A year of Conversation

andrew jaspanIn this guest posting, Andrew Jaspan reveals how he made the transition from 24 hour party person, to newspaper editor, to his new digital existence as founder of The Conversation

I don’t think you ever quite get over the experience of launching a new media venture, and I’ve certainly done my share. My first was after university, when with some friends I launched a magazine called New Manchester Review. It was 1977, and though we didn’t realise it at the time, the cusp of the punk era. We put the Buzzcocks on the cover, the magazine sold out, and we became the 24-hour party people of Michael Winterbottom’s film.   

After that launches became a habit. My last newspaper launch was in 1999, when the Sunday Herald in Scotland became the last paper to be launched in the twentieth century. But it was conceived as the first of the new century. It was six sections, five printed and the sixth purely digital. Allowing us to publish all week, we broke the mould for Sunday journalism.

When I arrived in Melbourne to edit a150-year-old newspaper, The Age, it was like stepping back in time, and not just the hideous 1970s brown and green décor at Spencer Street HQ. “You just stick to print,” I was instructed, not too long after I arrived.

“You don’t understand digital. Back off.” That was the message in 2004 from Fairfax Digital, a company that was separate from The Age, yet taking the paper’s content for free. And constantly demanding marketing from the paper for the websites, again free. It led to a divided and debilitated company, which the new managers are still trying to fix, possibly too late.

Leaving The Age allowed me to think, take stock, and work on my next launch, an attempt to build a new model for journalism, unfettered by print and the past. I wanted to find a way to address the so-called “media crisis” which has seen newspapers close, shrink and shallow-out their offerings. Instead of being another ex-editor moaning about the problem, I wanted to seek solutions.

Hence The Conversation, a web-based journalism venture that turns Australia’s universities into a giant newsroom, with the best and brightest writing in real-time on breaking news and current debates.

The shining beauty of The Conversation’s digital journalism is that it allows all our energies to go into ideas. We commission the best, find great images, write headlines, edit, and publish direct to our readers. We cut out all the stuff that gets in the way of journalism: printing presses, distribution trucks and vans, wholesalers, retailers, paper boys and girls.

I do regular media commentary with ABC 774’s Jon Faine and we still joke about how every time I was on his show, all the talkback about The Age was about late delivery, the paper being badly printed, or the racing section being missing.

Newspapers are not journalism. They were simply the easiest and cheapest way to deliver journalism to readers. But that is over. It’s now digital delivery to your tablet/iPad, computer or phone. And yes, there will be papers in the future but they will no longer be cheap, like the first Penny Papers, they will be luxury products. Maybe they’ll cost you $5 as opposed to today’s $2.

But the idea of The Conversation was to be a lot more than just another website. It is an attempt to introduce new voices, and a new genre of journalism, which is knowledge-based, transparent  and ethical. Our writers are academics and researchers. We only allow people with deep subject matter expertise to write for the site. And every author discloses their funding and affiliations. Who the writer is, is as important as what they write.

Our authors retain the final approval over their content, as every journalist worth their salt should. We want them to take responsibility for their work, and avoid the age-old complaint by writers that the editing process has introduced errors and that the headline misrepresents. We call it the safe publishing platform.

In our first year we have published 4,000 articles by 2,700 authors attracting 8.6 million pages views from 2.5 million unique browsers.

I was told academics can’t write, and if they do it takes months. That’s the stereotype and it’s not what we have found. But then again we have only published 5% of all Australia’s 55,000 academics. Maybe others can’t or won’t. But we have all been pleasantly surprised. And why so? After all academics think, teach, debate and write lectures, papers and books. But to enter the fray of real-time 24-hour news-cycle requires the help of professional editors. And that’s our job.

In addition to attracting a sizeable audience to our website, all our “rolled gold” content is offered free to other publishers under the terms of our Creative Commons licence.  Every major publishing group has now used our content online and in print from Fairfax, News Ltd, APN, West Australian, ABC, SBS, Crikey and a host of small websites. In total we have been re-published in over 500 other sites that we know of.  We are used by Google News, Flipboard, AllTop, and Factiva.

