Brewing up a Brainstorm with Jim Carroll
would do so in a readable, accessible, straightforward way that the millions of people who visit rte.ie would be happy to read.
Seven Irish universities and third-level institutions – University College Cork, University of Limerick, Dublin Institute of Technology, Maynooth University, Ulster University, Dublin City University and NUI Galway – stepped up to help fund the project. Their support helps to pay the wages, contributors’ fees (we pay for all directly commissioned pieces) and the various technical bits and bobs required to get up and running and to keep going.
This is not sponsored content. It’s not academics bigging up their own institutions. Which articles we choose to publish is our decision alone. Also, we welcome and have published pieces by academics who are not from the seven founding institutions.
Instead, Brainstorm operates just like any other online publication. Either I approach an academic to write a piece based on their specific area of expertise or they pitch a piece to me. We agree word counts and deadlines (I hadn’t realised that academics were as inventive as freelance journalists in coming up with excuses for missed deadlines). The pieces turn up and they’re subbed, designed and published. Copy comes in one end and articles come out the other.
Of course, there are some differences between Brainstorm and other titles in the online space. The main one is that this is a public service project and not a commercial entity. Rather than turn a profit, the aim is to highlight the work of those in the nation’s third-level sector. We’re in the hugely fortunate position that the institutions are footing the bill for this experiment and, based on their experience so far, are happy to continue for the full initial three-year period.
So what’s the editor of Brainstorm looking for? The biggest thing I’m after is readability, which basically means no academic-speak. Brainstorm is not an academic journal – and has no pretensions to be, despite the unfeasibly huge profits made by the publishers of such journals. Pieces must be written in clear, understandable, straightforward English. What was hugely reassuring to me was that about 80-85 per cent of the pieces we’ve received so far have met those criteria.
You can divide the ones we’ve published to date into stories that have a news angle (such as recent pieces on Syria, Eurovision, GDPR and Iraq) and more quirky pieces that don’t necessarily hang on a time hook. Be it a long read by Richard Scriven on modern pilgrimages, Alison Farrell’s tribute to the art of live sports commentary or Gillian O’Brien’s piece on how her grandmother inspired her fascination with death and dark tourism, these pieces are relatively timeless.
What have fascinated me most are the science and tech stories. As someone who’s not from that background, it’s hugely satisfying to see brilliant researchers get on board with Brainstorm, leave their labs and communicate what they’re doing in a clear and readable manner. An article on recreating the Earth from 90g of DNA, an article on what’s going on inside a newborn baby’s head and a report on how close we are to finding life on other planets are good examples.
There’s now an abundance of meaty reads on the website on a ton of subjects, as well as a database of more than 800 academics who are happy to write and comment on such topics. We know from the stats that Brainstorm has found an audience who are enjoying what they read. To give just one statistic, the average dwell time for a Brainstorm article is currently 5.54 minutes.
For the academics, Brainstorm has already had a sizeable impact. In addition to their raised profile, I keep hearing stories about meetings and projects that have followed Brainstorm pieces. It’s also telling to see Brainstorm story ideas and contributors picked up by radio shows and other media (and not just in Montrose).
For me, one of the biggest wins has been finding and developing new voices. A regular complaint about academics in the media is that it’s the usual handful of media-friendly voices who dominate proceedings as if they’re the only names and numbers in the contacts book. Coming from a music business background, I kept banging on about “being an A&R man for academia” when I started this job. As any good talent scout knows, finding new acts is only the start of things. Our aim is to develop them by continuing to highlight their work and insights, getting them to a stage where they’re the ones people are giving out about over-exposure. The fact that many college and university contacts say “I’ve never heard of him or her” when we use a new writer from their institution shows we’re on the right track.
The future for Brainstorm? We’ve recently welcomed the Irish Research Council as our first strategic partner and we’re planning a number of ways to work with and help the thousands of researchers they’ve funded. While the website will continue to be the main component of what we do, we plan to add events, podcasts and videos. We’ve already had a start on the live side of things with well-attended events in DCU and Maynooth University and we’ll be at the Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, over the June bank holiday weekend.
Most of all, we hope to continue showcasing what academics and researchers are doing behind their college walls. We want to show how their work impacts on society and the contribution they have to make to the national discourse. And hopefully, we’ll keep avoiding the tweed.
Jim Carroll is the editor of rte.ie/brainstorm