'Futuro': Because Science Is The Only News

One of the successful projects that have come about as a result of the Diffusion Network is the Futuro supplement produced by members SciDevNet and Materia (El Pais’ Science section). Here, the Materia team tell us a bit more about Futuro.

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By Patricia Fernández de Lis and Francisco Domenech, Materia

The Futuro Supplement emerges from the observation of a reality: more and better scientific information is needed in newspapers. Materia, the science section of the newspaper EL PAÍS, and SciDev.Net, which publishes scientific information from and for Latin America, have decided to join forces to produce this supplement, which is intended to be published once a month. The goal is to develop specialised information on topics related to science, the environment, technology and health, especially oriented toward the interests of Latin American readers. The layout of the supplement will be flexible, but will always open with a long article, followed by a page of brief news and an interview, and the last page will be dedicated to presenting great Latin American researchers, both men and women.

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Materia came into being in 2012 as an independent project to present rigorous scientific information in an attractive and entertaining manner. In 2014, the project was integrated into EL PAÍS, the most widely read Spanish-language newspaper. Today, Materia is a leader in providing scientific information in Spanish, with millions of monthly readers and more than a million followers on social networks. In 2015, the site won the Prisma Prize, the most prestigious recognition in Spain in this field, for being "a benchmark of scientific journalism," according to the jury's decision. With Futuro, and with the collaboration of SciDev.net, Materia wants to help Latin American newspapers recognise scientific information as being an integral part of their offering to readers because, after all and as Stewart Brand has said, "Science is the only news."

Using Radio To Dispel Myths

In Africa, many communities still live in total ignorance of the key principles of science, whether they relate to diseases or natural phenomena.

Until the beginning of the 1980s, in the slums of my native Benin, I remember that when lightning, hitherto considered a manifestation of the wrath of Heviosso, the god of thunder, fell on residential areas, voodoo worshipers travelled in procession to retrieve the bodies of the victims, to atone for their sins.

Victims of lightning were indeed considered as sinners.

Even today, traditional beliefs such as these, with no scientific evidence, are commonplace on the continent. In a context where mysticism is so rampant, scientific education can be a staunch support for development, helping fight powerful social misconceptions.

Science et Développement, SciDev.Net's new radio programme and podcast, dedicated to science news and supported by Storythings, helps meet this need. Thanks to the Storythings project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, SciDev.Net was able to put together a pilot podcast to tell Africans science stories.

The main purpose was to bring science to the general public, decision-makers, as well as the scientific and development communities.

Following hundreds of hours of work and thinking, the 15-minute programme eventually went on air in November, in four African cities and on five FM stations: Radio Dunyaa in Senegal, R&M in Niger, Radio Miango and Kalak FM in Cameroon and Radio Tokpa in Benin.

Two years after initial discussions, the programme has now come to life, with a lot of promises.

With our own network of reporters and a great deal of determination, we covered issues ranging from the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to traditional beliefs and health.

Science et Développement uses a simple, yet powerful language, a distinct style relating science to daily life, putting listeners' questions to experts.

We do so using the mesmerizing impact of a powerful tool - radio, the most popular medium on the continent, and leverage its specificities in an African context.

In times of crisis and war, for many in Africa, radio is the focal point of the whole society, the place to find out when rebels are coming to town. In times of peace, it is generally synonymous with music and partying; it serves as the perfect outlet for problems. So switching from music to the generally “boring” science programmes is something most station managers wouldn't be prepared to do. There lay one of the challenges of running a science programme in Africa.

Our reporters were able to find the right balance between universal storytelling strategies, narrative styles and techniques, and the need to keep audiences engaged in an environment where ancestral values and oral traditions are still prevalent. We immersed ourselves in African culture, and used our bullet-proof production skills to make the programme informative, educative and entertaining enough to attract African audiences.

Amzath Fassassi is SciDev.Net’s regional coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa French, and the driving force behind Science et Développement.

Summarising Our Brighton Workshop in September 2018

The team at the Brighton workshop

The team at the Brighton workshop

In September, we had our third workshop for members of the Diffusion Network in Brighton, following on from our first two in London and Madrid.