And better still for our academic authors over 40% go on to be commissioned to appear or write for another media outlet. With 2,700 new knowledge-based journalists we are transforming the media space. We are bringing new content, new talent and new ideas to the attention of every media outlet.

We are helping to replenish the once leaking content reservoirs.  And this new journalism journey is only just one year old.

  • Andrew Jaspan is the founding editor of The Conversation


  1. @ABAwatchdog
    18 Apr 12
    1:11 pm

  2. A note on the traffic figures, UBs cant be aggregated over a year due to duplication but March 2012 was 168k AU UBs:

  3. Ben Eltham
    18 Apr 12
    1:18 pm

  4. There is much to applaud in The Conversation and its model.

    It gives readers access to the expertise of academics, many of whom have compelling arguments and deep understanding of their field. It pairs academics with experienced high-quality editors. It often proves an invaluable resource for working journalists themselves, including myself, who wish to see what the plurality of views might exist in particular field of public policy.

    Clearly, what the academics on The Conversation is journalism. But are they journalists? No: they’re academics. They get paid to teach and research. They don’t get paid to write for The Conversation. And those academics are contributing their content in competition with people like me, who write for a living. As someone who gets paid as little as $150 an article for independent news media websites struggling to survive on the goodwill of donations from readers, it’s a sometimes frustrating experience to watch a professor on $180,000 a year write an article for free for a website funded to the tune of millions by universities.

    I think we should distinguish between the sort of analysis and conceptual over-view that characterises much of the writing that appears here and the nitty-gritty of day-in, day-out primary source journalism. One of the key differences between the practice of journalism and academic research is that in most cases, journalist are trying to find out material that is not yet in the public domain, and which is often a jealously-guarded secret. Academic methodology, on the other hand, is so various as to be almost indescribable. It can range from the most abstruse statistical reasoning to the most hands-on participant observation. Academic knowledge is generally tested in a long and rigorous system of peer-review. It is therefore, almost by definition, old news.

    None of this is to decry the quality of the work offered up in The Conversation. But I think it is important to differentiate between the sorts of knowledges advanced by different ways of researching and writing.

    Whatever else journalism is and is not, the best journalism is itself “knowledge-based, transparent and ethical”. It is also, generally, professional, but certainly need not be.

    Oner thing that I would like to see the term “ethical” encompass is the idea that publications should pay a living wage for the services of those contributing it. The Conversation currently doesn’t. In doing so, it is effectively condoning the idea that content does not need to be paid for, and that the work of journalism can be done by those contributing their ideas and knowledge for free. Sometimes it can. But often, it can’t.

    The Conversation is a large and well-funded site that also takes advertising. I’d like to see it use some of those resources to invest in its own content: in working journalists paid to break news, rather than simply in editors taking submissions from cross-subsidising academics. Perhaps it could free up some funds by paying some of its better-paid editors wages more closely approximate to the fees commanded by junior academics or working freelance journalists.

  5. Banjo
    18 Apr 12
    2:11 pm

  6. The mission of The Conversation appears to be better informing the public of issues beyond the superficial transience of the 24 hour news cycle. It is informed commentary. New Matilda offers uninformed commentary, relatively speaking. Bemoaning a new source of honestly, transparently and effectively informing public debate because it impinges on your business model illuminates your perspective at New Matilda, Mr Eltham. I for one think The Conversation is a paradigm shift forwards in long-form journalism, beyond the semantics of turf-war.

