A few weeks back I was asked to participate in an interview with the online site The EvoLLLution. I found the interview experience to be terrific, with the editor whom I worked with extremely knowledgeable about the higher ed sector.
You can read (and listen to) the results of that interview - Online Learning Making Education Fungible for Non-Traditional Students - on The EvoLLLution site.
After participating in the interview, I got curious about how The EvoLLLution is funded.
The EvoLLLution has been very successful in recruiting volunteer contributors, with a who's who list of thought leaders in higher education.
The "About Us" section of The EvoLLLution site reads in part:
"A grassroots online newspaper exclusively for, and by, those who understand higher education best, The EvoLLLution is the only place where you can find detailed opinions, news and research about the impact of non-traditional programs on the higher education industry and society-at-large.
Destiny Solutions, the owner of The EvoLLLution, is not mentioned on the About Us page, and the Media Book contains very little information about the company or why it would fund the site.
Again, I want to repeat that my interest in the background of The EvoLLLution was not driven by any concern about the site content in general, or my experience contributing to the site. I was actually more interested in how companies go about the process of authentically participation in the conversation about the changing world of postsecondary education.
Starting a site like The EvoLLLution actually seems like a great idea. Companies in the education, technology, and publishing space have a legitimate interest in understanding the market, positioning their leadership as thought leaders in the field, and establishing relationships with other thought leaders and decision makers.
I offered to do a Q and A with the communications people from The EvoLLLution. My offer was a sincere effort to understand the origins of the EvoLLLution, and the motivations of its owners (Destiny Solutions) for investing in the site.
I sent along the following 7 questions, thinking that the people behind The EvoLLLution would be happy to discuss the backstory of the site, and to bring the objectives of The EvoLLLution to a wider audience.
Q1: What is the mission of the The EvoLLLution?
Q2: What is the business model of The EvoLLLution? Is The EvoLLLution an independent company, a for-profit venture, or a subsidiary of Destiny Solutions?
Q3: What was the reason that Destiny Solutions deciding to start and underwrite The EvoLLLution?
Q4: What is the readership of the EvoLLLution? Which readers are you looking to reach? What is the size of the readership and the growth rate?
Q5: In the About Us section the description reads: "A grassroots online newspaper...". No mention is made about Destiny Solutions. Why is that? Do you think it is important for the readers of The EvoLLLution to know about the funding model?
Q6: The EvoLLLution has been really successful in attracting contributors and getting interviews. What has been your strategy for bringing in different voices and ideas to the site?
Q7: How will The EvoLLLution judge its success going forward?
To my surprise, the EvoLLLution folks declined to participate in the Q and A.
I've copied a series of e-mails from Rachel Kuper, the marketing and public relations manager from Destiny Solutions:
From: Rachel Kuper
Date: Friday, June 28, 2013 8:34 AM
Subject: Inside HIgher Ed Interview
I want to thank you for thinking of The EvoLLLution for an article.
At this point, The EvoLLLution is a fully philanthropic exercise to help address a communications void within the higher education industry and bringing Destiny Solutions into the limelight as a sponsor is counter to our aims. While sponsored by Destiny Solutions, it is a stand-alone operation with independent journalistic integrity.
If you would like to write an article on The EvoLLLution and its role within the community, EvoLLLution staff would be happy to help out. Conversely, if you would like to write about Destiny Solutions itself, we would be happy to oblige.
Thank you again for your time and engagement.
All the best,
Rachel Kuper l Marketing and Public Relations Manager l| destinysolutions.com
At this point I wrote Ms. Kuper back, repeating my questions.
Here is her 2nd e-mail:
From: Rachel Kuper
Date: Friday, June 28, 2013 10:47 AM
Subject: Re: Inside HIgher Ed Interview
It's a pleasure to meet you as well. I think that there may have been a bit of a misunderstanding. You've written up some great and provocative questions, but they really focus on the connection between Destiny Solutions and The EvoLLLution.
