The Australian online media space is bracing for a brave new entrant, with former Age editor Andrew Jaspan’s The Conversation website set to launch in February under the managing editorship of ABC Media Watch researcher and ex-Crikey tsar Misha Ketchell.

Crikey can reveal the planned $8.4 million project — a news and commentary portal penned by academics — recently secured its short-term financial future after fears of a funding shortfall threatened to leave it stillborn.

Seed money totalling $1.3 million had already been sourced from the Group of Eight universities, the CSIRO, the Victorian government and the National Australia Bank, with personal contributions from former Yahoo executive and Conversation publisher Jack Rejtman. A spokesperson for tertiary education minister Chris Evans confirmed this morning that the federal government had recently kicked in $500,000 to match Victoria’s amount. That figure would increase by a further $1 million subject to an “independent review” of the project.

Media reports last month suggested the project was in danger of falling over after August’s federal election put a brake on Canberra’s purse strings. But that hurdle has now been cleared, paving the way for a serious pitch for eyeballs starting next year.

The good news on the cash flow front came as the experienced Ketchell was poached to oversee the site’s operations and hire five or six commissioning editors in areas including society, culture, health and technology, according to several sources. The Conversation will graft daily news, commentary and video content from the nation’s scholars, who are sometimes reluctant to hold forth on their area of expertise. That content will then be replicated for free across the web.

“The contracts are ready go. They’ve already got a few people already working there and a logo and letterhead all prepared,” said one source, who named the “go live” date as February 1. A newsroom has been leased at commercial rates in the University of Melbourne’s Lincoln Square development and the project also reportedly has a version of the website ready to load with content.

Neither Jaspan nor Ketchell, who served for four years in the Melbourne-based Media Watch chair, were willing to comment when contacted by Crikey.

But Michael Gawenda, who heads the University’s neighbouring Centre for the Advanced Study of Journalism, was more forthcoming, questioning whether Jaspan’s baby had sufficient interest and cash to succeed.

The Conversation as far as I understand it will not be a journalism website. Transforming the work of academics into accessible content is challenging and I find it hard to see the readership for this, even among academics. And I find it hard to see where the advertising support will come from,” he said.

“I assume The Conversation will have to break-even some time — the universities and the state and federal government support will not be open-ended.”

Gawenda said the content model, which involves academics writing in a timely manner on issues in the news, could also encounter problems: “My experience of academics tells me they won’t be easily persuaded to write for The Conversation — apart from the usual suspects who are already regularly in the media.

“I believe that universities ought to be involved in producing journalism, public interest journalism in particular. That’s what is starting to happen in the US. That’s what I hope will happen in Australia.”

A spokesperson for the University of Melbourne told Crikey it had made a “modest financial contribution to the project, commensurate with that provided by university partners and other organisations”: “We join others in supporting The Conversation because Australia needs more voices in public discussion from the university and research sector on policy and research.”

It confirmed it has provided The Conversation with its Lincoln Square HQ for a fee.

It appears Jaspan and Ketchell have patched up their differences following a notorious exchange in 2005, in which the then-Age editor lambasted Crikey (Ketchell was editing at the time) for publishing leaks from inside The Age newsroom detailing redundancies. Eight months earlier, Ketchell reported on an incident where Jaspan read the riot act to staff, allegedly threatening to “frog march” any journalist from the building that emerged as a Crikey deepthroat.

*Disclosure: Andrew Crook was informally approached for a job at The Conversation, but no substantive details were divulged by the website’s representative or reported on here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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