Opinion

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
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