It was an interesting week - right after the Online News Association (ONA) conference in Austin, Texas, where danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society, gave an important talk on media manipulation. To quote her:

Over the last two years, both social media and news media organizations have desperately tried to prove that they aren’t biased. What’s at stake is not whether these organizations are restricting discussions concerning free-market economics or failing to allow conservative perspectives to be heard. What’s at stake is how fringe groups can pervert the logics of media to spread conspiratorial and hateful messages under their false flag of conservatism.

In this environment, the work of science journalism, based on fact and not falsehoods, is more important than ever.

The Diffusion Network workshops are a good opportunity for the members of the network to bring each other up to speed on their projects and progress since the group last met, but we also invite people who are doing interesting work within media to come and speak to us so we can make sure that as a network we are constantly thinking ahead.

Our speakers from the past few workshops have been people we think are doing interesting work in and around the media and journalism industry. This year, we had two external speakers: Astrid Viciano (Weekend Science Editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung) and Caroline Crampton (writer and podcast consultant).

Astrid took us through the German media landscape in detail and gave us an insight into the workings of Süddeutsche Zeitung in particular. It was really interesting to learn about the various kinds of news consumers in Germany, and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s current science focus on areas like AI, big data and medicine.

Caroline gave us a 101 on podcasting and we had a good discussion about some of our favourite podcasts and the future of podcasting in general. She gave us some tips to make podcasts spread on social media, like using audiograms, which WNYC does (Audiogram has now moved to Headliner), and some entertaining uses, such as the Chompers podcast from Gimlet Media, which encourages kids to brush their teeth through twice-daily two-minute podcasts! Podcasting is an interesting format that is certainly seeing growth within niche communities, and we see potential for this format as the Diffusion Network also – more on that below.

We used our time together as a group to talk about our future strategy as well. Our syndication progress continues apace (huge thanks to Scroll.in in India, Guokr in China, Hacking Finance, Quartz and The Next Web who regularly syndicate from us) but it is important for us to make sure that we also work on discrete projects to experiment with media content.

We’ve now formed three task-based groups that will look at Audience Growth and Impact, Podcasts, and Print Experiments. They all have their origins in work that we’ve already done: for audience growth and impact we are working with Gabe Stein, who has helped one of our member publications, How We Get To Next, fine-tune their audience strategy significantly. For podcasts, we want to look at building podcast networks – Diffusion Network member publication SciDevNet is planning on a podcast based in Africa, How We Get To Next has a podcast too (check out The Thin Layer, their most recent podcast on soil), and we’d like to build on that. For print experiments, we are looking to build on the work already done by member publications Materia (El Pais) and SciDevNet, who collaborated to produce a science supplement which was distributed in Latin America as a pilot project this summer.

We covered a lot over two days of workshops, but there’s a lot more to do. If you’re a small science publication and you’d like to become a member of the Diffusion Network, reach out to us. If you’re a big publisher who would like to syndicate some of the amazing stories our members produce, reach out to us too. Our lines are open!

We're Now The Diffusion Network - Progress From Our London and Madrid Workshops

A social video wall in the office of El Pais in Madrid. Image: El Pais. 

A social video wall in the office of El Pais in Madrid. Image: El Pais. 

At our first workshop in London in September 2017, we started to get to know each other as members of the network; we learnt about our unique advantages and disadvantages as publishers, and started thinking about our media experiments.

Samia Saad from the Gates Foundation introduced us to the work of the Foundation and Gates' focus on global health and food security. 

We also had Nic Newman (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford), Bobbie Johnson (who had past lives at Medium and the Guardian and is now founder of Anxy Mag), and Tristan Ferne (BBC R&D lab) come and speak to us. Nic took us through his Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions, Bobbie spoke to us about his life as a media entrepreneur, and Tristan took us through some of his research on digital story formats for news

By February 2018, when we had our next workshop in Madrid (kindly hosted by member of the network Patricia Fernàndez de Lis at the offices of El Pais, with an excellent tour around the building as well), we'd started getting traction with syndication. We also had inspiration in the form of presentations from Gabe Stein (co-founder & CEO of Massive Science) and Sam Rigby (Deputy Growth Editor at Quartz). These presentations helped shape our discussions on the second day of the workshop, when we explicitly decided the two key audiences for our work as a network: syndicators (large publishers) and potential new members

For syndicators, we were clear that we wanted to build and manage relationships with syndication partners - over the last few months this has led to our content being syndicated in English in Quartz, Scroll.in, Huffington Post India, Hacking Finance and The Next Web, and in Spanish in El Pais. We also discussed using technology and data in interesting ways to measure our impact, using Massive Science's chatbot as inspiration. If you're a large publisher who would like to syndicate our content, let us know

For potential new members, we decided a good way to build our talent pipeline was by creating a strong new brand. You may recall that we launched as the Science Syndication Network, but after some discussion and debate with the members of the network, we decided that 'Diffusion' was a better description of what we wanted to do. And as part of that objective, you're now looking at our brand new website. If you're a science publication interested in becoming a member of our network, reach out!

