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May 19, 2011, 11 a.m.

The Conversation, the startup Australian news site, wants to bring academic expertise to breaking news

What would happen if you had close to 1,000 academics available to contribute to the breaking news cycle? Would it change the course, and the discourse, of news?

Andrew Jaspan thinks it will.

Jaspan, formerly an editor at The Age, the Melbourne-based newspaper, founded The Conversation, an Australian nonprofit news site, in order to combat problems that are just as present in Oz as in other news environments: shrinking newsrooms and a sound-bite-driven broadcast culture.

But The Conversation’s approach is a novel one: While the site uses professional journalists as its editors, it uses academics to provide the content for the site. The goal, says the site’s charter, is to provide “a fact-based and editorially-independent forum” that will “unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems” and “give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.”

As Jaspan explained: “Our model is not so much to use the university as a source of news, though we do report research findings as news. What we really try to do is use academics and researchers to analyze live news events, like the killing of Osama Bin Laden through to the Fukiyama earthquakes or whatever [other] complex news stories…. We are using people who are experts to give greater depth to the understanding of complex and live issues.

Expertise and relevance

The Conversation offers a number of surprises to those looking for a more in-depth approach to issues in the news:

  • Academics writing about the “now,” within the news cycle, in areas related to their expertise
  • Taking experts to the people, instead of selectively filtering their expertise. Want the big voice on climate change? Then read what he or she has to say directly — rather than through a few sample quotes in a story
  • Readability. The site is set — mechanically, within its content management system — to make the stories easy (enough) to read. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability index (set to the reading level of a 16-year-old for maximum readability), the CMS can actually tell academics when they’ve veered into jargon…and an editor can help steer them back
  • Real-time news updates filed twice a day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon
  • Coverage of business and the economy, environment and energy, health and medicine, politics and society, and science and technology

And, as the site’s tagline promises, “academic rigour, journalistic flair.”

As an academic myself, I was a bit skeptical of the idea. After all, some of the most bombastic and opinionated folks reside in academia — so I wasn’t sure how exactly Jaspan’s site would deliver on a promise to provide more in-depth coverage without the rhetorical flourishes that often seem to come with American academic publishing. And what about the political implications? As a group, after all, academics tend to be more liberal than the population at large.

Jaspan had three counterpoints to my concerns:

First, “every author has to fill out a profile, so the reader knows who the person is and their education. And there is the additional requirement of a disclosure of any potential conflicts which might color their judgment.” Second, in response to the political question — after noting that my academics-are-liberal assertion might be a bit loaded — Jaspan replied that what The Conversation is ultimately doing is putting people in touch with “academics who are usually better informed than the general public because of their depth of knowledge and their sense of the complexity of the issue.”

Third, and most important, Jaspan sees The Conversation, true to its name, as leading to public debate. “One of the key things we want to do with a public-facing media channel is to make sure we have a range of views on something like the execution of Osama Bin Ladin, and that we have different interpretations of what happened and whether or not the means in which it was done were judicial.” The main goal, though: “We want to surprise our readers. We don’t want to give them the usual explanations, alternative insights, and viewpoints — and that will lead to lively conversation.”

Jaspan’s backers come from both the nonprofit and for-profit realms. The Conversation is backed by Ernst & Young, among other corporate supporters. And from academia, he has drawn on some of the top Australian research universities, in addition to Australia’s Department of Education. To find the academics, Jaspan and his staff did a “census” of academics based on their areas of expertise. Then, by word of mouth, they asked participating academics to recommend colleagues who would make good contributors to the site.

Immediacy and impact

But, again, the skeptical academic in me had another question: Why on earth would a busy academic take time away from publishing (ahem) to write for The Conversation?

Part of the answer has to do with Australia’s current approach to university promotion. Research and teaching form part of the core methods of evaluation, but a third arm of assessment is an academic’s quality of public engagement and social impact. According to Jaspan, Australian universities are putting a new stress on the third.

And since The Conversation gives each writer a dashboard to measure his or her own metrics, the academic can then use those data for his or her professional promotion and evaluation, actually measuring his or her social impact in a quantifiable way for university administrators — based on, say, retweets or traffic for a particular story. The academics don’t get paid for their work. Instead, though, they might pick up speaking engagements or consulting gigs.

There’s also the instant-gratification factor. While traditional academic publishing generally makes academics wait a year (or more) to see something in print, Jaspan said that some academics relish being able to turn something around in two hours.

Currently, The Conversation is still in beta form, with Jaspan looking to add more audience engagement and commenting features, as well as richer multimedia. Jaspan estimates that the site is getting about 120,000 to 150,000 visitors each month — with those metrics rising by “10 percent a week.”

But Jaspan isn’t seeing, or hoping for, an audience purely composed of academic eggheads. “This is not a site for academics,” he notes. “This is not a site for university sector. This is a site for every day public discourse.”

POSTED     May 19, 2011, 11 a.m.
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