Ten years ago this month (March 25) The Conversation launched to a bemused and sceptical audience.
Countless people said beforehand: “So you want to get academics to write to deadlines?? Forget it. It won’t work. They can’t even write.” I ignored the warnings and gave it a go, and before long the idea went viral and global with editions springing up in the UK, US, Canada, France, Spain, South Africa and Indonesia.
Together they now employ nearly 200 staff with a monthly reach of 18 million. It’s been a gamechanger though I still fail to know what to call this hybrid of journalism and academia. Perhaps The Conversation slogan sums it up best: Academic rigour. Journalistic flair.
How did the idea come about? While editing The Age at Fairfax I watched as the wheels came off a once hugely profitable advertising business model. The Fairfax management had little idea what to do so they resorted to what it knows best: slash costs and take an axe to the costly editorial budget and staff. Among the first to leave were the specialist reporters with expertise in science, health, environment, business, politics, law and police rounds.
Over the next four years I saw the newsroom being gradually hollowed out after each annual redundancy round. In place of expertise, the general and junior reporters were told to write about subjects they knew little or nothing about. Did the bean-counters and the consultancy firms care? The unhappy readers certainly did – and they could tell they were being short-changed. To be fair, what was happening at The Age was largely the case worldwide, especially among those publishers without much vision for a blended digital future.
At the end of 2008 Fairfax sacked 550 staff and I was one of them as just reward for objecting to the constant cost-cutting. The next week I got a call from Glyn Davis (then vice-chancellor at Melbourne university) who wanted to know what I’d do next. I said: "Find another way of producing quality, accurate and reliable journalism." "Good luck!” he replied, though his suggestion that he introduce me to some of the university’s smartest thinkers was critical to what happened next.
After meeting and interviewing astrophysicists, earth and climate scientists, ethicists, lawyers and Peter Doherty, the Nobel Laureate and specialist in the area of flu and immunology, I was struck with the thought: What if we could bring all these smart people into a new giant virtual newsroom and have them as our key expert contributors? What a powerful science team we’d have with 3,000 in the Faculty of Science alone?
I also wanted to address the looming concerns over poor quality information and disinformation/fake news. So we set out to launch a service built on research expertise and underpinned by strict codes of conduct and blind-reviewed through the peer review process. Why? Because if we wanted our readers to trust our content, we had to demonstrate the highest standards in the content’s creation through full disclosure of each author’s expertise, their funding and any possible conflicts of interest. That ‘build trust’ approach was baked into The Conversation model from the outset.
But how would it work in practice? Peter Doherty gave me the clue. He said after every media interview he would think "how bad will that turn out to be?" So we discussed how to avoid that predictable fate. We agreed that the key to a new approach would be for us to work together to marry his subject expertise with my professional editing skills, with clear respect between both parties.
We would start the process by jointly discussing and agreeing the outline of the article, then I give him a word length and deadline. He would then write the article and pass it back to me to edit and ensure readability… and then I pass it back for him to approve any changes. That way we avoid any bad surprises. He agreed on that process and I went away to write up the operating model for The Conversation.
I gave the completed proposal for the new service to Glyn Davis and he liked it and offered to help fund and get other universities to back the idea. I then brought in Jack Rejtman, an American technologist who had worked at Yahoo, and we developed a full business plan and a website mock-up. By August 2010 we secured $10 million in funding over three years. The universities of Melbourne, Monash, ANU, Western Australia, UTS and the CSIRO contributed $3 million. Another $3 million came from the Victorian State Government and $3 million from the Federal Government. Plus, Commonwealth Bank Australia funded the entire web development team, led by Michael Morris, who custom built one of the best platforms in the world.
At the end of 2010 we set about hiring at speed a team of 20 who started in February 2011. We inducted them into the new way of creating content and then without much fanfare (and without any media spend on advertising/marketing) we launched on March 25.
The idea caught fire. In real time we tracked through Google Analytics how readers doubled virtually every day. Around the world others were intrigued with the project and asked if they could launch international versions.
Over the last 10 years, many other new digital entrants have come and gone but The Conversation has survived. That success is down to getting a few things right:
- We set the editorial bar high to ensure we created intelligent, reliable and easily understandable content to inform better public discussion and understanding.
- To address the dumbing down of information, we only allowed those with deep understanding of their subject area to contribute.
- We set about rebuilding trust through applying strict codes of conduct, transparency and full disclosure of all funding for The Conversation and the authors who contribute.
- We developed a funding model that would avoid a reliance on advertising. We introduced a tiered membership model (depending on size) whereby each university makes an annual contribution. To secure that meant knocking on the doors of all 39 university VCs. And though many held out for years, they all ended up joining. That has given The Conversation its funding security and independence.
As for the universities, The Conversation has been transformational in bringing over 20,000 academics into the public mainstream and ensuring their research gets huge readership and influence. It has also helped the sector better demonstrate its value to society (and taxpayers) at home, and globally build their profile and research.
Professor Andrew Jaspan is the founder of The Conversation and was the editor and CEO from 2010-2017. He is now at Monash University.Do you have an idea for a story?
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