Destiny Solutions is very proud of having started The EvoLLLution; however, we do not believe it is what makes The EvoLLLution great and it is not something we are looking for limelight or notoriety for. Further, The EvoLLLution is not as much about firm strategy and metrics as it is about providing a platform and opening discussion.
I want to thank you again for your interest in The EvoLLLution.
All the best,
At this point I informed Ms. Kuper (by phone) that I understood her position, but that I thought my questions about The EvoLLLution's funding and editorial policies were legitimate. That in my opinion it is important for the creditability of any journalistic or information enterprise to fully disclose financial backing information to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. I also repeated how much I admire The EvoLLLution, but that I would be blogging my questions regardless of whether or not Destiny Solutions chose to respond with answers.
Later that day Ms. Kuper sent the following response:
From: Rachel Kuper
Date: Friday, June 28, 2013 1:41 PM
Subject: EvoLLLution Inquiry
In response to your inquiry, Shaul Kuper, a member of the higher education community, recognized a need within the rapidly and vastly changing higher education industry to unite in dialogue the numerous silos of stakeholders, in order to help improve and move the industry forward. As a result, the Evolllution was created to provide a platform for innovation, collaboration and discussion between students, chancellors and everyone in between. Destiny Solutions is the sole benefactor of The EvoLLLution, which is relevant to readers only in so far as there are no advertisements or subscription fees. The EvoLLLution is an editorially autonomous publication with its own separate missions and goals. The success of this model is evident when looking at The EvoLLLution's massive readership and the fact that it maintains a daily publication schedule with only volunteer contributors. The EvoLLLution was founded as a philanthropic endeavor to improve the higher education industry and not as a means of garnering notoriety for Destiny Solutions. While the link between Destiny Solutions and The EvoLLLution has not been heavily promoted, all related information is easily accessible through the website.
If you would like more information, you can view the press release announcing Destiny Solution's launch of The EvoLLLution (http://www.evolllution.com/destiny-solutions-founds-community-to-discuss-and-improve-non-traditional-education/) and The EvoLLLution media book (http://www.evolllution.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/EvoLLLution-Media-Book-2012-v2.pdf), both of which are accessible through the Media Resources section of The EvoLLLution.
So here is what I think:
- I think that The EvoLLLution is making real and significant contributions to our discussions of the future of post-secondary education. I would publish my thinking on The EvoLLLution in the future if they will have me.
- I also think that the credibility of The EvoLLLution would be greatly strengthened if they included more information about Destiny Solutions in the About Us section, with a fuller discussion of why the company decided to fund the site.
- I would like to see a clear policy of editorial independence spelled out on the site, with some mechanism put in place to ensure separation between the funders interest and the content of the site. This could take the form of an independent advisory board, one empowered to help craft and review editorial policies.
- I would like to understand exactly how the financial arrangement between The EvoLLLution and Destiny Solutions is constituted. In the e-mail above Ms. Kuper refers to Destiny Solutions funding of the The EvoLLLution as a "fully philanthropic exercise". I'm not sure exactly what this means. From what I can tell, The EvoLLLution is closer to a subsidiary or project of Destiny Solutions, not an independent organization or entity that receives outside funding. If this is the case, or I am mistaken and the financial setup is something different, then I think it is reasonable that this information be spelled out.
- If any contributors to The EvoLLLution are employees of Destiny Solutions then they should be clearly identified as employed by the owner of the site.
- Finally, I think that existing and potential contributors to The EvoLLLution (and other sites like it) should take the time to understand the funding model.
To repeat, I see nothing wrong with a company like Destiny Solutions funding a site like The EvoLLLution. Nor do I see any problem with The EvoLLLution funded by a single corporate parent. All sites, including Inside Higher Ed, need a business model to survive. At IHE it is clear that this business model is advertising and employment recruiting.
My hope is that this blog post sparks a positive discussion within Destiny Solutions and The EvoLLLution, and that the management of the company considers it worthwhile to engage in a public discussion of these proposals.
What do you think?