After five fantastic years at The Conversation, my colleague and co-founder Max Landry recently left the project to pursue a new challenge with a health technology business. He will be missed by all of us. We thank him, and wish him well. Here, he reflects on his time as Chief Executive of The Conversation in the UK.–Stephen Khan, Editor
We had a clear purpose when we launched The Conversation in the UK. It was to use research, knowledge and insight from academics to create well-written, concise and high-quality journalism that the public would want to read. We aimed to build on the foundations laid by The Conversation in Australia, where the concept had its inception, and spread it across the globe. But how would we fund it? We were going to help universities inform the public, and we hoped they would be willing to finance the project.
We had to convince universities that we could deliver much bigger audiences for the work of their academics and challenge the often-held view that academics don’t want to share their work.
Ahead of launch, we were awarded charitable status, and with that calling card we felt confident enough to approach major funders including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Research Councils, Wellcome Trust, Nuffield Foundation and NESTA. They backed us on the basis that we could build a sustainable business model based on universities funding the project. City, University of London, offered to house us and a further 12 universities – our Founding Partners – agreed to invest in us. We were off.
Word of mouth works wonders in a sector such as Higher Education, and it quickly became clear that there was a huge appetite for academics to take part; enthused, no doubt, by the fact that the average article was getting more than 10,000 reads, thanks to our free-to-republish model. We were helping academics reach large audiences, and mainstream news sites were able to access great content written by experts for free.
Nearly five years on and we have the support of more than 75 universities in the UK and beyond. Our team has grown from seven to 25, and we are in the process of expanding our network across Europe. This enables us to tap into leading research universities who want their academics to reach out into the English speaking world, while creating genuine opportunities for collaboration with colleagues around the globe. Universities in Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland have joined our growing network. Work is underway to expand into The Netherlands and Germany. Since we began operating, sister editions have launched in the US, France, Africa, Canada and Indonesia, creating a genuinely global network of editors.
More than 10,000 UK-based academics have now written for The Conversation. Readership averages between seven and ten million per month. Articles published in the UK regularly appear on our sister sites, giving academic authors truly international exposure. The Conversation is now seen as a platform for genuinely informed public debate. However, this is just the beginning for an organisation brimming with talented people and with access to some of the smartest minds, from the most distinguished institutions in the world.
It has been a great privilege to be part of a project now recognised as a success, but what lessons can I pass on to my successors? The most obvious is that The Conversation must continue to evolve, and not take its privileged position for granted. We grew rapidly because we understood the wider media and the rich potential within universities. We believe we enrich these two environments. On a personal note, I have come to understand that if as an organisation you offer something genuinely useful, you behave with integrity and you deliver what you promise, then you can be rewarded with trust. In time that can turn into loyalty and with that you have a solid foundation.
What’s next for The Conversation? That remains to be seen and anything is possible. One thing is for certain, though – people really do want to hear from experts.
Max Landry co-founded The Conversation in the UK and served as its Chief Executive from June 2014 to January 2018