The Conversation is a unique publication that examines issues in the news by harnessing academic expertise. Since launching in March 2011 it has built a readership of around 450,000 readers a month. It’s based in Australia, but more than half its readers come from other countries. And many of the 3,500 academics registered with the site (about one tenth of all academics in Australia) have found new audiences for their ideas and analysis.
The business model? This not-for-profit receives most of its funding from partner universities and so doesn’t rely on advertising.
The site has been designed to facilitate public discourse and provide a means of extending and measuring the impact of academics in the public sphere. In so doing, it has also made its mark in developing best practices for online journalism for not only its readers, but also for its editors and writers, says co-founder, Executive Director and Editor Andrew Jaspan who previously edited The Age in Melbourne and several British newspapers.
The Conversation’s charter sets out how it aims to fulfil its mission:
- Give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.
- Unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.
- Create an open site for people around the world to share best practices and collaborate on developing smart, sustainable solutions.
- Provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.
- Ensure the site’s integrity by only obtaining non-partisan sponsorship from education, government and private partners. Any advertising will be relevant and non-obtrusive.
- Ensure quality, diverse and intelligible content reaches the widest possible audience by employing experienced editors to curate the site.
- Support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.
- Work with our academic, business and government partners and our advisory board to ensure we are operating for the public good.
To realise this, Jaspan explains to me in the publication’s Melbourne office, The Conversation has developed ‘author dashboards’ (see below) for contributors that record the number of people who read each article, where they’re from, comments, likes on Facebook and tweets – ‘all of which is one way of demonstrating impact’. Everything the site publishes is licensed through Creative Commons, which means it’s free for anyone to republish providing that they don’t change the copy, and show where the piece came from. ‘This means the academic, the institution and The Conversation. So it allows you to write for us but have your content disseminated very widely anywhere in the world.’
While many academics already have established media profiles, Jaspan points out that part of The Conversation’s strategy is to nurture experts who have yet to contribute to newspapers or websites. ‘We started with saying a lot of academics either don’t enjoy engagement with the media or they are shy or some of them just need the experience and help,’ says Jaspan.
‘So we introduced a new way of working where we have professional editors — we have two per section here, who work as commissioning editors.’ (One of these editors – also known as curators or producers — is former La Trobe student and upstart editor, Matt de Neef). These editors engage with academics who work in particular areas and may help shape the key argument and story angle for a proposed piece.
Jaspan says that the author dashboards provide a way to demonstrate the impact of individual academics and universities (which also have their own metrics) in public discourse. The aggregation of academic expertise has also led to new opportunities for academics to become involved in policy development. A recent series on Australia in the Asian Century culminated in a roundtable hosted by Ken Henry, chair of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s taskforce on Asia. ’There was a debate there, and in terms of policy development, that’s a form of impact,’ says Jaspan.
Technological innovations also help the site to realise its mission. All authors write on a specially developed collaborative writing platform which is designed to enhance transparency and trust. Contributors must register to demonstrate that they have credentials in a particular area. ‘We only allow people to write in the area that they know about, and we want the reader to know that that person really has deep expertise,’ Jaspan explains.
Contributors must also fill out a disclosure statement ‘because we need to know who is funding them. Even if it just the Australian Research Council, we need to know that, and also if they’re affiliated with any organisations that could raise a question of conflict of interest’. Jaspan adds that sometimes the perception of conflict of interest can be best dealt with just by being open about a relationship or connection, while, conversely, hiding the fact that you’re affiliated to something can diminish trust.
‘So that’s what we ask for, and on our side we deliver a writing platform that includes tips on how to write an article, and how to finish an article.’ Another feature of the site’s collaborative writing platform is its readability index that is set to the reading age of an educated 16 year-old ‘because this is a public facing website, it’s not academic to academic, it’s to bring in as many people as possible’. And authors have to sign off on final copy before their piece is published.
Another notable feature of the site is its community standards which were designed to enhance the quality of discussion for not only its readers, but also its writers and editors. These standards were developed after examining best practices in sites such as ProPublica, Nieman Jouranlism Lab, The Guardian, NPR, and Newser.
Could any of The Conversation’s attempts to forge best practices have application in commercial media? Here Jaspan notes that The Conversation was being developed and launched at a time of serious concern about poor public ethics and practices within the commercial media as the News of the World scandal unravelled.
‘If you want to actually rebuild trust you need to demonstrate how you’re doing that. Make sure you know who people are, the provenance of that person, the funding of that person, what they actually know about it. Make sure that you can actually deal with complaints properly, make sure you have proper process in place to have people engage with the authors.’
For Jaspan, this is all part of the process of responsible journalism ‘which is in a sense what we’re trying to rebuild. I’m not saying that we’ve come up with the answer, but these are just our attempts to rebuild trust in the media. Unless you do that the media of the future will continue to be mistrusted.’
The success of the site in building a substantial audience so quickly suggests that not only is the experiment working, but might also be adaptable elsewhere, providing that universities in other countries warm to the idea of contributing to the development of a publishing platform that connects academics to a broader public.