  7. Phil
    18 Apr 12
    2:16 pm

  8. Harlan Ellison: Pay the writer


  9. Misha Ketchell
    18 Apr 12
    2:20 pm

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Ben. Just a few points by way of reply. 1) The Conversation doesn’t take advertising (though it does have a jobs board) I don’t know how you got the idea that it does? 2) I think you’re right about the ethical obligation to pay journalists. It’s something I’d like to see happen more too. But that’s not our model. The Conversation provides commentary and analysis and research from academics. Sometimes it’s original work done for us but often it’s providing publicly accessible explanations of work that’s already been done. It’s simply a different model to the sort of shoe-leather-wearing, fact-gathering journalism you’re talking about, and which I also think we desperately need. 3) Also, we do have a news editor who does some of the sort of work you’re talking about. 4) Thanks for suggesting the pay cut! I can’t really respond b/c it’s not appropriate to discuss private pay, but I suspect you’ve got a pretty skewed perception on that score.

  11. Debbie Dickinson
    18 Apr 12
    2:21 pm

  12. @ABAwatchdog – thanks for your note. Just to clarify, the figures that Andrew quotes in his piece are from google analytics. And, as you probably know, a large percentage of The Conversation’s traffic is also from an international audience.

  13. Ben Eltham
    18 Apr 12
    2:26 pm

  14. I’m not going to defend New Matilda to you Banjo. Nor am I concerned about the impact on our business model – we’re self-funded by our readers and we’re solvent. You’re playing the man here, not addressing the content of my comment.

  15. Banjo
    18 Apr 12
    4:46 pm

  16. Respectfully I disagree, Ben. I’m (mostly) playing the paradigm, not the man. That being said, it is appropriate for generalist journalists and ‘specialist journalists’, or academics, or commentators in the broadcast media, to disclose financial conflicts of interest, and you presented an apt example of this.This is one thing that The Conversation does better than traditional media. The free sharing of knowledge and insight from people who have spent decades learning of an area is a thing to be lauded and supported.

    I’m aware of the irony of my own anonymity, I am (amongst other things) a postgrad student. :)

  17. Gary B
    18 Apr 12
    5:27 pm

  18. There are a several concerns here, and the shifting definitions of journalism make discussion tricky. Much of the writing in The Conversation would pass a journalism Turing test. I would call a small portion of it quality journalism. But a large part of it is a useful contribution to my life as a reader.

    Of course, Andrew’s article is to some extent self-serving, but Ben has raised interesting questions.

    First, should universities be spending money on publishing non-academic writing by their staff? I think they should. I think it’s a useful goal to engage academics to write, in a framework intended to be “knowledge-based, transparent and ethical.” – goals shared by quality journalism, but rarely achieved in th general ruck and tumble of daily news. Some of those academics can write well, and write about matters otherwise poorly covered by other media. Of course, it will mostly be different in style and content to what a good journalist or blogger would write from outside; but often much better than the blather written by trained journalists writing for university brand magazines. or the bad media release re-writes that often pass for mainstream writing on academic research.

    Second, should those academics get paid (extra) to do so? Well, that depends. For a fulltime academic, where public engagement is part of their job description, then they are already being paid to write. For a part-time academic, or one where only their contact hours are being paid, they should be paid to write, either by their university as part of its costs of being in The Conversation, or by the The Conversation itself.

    Third, should The Conversation also commission articles by freelance journalists, in addition to those by academics. I’m not sure – at least there is a certain consistency of starting place at the moment. But there are many areas where a good journalist – like Ben – could make a big difference. I’m not convinced that ‘breaking news’ is a useful focus — the relentless dominance of the daily news cycle is something that forums like The Conversation can help break. And it can also help sidestep — or at least give an alternative to — the low standard of science journalism in our mainstream press.

    Fourth, if it did commission journalists, should they be paid? Of course.

    And finally, should Ben Eltham be paid as much as Andrew Jaspan? Well, if I had a vote, I would say yes. My payments to New Matilda and Crikey may be helping, who knows.

  19. brilliant stuff
    19 Apr 12
    11:51 am

  20. The Conversation is the kind of publication that allows you to sit back in your chair and think ‘Thank goodness’. In my opinion The Conversation is one of the best consolidated, informed, centralised repository of exceptional thinking and well researched and validated opinion, available anywhere.

