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.

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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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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