In a basement at the Boston University College of Communication, several editors are typing away furiously, crowded together in a space the size of a small conference room.They are the editors of the U.S. version of The Conversation, a nonprofit site first launched in Australia in 2011 as a digital platform for analysis and commentary on breaking news issues, written exclusively by academics. The Australian version of the site was founded by Andrew Jaspan, former editor of the Melbourne-based The Age, as an antidote to shrinking newsrooms churning out bite-sized takes on news. It has since expanded into the United Kingdom as well as Africa (where, as in the U.S., it is still a “pilot”). All four editions of The Conversation have their own editorial mastheads, advisory boards, and content.
“It’s a daily newsroom with editors, all of whom are journalists, and the reporters are all academics,” said The Conversation’s U.S. managing editor Maria Balinska, whose journalistic resume includes two decades with the BBC and work on a now-shuttered global news startup. (She was also a 2010 Nieman Fellow.) “We take the news agenda as our starting point, then go to academics to provide distinctive, original, and evidence-based context to the news cycle.”
The Conversation prides itself on tough editing and serious content: “Academic rigor, journalistic flair” is its tagline. Its editors, many of them longtime reporters (previous employers include outlets from The Guardian to the Times of India), work one-on-one with academics to refine everything from story structure to headline. The writers must be associated with an academic institution to write for any of The Conversation’s four sites — no independent researchers or no full-time journalists allowed — and they aren’t paid.
Stories on The Conversation U.S. (TCUS) come from three different channels, Balinska said (though editorial processes are similar across all four editions). The first is by commission: “We have our morning meeting, just like any other publication; we do our research, find the people” who can comment on the leading news of the day. TCUS also emails requests for comment to a few hundred institutions across the U.S. Finally, as awareness of the site grows in the higher-ed world, more academics are pitching it directly.
Writers for The Conversation use the site’s proprietary CMS, which includes a feature that alerts them to the readability of their sentences in an attempt to steer them away from jargon. But the writers have the final say over everything from copy to headline to the choice of photographs. That can lead to a lot of back-and-forth, the editors at TCUS told me, but it also reassures contributors that The Conversation is a “safe space” where “they’re not going to put out something they don’t want to.” Academics can be particularly sensitive to mischaracterization of their work, and there’s always plenty of wrestling over how to “punch up the language” of a piece and settle on an accurate yet enticing headline.
“We want them to give descriptions and context, not just the results of their research,” said Maggie Villiger, the U.S. science and technology editor. “We want them to go behind the scenes of how they reached their results.”
“Some pieces start closer to the finish line and we don’t have to do too much,” said Jessie Schanzle, the U.S. associate editor for health and medicine (and a former Nieman Foundation staffer). “For some people, we need to lead them around a bit.”
Realistically, The Conversation can’t follow every breaking news item. Its first-day pieces read more like in-depth, second-day stories, though it still tries to stay on top of the news cycle. It offers up an academic spin on everything from the Tom Brady Deflategate scandal (a Texas A&M law professor said it was a power play by the NFL) to the arming of university cops in the wake of the Samuel Dubose shooting (from a professor who studies campus policing).
For breaking or ongoing news, The Conversation editors line up a “scholars’ panel” of several people who can each provide a shorter perspective quickly.
On many measures, the site is hitting its goal of reaching beyond the academic sphere. The Conversation has hit 2.2 million unique visitors worldwide, according to most recent statistics provided by executive director of university relations and development Bruce G. Wilson and editorial liaison Ari Fertig. All four editions of The Conversation publish under a Creative Commons license, and TCUS stories have gotten an estimated 28 million reads through Creative Commons republication since its launch. The U.S. edition has certainly been pulling its weight: stories that originated there reached about 83 million people out of the total 208 million readers worldwide the four sites together boast, or almost 40 percent of the estimated overall readership.
Reader demographics still “are pretty much what you’d expect”: The Conversation’s readers are mostly college-educated residents of urban areas who also read other news sites. (One benefit of this type of readership: “Our comments tend to have very, very few trolls,” Balinska said.)
The site also just received a grant from the Knight Foundation to support the dissemination of its content to local and regional media via a pilot project with Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (Full disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)
The Conversation’s stories have been picked up and reposted by outlets from The Washington Post to Time to Quartz (we’ve also run a few of them). Scholars’ panels work particularly well for republication, Balinska said.
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Through at least its first year, TCUS is entirely foundation-funded with no advertising, but its next move is to launch university memberships, according to its university relations director Wilson. And while the initial infusion of foundation money hasn’t dried up and many others are interested in funding the site, Wilson said that in the future, the site is “going to be very dependent on university membership.”
As paying members, participating universities will get some branding on articles written by their professors, and within The Conversation’s site they’ll be listed as “members and funders.” Early participants may be designated as “founding members” with seats on the editorial advisory board.
Member universities will also get access to a special analytics dashboard where they can check the reach of a faculty member’s article. The dashboard will show tweets, comments, countries the readership represents, article republishers, the number of readers per article by faculty member, and other overall institutional metrics.
“For university members, this is instant gratification,” Wilson said. “It’s not just a quote in a story, it’s them in the world.”
This university membership model has already taken off for the Australia and U.K. editions of The Conversation, Wilson said, and the board has approved the model to officially launch in the U.S. later this fall (though a few universities have already committed verbally as partners).
Balinska emphasized that this is not “pay to play” and that The Conversation will remain an independent site, with contributors’ affiliations and conflicts listed prominently on every article.
“It’s the idea of supporting a public good, which is promoting public scholarship and public engagement,” she said. “Universities are talking a lot now about how to engage the public and showing the public why they’re of value. The Conversation provides one clear way of telling that story.”