would need millions of readers and very, very deep pockets to bankroll the operation before I could make enough money to even keep the operation going. Profit was, as one advisor delicately put it, doubtful. The idea was dead.

What have I learned?

'If you build it, they will come' does not hold true for science news platforms unless you are very rich. Basically, I seriously underestimated the amount of resources and connections I would need to kick start the idea. I also learned that ad-revenues have collapsed. Gone are the days of apparently earning millions out of web ads (perhaps they never existed). Basically the business model sucked and it never had a chance. In truth, that was the one that killed the idea. I guess if anyone wanted to try this again they would need a completely different funding model. Perhaps charity is the route. Forget making a profit for a moment and the possibilities look brighter. Is science news a charitable cause? I don't know but you are free to try it. I won't stop you and I wish you the best of luck.

Other than the economics behind this project, I also found out that the 'news' writing style is not a native ability of most scientists. Getting out of the rigid academic style of writing is pretty tough for many. I have to admit that I did not factor this into the decision to go ahead with the idea. That's also why journalists are trained to be journalists. It is a skill that scientists do not get trained in (perhaps unsurprisingly). 

The future of 24 Science News

I still think the idea of a crowd sourced science news platform has legs. As I learnt in the process of building up the idea, the public do tend to trust scientists to explain science correctly. Whether it is understandable is moot point. Nevertheless, I suspect there are economic issues surrounding this that will make setting up a successful platform very, very hard. I guess starting small and in a niche area might work. It can then be built out. Facebook started that way and they seem to be doing ok. As for 24 Science News, it is staying where it is now. Preserved, parked, dormant, dead. Good luck if you are considering trying this yourself. I hope my cautionary tale helps you understand the challenges involved.   

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