ARTICLE | The Conversation and a model towards the future of journalism

Andrew Jaspan, Executive Director and Editor, The Conversation 

This essay is based on a talk I gave  in the lead-up to the Sydney Festival of Democracy on 19 August 2014. Professor John Keane, of the Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney, asked me to address the problems facing the future of journalism and in that context The Conversation, a website I founded in 2011. The talk focuses on the context and origination of the idea, and the subsequent development of a new methodology for journalism.

The Conversation and a model towards the future of journalism

The Conversation was an idea in search of a name until I met Tom Patterson, a Professor of Media and Government at Harvard Kennedy School, who had recently published a book called Informing the News. The book chronicles the decline of US media standards in forensic detail. He indicts the media for misinforming, corrupting and polluting civic debate and the public space, arguing these failures had left the public baffled and powerless to make rational decisions. This had created public discourse “without agreement on the facts, and arguments with no foundation from which to build.” In place of that he makes the case for a new form of ‘Knowledge-based Journalism’.

At our first meeting Tom asked me to explain The Conversation. We spent an hour going through what we do. He got it. And sees The Conversation as an answer to the media failure discussed in his book. So now we finally have a name for The Conversation’s journalism: knowledge-based journalism.

I’d like to chart the journey that got The Conversation to where it now is.  A global platform of trusted information. Operating for the public good, without paywall and free for anyone to use under Creative Commons.

Over a period of 25 years as an editor of The London Observer, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and The Age I have had a ringside seat on the boards and executive committees of Guardian Newspapers, Scottish TV, Thomson and Fairfax Media.

In every board room from around 1989 (when I first got invited into those hallowed and often oak-paneled “killing rooms”) we would convene every week to get the finance director’s trading report showing swathes of red ink: classifieds down, display advertising down, circulation revenue down while costs were going up, with annual awards for staff, especially the unionized printers and journalists.

So we had endless lectures about the need for a “day of reckoning” and that we would go out of business unless we (as managers) agreed to take costs out faster than revenues were falling.  Except a lot of this was hokum.  What the CEO meant was that profits could not fall below 15-20%. And if they did the CEO risked losing their job and fat bonuses wouldn’t be paid. When Newsquest bought my paper, the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald, along with The Herald and Evening Times from Scottish Media Group, the new CEO marched into the boardroom and told the assembled senior executives that our 15% profit was insufficient. He wanted it over 20% and then moving to 25%. That meant one thing, take out more staff. Which is what they have done and ruined and diminished the papers that they had pledged to the takeover panel to look after.

That story was repeated when I joined Fairfax in 2004. Over the four years I was there The Age was forced to do the following and more:

  • Run redundancy round after redundancy round
  • Dispense with freelancers
  • Cancel subscriptions to newspapers and magazines
  • Severely limit all travel, just use the phone
  • Cut back foreign staff
  • Reduce pagination
  • Take out the staples from the tabloid sections (Epicure, etc)
  • Go tabloid
  • Outsource production, photography
  • Shut the canteen
  • Shut the switchboard
  • Merge newsrooms, now SMH, Age and Fin all share staff and content, so to an extent three mastheads have become one
  • And soon the papers won’t even be printed as the presses have been sold.

The result?

Hollowed out newsrooms with fewer specialist staff and more junior general reporters. The consultants Bain & Co (who effectively now run Fairfax’s strategy) have even suggested replacing the staff largely with trainees. One former CEO of Fairfax even told me that I should stop hiring journalists from other papers and instead hire school leavers as “they are the cheapest”.

The readers are taken for fools, “they won’t notice the difference”. But they can tell that service has diminished. And then having seen its best talent walk out of the building through wave after wave of redundancies, Fairfax puts a paywall up around what’s left in the hope of forging new revenues. But the horse had bolted. And revenues from the paywall remain stagnant at around 2%.

Soon after leaving The Age, I met the vice-chancellor at University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who offered me a desk and time to think about what next. He is a political scientist who had done a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald after university, but then returned to academia. So we had a mutual interest in the media, and its misfortunes and the possibilities for its future. Given the implosion of mainstream print media I wanted to address the question: how will the public in the future be able to access good, quality, reliable and credible information?

Glyn Davis suggested I start my enquiry by talking to 10 of his key thinkers at the university. Each of them was a leader in their field; immunology, astronomy, earth sciences/climate, architecture, law, business, education, global health, and stem cell research. Those 10 discussions were among the best and most illuminating I’d had for a long time. While at the same time depressing.

I found the academics I spoke with to be smart, thoughtful and with deep knowledge of their discipline. Each had conducted research and inquiry focused on finding solutions to the problems they faced.  And rather than being driven by a commercial or ideological agenda they wanted to share their knowledge and research with the wider public, for the benefit and good of all.

One of those I spoke to Peter Rathjen, then a deputy vice-chancellor at The University of Melbourne, wanted to recast the role of the university as that of a Public Think Tank, a Brains Trust, or Problem Solver in the service of society. Somewhere here was a big idea just waiting to get out. But between them all they told me of another problem. To get their ideas, knowledge and information out to the wider public they had to get past the gatekeepers of public knowledge, the media. And that battle was most often lost or compromised in transmission.

