It has been 6 years since The Conversation started with a seemingly radical idea. Pair journalists, who know how to write and communicate to the general public, with academics who are experts in a specific area, and get them to produce analysis and opinion on a range or important, or simply interesting, topics. Then, allow that story to be republished by anyone, anywhere, for free to help the article reach the widest possible audience. Finally, to each story, add a certificate declaring any potential conflicts of interest that the commenting academic might have, along with evidence of their expertise in that area.
This was the unique proposition that founder Andrew Jaspan, former editor of The Age, developed out of consulting work that he was doing with University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis.
Together with Jack Rejtman, Jaspan developed a plan to raise money from state and federal government and university partners to develop the online site that would be, as Jaspan said, “dedicated to promoting the world of new thinking, ideas and debate”. The initial university and research partners were the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the Australian National University, The University of Western Australia and the University of Technology Sydney, and CSIRO.
An unseen but essential ingredient of The Conversation is the web platform that was custom built by one of Jaspan’s first recruits, web developer Mike Morris. The software that runs The Conversation is as novel as the idea of the site itself and deserves its own story. But the success of the site owes a great deal to the way The Conversation platform allows collaborative editing, publishing and provides a wealth of statistics and data on readership.
The early team was led by Misha Ketchell, who had been working at ABC TV’s Media Watch and before that as editor of Crikey. With editors assigned to a number of different subject areas, they were tasked with recruiting academics to write about certain topics which later turned into allowing anyone with a university or research affiliation to pitch an idea.
This is where I came into the picture being asked by the science and technology editor at the time, Paul Dalgarno, to write an article about the “Battle of the browsers”, a story about how Internet Explorer was losing its dominance on the desktop. That article was read/viewed by 571 people.
Exactly six years later and this is my 400th article, the sum of which have totalled 4.8 million views/reads, a testament more to the reach of The Conversation than my insightful writing and commentary.
The Conversation today is visited by 3.8 million unique visitors a month with 49% of its traffic from Australia and the rest from around the world. Separate sites with their own editorial staff and links into local university and research establishments have now been set up in the UK, USA, France, and Africa, with a version of The Conversation dedicated to global issues.
The republishing however is the real driver behind its full impact. Any site can take an article, copy it, and republish it on their own site. All content is available, for free, under a Creative Commons license. So whilst The Conversation has a monthly audience of 3.7 million users, this reaches 35 million a month through republication.
Through this mechanism, 40,000+ authors are made available to journalists, media sites, and the public, around the world.
The impact on the media landscape has been enormous. Academics who struggled to get their work noticed or even read have suddenly had exposure, to sometimes millions, of readers. Journalists at organisations like the BBC and ABC now routinely scan The Conversation for story ideas or experts to comment on all forms of media, including republishing articles.
Where a journalist would, in the past, have to contact their local university and ask for an expert to comment on a topic, they could now go direct to someone who had been writing about that specific subject. But more importantly, the writing on The Conversation, and the declaration of expertise and conflicts of interest, has set a benchmark for professional journalists to replicate. The Conversation has set clear standards about citing sources and providing links and above all, not pursuing an editorial agenda set by politics or owners.
But it isn’t just journalists who benefited from The Conversation. Academics have had exposure within governments and businesses. Staff in these organisations would never read an academic paper but would read a Conversation article about that research, especially if it had been republished in their favourite news outlet. For many, including myself, it has been far easier, and far more effective, to establish credentials in the public sphere after writing in The Conversation, than publishing in academic journals.
As journalism struggles with the advent of “fake news” and highly partisan reporting, on highly partisan sites, the importance of having analysis and opinion that is referenced, with conflicts of interest declared, and from an expert source has become more important than ever before.
Clearly I have a strong vested interest in The Conversation succeeding. I have benefited personally from being able to write in The Conversation and I work for an organisation that is one of the founding partners of the site. However, I think the writing of the 40,000+ authors with the work of The Conversation staff worldwide, and Andrew Jaspan in particular, stands on its own merit and is there for all readers to form their own, informed, opinions.