    It’s exactly the sort of content that should be appearing in our daily newspapers and their online/tablet/mobile portals. It’s simply a shame that the two dominant news outlets in this country would rather chase scandal, and frivolous issues, rather than republish/commission more of this kind of informed content.

    Whilst media outlets scramble and scratch their heads wondering why the public doesn’t want to pay for what they’re currently producing, there’s some irony they’re only too happy to lock up ‘exclusive’ football commentary but republish this kind of content for free and give it away.

    I know what I’d be willing to pay for if push came to shove.

  21. Peter
    19 Apr 12
    6:37 pm

  22. Yes, “brilliant stuff’s” words can’t be understated. Beat anti-science with science. Wins every time.

  23. Ben Eltham
    20 Apr 12
    11:29 am

  24. Thanks for the engagement and the thoughtful replies, particularly Misha and Gary.

    As I hope I made clear I’m a big supporter of The Conversation and what it has already achieved. I am writing here as someone who tries to pay the rent from writing, and to do that there must be a market for writing.

    For those worried about my pay suggestions, have no fear. I wish a living wage to all editors! Editors are the friends of writers. Having said that, I do think that when an organisation has the resources to pay for editorial staff, that budget should hopefully include the writers.

  25. jean cave
    21 Apr 12
    12:02 am

  26. After reading this beautifully written article . . I am off to have a squint at The Conversation.

  27. Andrew Jaspan
    22 Apr 12
    10:58 am

  28. Thanks for all your comments. I think Misha (managing editor of The Conversation) responded well to Ben’s concerns.
    And may I make a plea to some of you for some patience with our model: we are trying to do something quite different. It’s still a “work in progress”.
    Couple of points:
    1. TC is about introducing new voices, not more of the same which is what you get with the online extensions of the MSM. The lack of plurality is particularly acute in Australia which only has two major media players, and in many parts of Australia only one newspaper.

    2. We utilise our limited resources to meet the costs of 15 editors and six web developers. Our editors research, engage with academics/researchers to develop ideas/stories, commission, edit, post, moderate, and manage/develop their sections.

    3. Our devs have built from scratch a cutting edge site that allows our new form of knowledge-baed journalism to work. We have built in all the safeguards, protocols and copy flow mechanisms to deliver on our new ways of working. They built the first collaborative writing platform to allow academics and our journalists to work together, while still allowing the author/writer to retain final copy and headline control. And they built a site that helps us deliver on our promise to authors: to help build the largest possible audience for their contributions.

    4. We’d like as many people as possible to be able to access, share and use this high-grade content. Our Creative Commons licencing arrangements mean that our content is being picked up and republished throughout the world. About 40% of our traffic is from overseas.
    Old models lock up knowledge for private gain. We want to be part of a new worldwide movement to open up knowledge, for public gain.

    5. Our authors are all academics and researchers paid salaries largely through the public purse. For that they have a duty to share their research, knowledge and expertise. It’s written into every university’s charter to deliver on the Triple Helix: be good at teaching, good at research and good at sharing their knowledge through public engagement.

    We help facilitate that third obligation. And as a result of publishing with The Conversation, over 40% of our authors have had media follow-ups to appear on radio,TV, online, local papers, etc. Better information is getting into the media body politic. For academics this also leads to more exposure, more invitations to lecture/talk, attend conferences, do consultancy engagements, and so on.

    And we work hard to widen the gene pool of those engaged in public discourse, or the knowledge/ideas space.

    The confusion comes from those who try to impose an old paradigm onto a new fledgling model. In our case we have allowed (so far) 2,700 flowers to bloom. You either welcome that or not. The ongoing crisis in the media has been a very sudden and at times traumatic moving of the old media tectonic plates. And it’s led to many casualties and a few new green shoots. This change is far from over. But with a much better and more efficient method of distributing information than print we have the opportunity to experiment.

    I hope we will see many more players and experiments in this new wide open digital space in the months and years ahead. That is what should excite every journalist worth their salt.

    PS: if you want to follow our daily updates, register for the free Newsletter on the Home Page.