I was given umpteen examples where a researcher had agreed to a media interview only to find the report contained mistakes either through an accidental misunderstanding, or worse a deliberate slanting or a low-quality mash-up of their views. And depressingly, those academics always feared the worst when first agreeing to the interview.

Second, it was quite apparent to the academics that the media has its own agenda wanting “stories” or “yarns” from them that are “sexy” and “weird”. After all, the journalists will tell you, that’s what the readers want. As a result, each of those 10 academics I spoke to had withdrawn from engaging with the media, and retreated back to the safety of their bunkers. It’s safer back there.

Yet they wished for a better way.

I discussed the predicament these researchers all reported with Peter Doherty, the Nobel Laureate.

He said: “OK, what if we work another way. Instead of you sitting across the desk from me, why not sit alongside me. You use your journalistic skills to help me get my research and views out to the public. And then we find a way to get that out direct to the public.” I went back to my desk and worked out how that might work and submitted the idea of The Conversation to Glyn in mid-2009.

My proposal was to set up a new website or channel of information, and hire journalists to collaborate with the university’s academics and researchers to produce mutually agreed copy which we would publish direct to the public.

We also wanted to be much more transparent about our working practices and the way we create our content. To rebuild trust in journalism you have to work hard to demonstrate to the reader why they should read our content. Asserting you produce “journalism you can trust” is no longer sufficient. In fact it is now deficient.

So every article includes an author profile that discloses their relevant research and expertise, and that they really know their subject. Contrast that to Google research journalism that often passes as journalism. Our authors must also disclose the funding of their work, and any potential conflicts of interest. That goes for our editors as well. All that is enshrined in our Editorial Charter.

In short, we put a lot of care into getting public information right. We will always check edits with the author to ensure that we retain the integrity and correctness of information. And in any race to be first to publish or to getting it right, we always choose the latter.

And so why the name, The Conversation? I did not want something that sounded like the legacy media such as Bugle, Post, Herald, Times or Guardian in it. Nor did we want something that sounded like an academic journal. I wanted a name that evoked or described collaboration, a free flow of information, and a word that suited the informality of our digital age.

The Conversation is a long word, sorry, but it worked. It’s elegant, neutral, two-way, and it comes without pejorative connotations. And as the English political thinker Michael Oakeshott, observed: “Properly speaking, a conversation is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices”. That would equally be the hallmark of our service: promoting diversity of voices and ideas.

Given how often news sites would encourage readers to “join the conversation” we were surprised no one had registered the name. And we did in every conceivable formulation and country. Only in the US were we unable to secure as someone had that for a magazine about crop circles.

We set The Conversation up as a not-for-profit educational entity modeled on my experience of the Scott Trust that owns The Guardian and The Observer which I edited. The Conversation Trust is also protected in perpetuity from takeover. I have no shares. Instead I am able to do the kind of journalism I always set out to do. And we have a wonderful team producing a brilliant new service.

It is funded much like a “mutual” organisation, whose members in Australia are 31 universities, CSIRO, the Department of Education, the Commonwealth Bank, and readers through donations. That funding pays for our staff.

Across our US, UK and Australian newsrooms we now have 50 editors with over 14,000 registered authors, each one an expert, or specialist, in their field. We have no junior general reporters. Instead, ours is a newsroom of specialists.

Our editors set out each day with a simple aim: to help make sense of the world by providing deeper “explanatory journalism” to correct misinformation, and where possible suggest solutions.

We both publish that content on our site, but we also disseminate more widely under Creative Commons (meaning free for anyone else to republish). To date more than 13,000 websites globally publish our content. In Australia our re-publishers include everyone from the ABC, Fairfax, NewsCorp, The West Australian, AAP, through to Mumbrella, Mamamia, and Business Spectator. While globally Scientific American, BBC, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Jakarta Globe, New Statesman, MailonLine, and The Washington Post.

We’ve also become a resource for the media.  Over 40% of our authors have been followed up for interviews and follow-up articles. That’s 4,000 new experts, or specialists, helping to inject expertise back into the public arena.

So who reads The Conversation?

The Conversation was never conceived as anything other than being aimed at the wider public. It is not an academic journal, hiding behind arcane language and a high pay wall. And we have succeeded in that 80% of our readers are not from the university sector.

Until The Conversation, most academics would be lucky to get more than a few hundred readers for their “papers” published in academic journals.  Now they can reach very large audiences and see their work being picked up and discussed by the wider public.

In the time since we launched we have trained and turned over 14,000 academics into proto-journalists. We don’t use them all the time. But they are on stand-by. Ready to write. Ready to serve the public interest.

And finally, I do not want to imply The Conversation is the future of journalism. It is just one of many new models that are emerging. There are many new digital-only players such as Mamamia, New Daily, and in the US ProPublica, Vox, Quartz, Nate Silver’s 538 and so on.

The good news is that instead of a future that looked bleak with mastheads shutting: we now have a flicker of light.

Hopefully all the new voices and greater diversity of opinion will allow for a better contest of ideas, and one that is more open to scrutiny and debate. And the result will be a world of better informed public conversations.

If we get there, that will be a big step in the right direction. And I hope The Conversation will have played a part in that.