On writing for The Conversation

As columns go, this is definitely at the more self-indulgent end of the spectrum. In my defence, I’ve been given at least lukewarm encouragement by one of the editors. However, those hoping for penetrating analysis on issues of the day might want to look elsewhere.

The ostensible justification for this bout of introspection and reflection is that this is the 50th one of these I’ve written since I was first asked to take part. I have to say that I was initially sceptical. As someone who prefers hard copies of things (that’s why they’re called papers, after all) and who doesn’t even own an iPad, I rather condescendingly regarded anything that was exclusively online as unlikely to be serious.

Despite the fact that most of the material produced for TC is actually written by them, quite a few academics still look down their noses about these sorts of outlets. In part this reflects the hierarchy of academic publishing: established journals with hard copies and long-waiting lists are the preferred venues. One of the problems with online outfits is they often don’t have ‘serious’ reputations and there’s no real limit to what they can put up.

Nevertheless, I’ve become an unabashed convert and enthusiast for a variety of reasons, not all of which are flattering or unique to me, I suspect. First, I’m big on instant gratification. Dash it off, send it in, and ten minutes later people are reading it. Perhaps not as many as you might hope at times, but not everyone shares my obsessions. Rather deflatingly, my two most read posts were reviews of other people’s books.

Second, and unlike more ‘scholarly’ outlets, the absence of a pregnant pause between submission and publication means that what you write isn’t redundant by the time it appears. For those of us who write about current events this is especially frustrating. What seemed like a novel, even mildly original, insight when you wrote it, can be a hackneyed cliché by the time it appears in print.

The great thing about The Conversation is the chance to comment on things as they unfold. Having said that, this may not always be a good idea. There is the possibility of wearing out one’s welcome and devaluing the currency.

Between ourselves, I fear my Vice Chancellor thinks I may have crossed the line between contributing useful, informed commentary on matters of public interest, and becoming an opinionated windbag who can’t shut up. Even a modestly proportioned soapbox has its dangers.

The other good – and bad – thing about The Conversation is the audience feedback. Thrillingly, I’ve had my first death threat. At least that’s what I think it was. The grammar and spelling left something to be desired, so it’s a bit hard to be certain. I resisted the temptation to send back a corrected copy with some stylistic suggestions in track changes. Best not to push one’s luck. Either way, as an all important ‘impact factor’ goes, it’s pretty hard to beat.

The community of readers and commentators is one of the more attractive and surprising aspects of the whole TC experience. Not only are many of the responses very informed, thoughtful and frequently far longer than the original post, but they’re wildly varied in their ideological orientations, too.

At a guess, I’d say the audience is generally left of centre, but I’ve been accused of being an apologist for the US, a mindless critic of the US, naïve, callous, and a war monger (I did take exception to that). Don’t tell the VC, but at least one commentator suggested I was a ‘disgrace’ to my university and couldn’t understand how I was still in a job. Given this was the same chap who thought Murdoch was named in honour of, and financed by, Rupert, perhaps we can discount his views.

Another of The Conversation’s attractions, from the perspective of authors, at least, is that the stuff we write occasionally gets reproduced in other, sometimes surprising outlets. This dramatically increases the number of readers and possible impact, of course.

Something I wrote on the purchase of the F35 fighter generated quite a few – mainly congratulatory – emails and even a couple of phone calls after it appeared in the West Australian. I was reunited with a long-lost chum and made a new one as a consequence as well; not a bad outcome for a couple of hours’ work.

That’s about as tangible as the rewards get though. No, we don’t get paid by TC for our labours, or by the newspapers who pick up the free copy. But as academics we’re used to that. We’ve been running, refereeing, writing for and editing journals for the plutocrats of publishing for years. More fool us. Free labour doesn’t get much more skilled and valuable than that. And then we’re lucky if anyone reads it.

At least with The Conversation we know how many people are reading and often get to hear what they think about our efforts. Long may it continue.