We're also keen, as small publishers, to improve our craft and editorial process. Towards this end, we're working on specialist conference calls with experts to help us become better as publications and as a network. 

Lots more to come, stay tuned!

Stories For People, Not Algorithms: Announcing The Science Syndication Network

If you work in journalism and media, you’ll know that getting people to find and read your stories has never been more complex. We live in an era of fast-changing audience behaviours, platforms and economic models. If you’re not a publisher that is large enough to have direct relationship with millions of people, or to broker deals with the huge tech companies that own audiences’ attention, you have to spend a huge amount of time and money getting people to notice your stories.

This is the position that many small and medium sized publishers find themselves in, especially publishers working on public-impact stories. According to a 2015 CIMA report, governments and foundations spend around $450m on media development to communicate the impact of the $147bn aid investments they make every year. This is a huge investment, but the majority of this money is to fund the development and creation of media, not distribution.

This feels like a missed opportunity — there are thousands of public impact stories being produced every year that aren’t getting the audience or impact they deserve, for no reason other than distribution is *hard*. The competition for audience attention has never been more intense, and the gatekeepers never more complex. Publishers have had to learn how to optimise stories for algorithms, not people. If you want to create stories that make an impact on people’s lives and attitudes, it’s hard to know what platforms to focus on, or how much time and money to spend on building audiences.

This is why we’re launching the Science Syndication Network. With the support of the Gates Foundation, we’re working with five public-impact publications to focus specifically on the problem of distribution and syndication. Between us, we have a global reach in the millions, and over the next 2 years, we’re running four six-month long experiments to improve the reach and impact of our stories, particularly stories on global health security.

The experiments will include building relationships with editors and syndication leads at major publications, translating and distributing articles for audiences in China, Brazil and across the globe, syndicating serialised content as long form articles and podcasts, and synchronising commissioning to create more impact across all our publications.

Photo by Dave Imms, from Mosaic Science’s article ‘ How To Fall To Your Death & Live To Tell The Tale ’.

Photo by Dave Imms, from Mosaic Science’s article ‘How To Fall To Your Death & Live To Tell The Tale’.

We’ve structured the project as a series of 6 month experiments because we know that the landscape of public impact journalism will continue to change. At our launch workshop in September, we heard from Nic Newman, creator of the Reuters Institute’s annual journalism predictions report. Every year this report shows how quickly audience behaviours and platforms can change. By the end of this pilot phase in 2019, the problems at the heart of our experiments will be very different from the ones we’re looking at today.

One of the biggest benefits of the network is that it gives us the time and resources to get together regularly to look at the issues around syndication and distribution together, learn from each other’s experiments, and bring in insight from experts from around the world. As we’re all small publications and newsrooms, working together amplifies our potential impact and reach in ways that we just couldn’t do alone.

The initial pilot phase of the Science Syndication Project is a collaboration between five partners, who between them have a monthly reach of over 5 million, publishing in English, Spanish, Arabic and French, across Europe, the US and South America. The partners are:

Future Earth Media Lab/International Council For Science — publishers of Anthropocene Magazine and Re:Think.

How We Get To Next — an online publication exploring the intersections between science, technology and culture, and how those things are changing the future.

Materia, the science and technology department at El Pais in Spain.

Mosaic Science, publishing compelling stories that explore the science of life, based out of the Wellcome Trust in the UK.

SciDevNet, a global publication looking at science and technology in the development sector.

We’ll be publishing regular stories on this site sharing research, insights and outcomes from the experiments. If you want to keep in touch with the project, you can subscribe to our newsletter.

We also want to grow the network. So if you’re a global publication interested in syndicating stories, a publication covering science/development/global health looking for help on distribution and syndication, or a foundation looking to increase the impact of your media work, we’d love to hear from you!