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Professor Sir Paul Curran, on six years as chair of The Conversation UK

City, University of London

Nearing the end of his second and final term, the founding chair of The Conversation UK considers the achievements of the project and looks at the role of universities in a rapidly changing news media environment.

Our universities are a national success story, ranking, along with those in the United States, among the best in the world. Their research power is phenomenal - they produce more high-quality research per pound invested, than universities in any other country. However, traditionally, little of this research or research-informed commentary reached the public who contributed to its production.

One of the reasons is a deep-seated academic mistrust of traditional journalism, a problem exacerbated by a rapid decline in newspaper sales, advertising revenue and consequentially, the number of specialist journalists. Often unable to resource the production of content anchored in research, print and broadcast media turned increasingly to media-friendly academic generalists and university press releases. That was the dispiriting position before the global economic downturn. Concerns about globalisation, immigration, technological change, automation and the “elite” who benefited, soon ran through the media and before long, feeling and emotion, rather than fact and rational assessment, became the currency of public discourse. Today the position is worse.

The idea

The rise in populism and declining trust in the establishment, including in universities and the experts within them, has been a topic of much recent public debate. It has been fuelled by the politicisation of undergraduate fees and a consequential media assault on university competence, intentions and value. With few willing to speak on their behalf, universities have found it increasingly difficult to communicate with the public and yet polling shows that trust in universities increases, once the public are reminded of what their experts do.

However, the relative decline in societal trust has been even greater for the UK’s media. Increasingly fragmented social media offerings, limited editorial control and “alternative versions of the truth”, coupled with the over-simplification, trivialisation and the coarsening of public debate in the search for readers, has undermined the media’s ability to serve the public good. The decline has led the unwary, who often find it difficult to believe what they read, to choose to read what they believe. The result? A reduction in our collective exposure to the views of others.

Into this increasingly dire situation came an idea, from the former editor of The Observer, Andrew Jaspan, of how to unlock academic content in a way that would provide daily research and research-based comment to a public hungry for trustworthy content. The idea was for an academic and a journalist to co-create a readable article, under the academic’s byline, that would be free to read and crucially, to republish through a Creative Commons licence. Moreover, universities, government, concerned citizens, trusts and foundations would realise that an informed public is a vital component of a civilised society and would fund its production.

An excellent idea alone was not enough and it took Andrew Jaspan’s entrepreneurial zeal and the farsightedness of the University of Melbourne to establish, with a founding group of Australian universities, the first edition of The Conversation in 2011. It was an idea whose time had come and the edition was soon producing a regular diet of high quality and trusted articles.

The London bureau

The launch of the UK edition in 2013, an important stage in the internationalisation of The Conversation, was made possible by the support of 20 founding UK universities and an impressive array of sponsors. They included UK research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation and The National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts. The task of establishing The Conversation UK (TCUK) fell to a dedicated executive team, journalists from leading national print and broadcast media keen to produce independent and serious journalism and a Board of Trustees with senior academic and media experience.

Academics wanted to write for TCUK, universities valued their articles for the exposure they brought and for the research impact they documented; and the media were quick to seize on the opportunity to republish well-written and trustworthy articles without cost.

Now, the majority of TCUK’s articles are republished, unaltered, in major national and international print and broadcast media. Often, university research reported in today’s The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Daily Mail, or on the BBC news, for example, was on the TCUK website yesterday. International outlets such as The Washington Post, Le Monde, New Zealand Herald, Scientific American and CNN also regularly feature some of the 15 or so articles TCUK publishes each day.

Two events, during TCUK’s first year, confirmed the value of the idea to the UK’s national media. The first was the Somerset Levels flood. Repetitive national coverage of sandbagged doors, small boats and rescue workers was soon augmented with informed The Conversation coverage of the hydrology and climatology of the area, the practicalities of dredging and medieval farming practices that depended on regular flooding. The second was the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, en route to Beijing. Similar international coverage of personal grief, a missing plane and conspiracy theories was quickly augmented by The Conversation’s background stories on physical oceanography, aeronautical engineering, Malaysian history and geo-location using Doppler shift of signals from aircraft engines.

Free from the vagaries of advertising revenue, TCUK has had the financial stability it needed to grow steadily to its current editorial team of 19. Over the past five and a half years it has produced, from an office on the roof of City, University of London, more than 20,000 articles by more than 12,000 academic authors. TCUK is now supported by 80 universities and is the most popular means of getting academic research and research-based comment into the UK media. This popularity is growing. Most months over the past year, more than 3 million unique visitors have engaged with The Conversation content produced in the UK. Importantly, an average month sees more than 10 million people view the content via republication. These readers are relatively young members of the public, with almost half aged between 18 and 34 and over four in five working outside of academia.

TCUK is a membership organisation and strives to provide an excellent service to participating universities through, for example, training for thousands of academic authors each year. It also continues to innovate with new services, such as topical conferences and fact checking and new products, such as video, podcasts and animations.

The Conversation’s global audience of around 40 million readers a month is increasing rapidly. Editions in Australia and the UK have been followed by editions in the US in 2014, Africa (sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and France in 2015, Canada and Indonesia in 2017 and Spain in 2018.

The right time

Universities in the UK are going through a difficult time and this is unlikely to abate in the near future. The sector knows that in its drive to rebuild public trust it must not engage in tedious media spats about politically distorted details and opinions based on feeling but rise above the fray and do what universities do best. That is to seek truth, create and disseminate new knowledge in ways that that support the economy, transform lives and contribute to the global good of society.

TCUK is trusted and provides academics with a powerful voice, via mainstream print and broadcast media, in ways that generate admiration rather than admonishment. The idea has emerged, not only as a means of unlocking academic content and stimulating evidence-based public debate, but as one of the most powerful tools we have to rebuild societal trust in our great universities. I am extremely proud of those who championed, worked for and had faith in the idea; and deeply honoured to have played my part in its realisation.

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