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How The Conversation is slowly taking over the world

There’s no shortage of foreign news outlets setting up editions on our shores. Australia’s publishers have rarely gone the other way. The Conversation is a rare exception to this, but founder Andrew Jaspan insists he’s not after global domination.

There’s no shortage of foreign news outlets setting up editions on our shores. But Australia’s publishers have rarely gone the other way.

The Conversation was founded in 2011, and it’s already achieved something few others have. The Conversation UK launched in May last year and now employs 18 people. That team is growing fast and will soon eclipse the size of its Melbourne home operation.

Add a reporter in Jakarta, funded by a Myer Foundation grant, and The Conversation now operates in three countries, with contributing academics from Europe and America. By this measure, as well as by the size of its newsroom (which with 30 full-time staff is one of the largest digital newsrooms in the country), it’s been a roaring success. But founder and executive director Andrew Jaspan insists that while he’s open to expansion, it’s more complicated than simply choosing a market and charging in.

National expansions, he says, are “a bit of a headache” for him and his small team. Each national version of The Conversation operates as its own entity, with its own board and a responsibility to seek its own funding. What’s being exported is the model and the editorial principles — but offshoots get no start-up capital from the Australian mothership. Jaspan says he’s contacted regularly by journalists keen to bring The Conversation to their part of the world, but many don’t do so because of the need to fund themselves. “If we do expand, it’s not because we want The Conversation to be everywhere,” he said. “It’s because the digital world is a global world. Having websites everywhere means journalists all over the world working together. And that’s the exciting thing.”

But what exactly is Jaspan and his team exporting? The Conversation is a strange mix of content marketing and explanatory journalism, aimed at a general audience but funded largely by universities, which gain a higher public profile in return. Aside from research news, you’ll find few breaking news stories on The Conversation. Instead you’ll find explanatory journalism, or what its editors call “corrective journalism” — analytical pieces that make broader linkages to help readers make sense of the world. Former Age editor Jaspan says it was inspired by his time as an editor at Fairfax. “Every year at The Age, they demanded I take people out,” he told Crikey. “The result was a shallow, empty newsroom. The senior people left, replaced by others younger and cheaper. General reporters, in a day or a week, are far more productive. A health reporter might publish two or three stories in the time a generalist can do five or even 10. It’s all about getting stuff out, but understanding suffers because of it.”

The Conversation, Jaspan says, turns this model on its head. It has 12,000 contributors, each of them a specialist — academics writing on their area of expertise. People who aren’t experts aren’t allowed to write — even for a right of reply. “I have to tell you, we have a lot of people constantly complaining of being excluded,” Jaspan says. “Think pressure groups, think tanks, lobbyists. These organisations can want a right of reply — we say they can have it, as a comment. They can’t write, but everyone can contribute comments.” For a mainstream media that’s more likely to rely on principles of disclosure rather than limiting who can write, it’s a controversial attitude. Jaspan says it’s necessary to preserve the site’s reputation.

The few generalists at The Conversation are its editors: journalists who commission and help craft pieces submitted by academics into highly readable, shareable content. The Conversation has 1.6 million visitors a month, but its reach is greater than the number of people who go to the site. That’s because of its creative commons licensing model, which means, with proper attribution, anyone can republish its content for free and without seeking permission. According to external relations manager Debbie Dickinson, 9000 publishers have republished articles in The Conversation, ranging from large, prestigious broadsheets to indie blogs to Australia’s rural press. “And that’s great,” Jaspan said. “It means we’re supplementing, not competing,”

Explanatory journalism has become something of a global fad over the past year. Outfits like Vox and FiveThirtyEight in the United States have received hundreds of millions in venture capital funding to explore a new form of journalism - one that informs at a deeper level than the latest snippet of news usually does. The Conversation predates but fits into this model, though it funds itself entirely differently. It’s a not-for-profit, supported by its partner universities, as well as the Department of Education, which is giving it a $2 million grant over two years as a way to explain and make broadly accessible the $15 billion in university research the department also funds. The Conversation is held in a trust in perpetuity, meaning it cannot be sold. In the 2013 federal budget, the website also received tax-deductible donation status — the first Australian publisher to do so.

We’re not here to make money,” Jaspan said. “There’s no profit motive. The motive is getting good content out.”

Funding for this content comes from four sources. The 26 partner universities contribute around half the money that keeps The Conversation going. Another big chunk comes from corporate donations. The rest comes from public donations through an annual fundraising drive, as well as its jobs board. The Conversation’s Australian operation also receives annual fees from the UK to license back-end infrastructure. As The Conversation expands, Jaspan hopes this aspect of its funding will grow.

He also hopes he’s found one answer to the hollowing out of newsrooms. “I thought if the pool got any narrower, Australians would lose out. This is an attempt to put richer information into the public arena. There’s a plethora of answers and other players out there — we’re by no means the only one. But I think we’re sufficiently different, which is why it’s worked.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the Department of Education gives the Conversation $2 million a year. The true figure is $2 million over two years.

5
  • 1
    Alex
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Just gotta say, I love the The Conversation, and I make a monthly donation which I see as an inexpensive subscription. Might I also add, that all of these qualities and attributes apply equally to Crikey, the only difference being that my subscription is not tax deductible, which is fine. I have no issue at all with paying taxes.

  • 2
    Keith Thomas
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Is The Conversation really a success in the UK?

    One feature of articles published by The Conversation is the moderated discussion that follows the articles. Ms Robin did not refer to this, yet to readers it is important. Many readers skim the article, then look for the meat and the alternative perspectives in the comments.

    Articles published on the Australian site can get over a hundred responses, whereas many published in the UK get none.

  • 3
    Glen
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    So has Mr Jaspan mellowed from those days when Crikey would mercilessly malign him?

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    It is interesting to read Conversation pieces described as ‘explanatory journalism’. This is not how academic authors see them, but rather as disseminating the results of their research. Indeed, many articles report in popular terms research which does not arise from the news cycle.

    I agree with Keith Thomas: the Conversation UK does not seem successful at starting conversations.

  • 5
    aswann
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Selling research results is an important link in the funding cycle, which needs popular support for research to be felt by MPs, who get to decide whether to fund more researchers in the next budget. If research doesn’t seem to be happening no-one will notice when it’s gone. This is aside from the usefulness of having an academic commentariat on day to day news stories.

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