The Media Column: The Conversation is capitalising on ‘explanatory journalism’

Around 20,000 academics globally have written for The Conversation - a publication currently planning on expanding worldwide

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The Independent Online

Is the BBC’s dashing Ross Poldark a radical redistributionist or merely David Cameron in disguise? It’s a question currently being debated in a digital publication written entirely by the world’s leading academics that is now viewed by 20 million people a month.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, opened the great Poldark debate in an article on The Conversation, a website with a global reach that has capitalised on online demand for “explanatory journalism” penned by specialists.

Founded by Andrew Jaspan, a former editor of The Observer and the Melbourne Age, The Conversation seeks out the leading experts on the day’s breaking stories and key issues.

Housed in a coop-like, penthouse office on the seventh floor of City University’s campus building in east London, 15 editorial staff are in regular contact with academics at 41 UK universities who have agreed to feed The Conversation’s mission to deliver rolling news analysis and commentary.

Around 20,000 academics globally have written for The Conversation, which has editorial teams in Melbourne – tapping into 39 Australian universities – and the US, who update the site around the clock. Expansion plans for Europe, Asia and Africa are under discussion.

The Conversation is free from the commercial pressures that often require web publications to focus their efforts on racking up advertising revenues through “clickbait” content, aimed at maximising audiences. Despite a “quality audience” readership profile and an audience last month of 10 million generated by the London newsroom alone, The Conversation takes no advertising and is a not-for-profit venture. It is entirely paid for by the higher-education sector, with contributions from partner universities, and bodies including the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales, the Scottish Funding Council and the Wellcome Trust.

However, The Conversation’s content can be republished for free under a “creative commons” licence. In a social-media landscape, where sharing information and knowledge is becoming the norm, articles from the site have been republished by organisations including The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian and The Independent.

Disillusionment with the future prospects for print inspired Mr Jaspan to set up The Conversation.

“I had to sack 30 people at The Age,” he explains. “We were losing specialists in areas like science and health. But I believed there was still an appetite for journalism with depth. And I really didn’t want to go into PR. I had a discussion with the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University and I realised that the next stage for journalism could be a global newsroom in which everyone is a specialist.”

The Conversation launched in Australia in 2011, with the UK operation opening two years later.

When Ukraine is in turmoil, or Ebola threatens, it can access a global network of academic experts for instant analysis. The respected elections guru John Curtice, from the University of Strathclyde, was on hand to deliver his assessment during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign.

“The commentary has to be informed,” Jaspan says. “We don’t allow think-tanks or people pushing an ideological position to contribute.”

“Explanatory journalism” sites, often using “data-visualisation” graphics to dig deeper into policy and economic issues, are now battling for digital eyeballs. Political blogger Ezra Klein left The Washington Post to start Vox, whose tag line is to “understand the news”. Polling expert Nate Silver launched the 538 site to offer his own, statistic-based political analysis and election forecasts. And BuzzFeed, which rose to fame through its “listicles”, now publishes regular extended explanatory pieces. Digital publishers see value in sites that explain the news, not merely break it.

“The difference is [that] Vox is funded by venture capitalists whose ultimate aim is to flip the site,” Jaspan says. “We’re not for sale and we’re not run for profit. We don’t take advertising, so we’re not competing with traditional newspapers and magazines.

“We see ourselves as a resource for other media. We know the Radio 4 Today programme uses our expert list for contributors and that’s fine.”

But what’s in The Conversation for the professors, who aren’t being paid for their journalistic efforts?

“Academics are increasingly expected to make a contribution back to society through public engagement,” Jaspan says. “It also helps them get preferment. Previously, they wrote for peer-reviewed journals. Now they enjoy writing for a wider audience and getting feedback from Conversation readers.”

Academia could prove a saviour for struggling print publications with a history. Tribune, the left-wing weekly magazine, has faced constant threats of closure since the late 1990s. Now under editor Chris McLaughlin, a former political journalist, the publication has achieved financial stability by selling its archive of articles by luminaries such as George Orwell, literary editor from 1943 until his death in 1950, to American universities.

Jaspan hopes to build a relationship with every major university in the world. Advancing into China, however, presents certain problems.

The Conversation’s daily newsletter is blocked in China. The principles of academic freedom are still a grey area there, so there’s a discussion to be had.”

Trinity Mirror could be the Express’s saviour

Is Trinity Mirror a serious bidder for Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers?

Beset by redundancies, journalists at the Express titles sensed salvation could be around the corner following Trinity Mirror’s confirmation that it was “evaluating certain of (the Desmond-owned) Northern & Shell’s assets”.

A combined Trinity Mirror/Express could in theory control a daily national newspaper circulation of just under two million, giving increased scale to advertisers, although the Daily Star titles might be excluded.

News and sports desks could be merged to feed the titles, which would provide a balanced, left-right political portfolio to the largely debt-free Trinity Mirror.

Mr Desmond has been sounding out buyers for the papers for months. The £100m price is less than the £125m he paid for the papers in 2000. Starved of resources, they still return millions of pounds each year to the proprietor’s pocket.

Although the pre-Desmond Express flirted with New Labour, its current, Ukip-friendly incarnation will grate with many at Trinity Mirror, whose share price rose following the speculation.

Cameron’s hopes for an electoral buzz

With the 18- to 35-year-old vote so elusive for mainstream politicians, it’s understandable that David Cameron agreed to sit down for a chat with the website he calls “the Buzzfeed” last week.

The interview, conducted by BuzzFeed News UK deputy editor Jim Waterson, produced some lively exchanges on internet surveillance and transgender rights, but the live audience for Cameron’s chat was estimated at just 10,000 people. That figure is greatly inferior to the number of 18- to 35-year-olds who are expected to tune in to the seven-way multi-party debate that Cameron has agreed to participate in next month.

Conducted in a Q&A format, it might not have excited BuzzFeed UK’s 20 million unique visitors sufficiently to provide the social media breakthrough this election is predicted to deliver. But it was still a coup for BuzzFeed and will cement its credibility with advertisers.

Having escaped unscathed, Cameron is now flirting with another new media upstart. Lynton Crosby, his election strategist, is believed to have made contact with the LAD Bible, the 12th most-viewed website in the UK, which makes BuzzFeed look like The Economist.

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