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Feb. 5, 2016, 9:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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The Conversation expands across the U.S., freshly funded by universities and foundations

The news site that uses academics as reporters and journalists as editors now boasts 19 paying member universities and is opening up posts in Atlanta (and maybe in the Bay Area).

January was a good month for The Conversation U.S. (TCUS), the American edition of the nonprofit site first launched in Australia as a platform seeking to offer in-depth, reliable takes on the news cycle.

TCUS saw 540,000 unique visitors to its main site last month, but because all of its pieces are published under a Creative Commons license and thus can be freely republished at other outlets, it’s reached an audience of 5.5 million. (For instance, this piece on Woody Guthrie and Donald Trump’s father was republished on The Huffington Post, Newsweek, and other sites.)

The Conversation U.S. also recently announced 19 public and private research universities across the U.S. as its “founding partners.” These new member universities pay a yearly fee and get access to a comprehensive analytics dashboard that details the reach of a story written by someone affiliated with that university. Smaller universities on the founding partners list pay $20,000 a year, and the larger research universities pay $35,000. Boston University, which has been supporting TCUS since its launch in 2014 by providing office space to an initial team of nine staffers, is now an official paying partner.

Since The Conversation’s editorial strategy relies on daily call-outs to institutions across the U.S., direct pitches from the schools themselves, and commissioning, will this university membership system inevitably show preference to coverage of research coming out of those 19 founding partner universities, or to pieces authored by faculty at those schools?

“The bottom line is, we’re an editorially independent publication, we have a charter that outlines how we operate and our procedures, and our editing is independent, so every decision we make is made from that perspective,” The Conversation’s U.S. managing editor Maria Balinska said. “But as with any partnership, you’re going to be developing a relationship, getting a sense of what’s going on at the universities we’re partnering with, getting a sense of what kinds of research they’re doing. We’re going to be able to have a front seat at what they’re investigating.”

She added, the overall editorial process will remain the same — pitching, call-outs, and commissioned pieces — and that the editors will have a “special relationship and a close one” to the 19 new founding partners, but will continue to work with other universities, too.

The Conversation team has moved to a new coworking office space in downtown Boston, and received a new infusion of foundation money through the Rita Allen Foundation, the Simons Foundation, and the Knight Foundation (Knight is also a supporter of Nieman Lab).

A $120,000 grant from Knight is supporting dissemination of The Conversation’s content to local and regional media through a pilot with Community Newspaper Holdings. A project manager is on board to explore how The Conversation’s content might work best in CNHI papers across the country.

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The new influx of funding is going toward hiring new editors to help expand the site’s coverage, particularly in the areas of science, health, and medicine, and politics and society (given the fervor of the 2016 campaign, a much-needed hire). Now, TCUS is looking to build out its own little bureau in the South by hiring a couple of editors based in Atlanta (Georgia State University, one of the founding partners, has offered space). The donated space is a plus, Balinska said, but Atlanta is also an interesting hub.

“It’s a combination of things: The CDC is headquartered down there, there’s Georgia State’s School of Public Health, there’s the Morehouse School of Medicine, there’s Emory,” she said. “There’s a real concentration of work in that area. Atlanta is also a really interesting anchor politically. We felt that having someone in the South, who would still be working with universities across the country but would commission stories sitting in a different place, was an important perspective to have.”

TCUS may also be looking westward: At the moment, it’s figuring out space for an editor based in the Bay Area (conveniently, the University of California is another founding partner), TCUS director of university relations and development Bruce G. Wilson said. When we spoke last summer, Wilson was more cautious about the organization’s reliance on foundation money, but with additional grants coming in and continued foundation interest, “now we see ourselves in the long term being a foundation and university-funded operation.”

Photo of conversation bubbles by Marc Wathieu used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2016, 9:50 a.m.
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