In 2004, Andrew Jaspan – the British-born former editor of The Observer, The Scotsman and the Big Issue – was appointed editor of The Age, in Melbourne. Four years later, he began developing The Conversation project, as a response to “increasing market failure in delivering trusted content”.
The Conversation aimed to deliver journalism differently, through an independent, not-for-profit website of analysis and news from the university and research sector . It was based on the idea of “sharing the expertise of academia directly with the public and thus turning the university sector into a giant newsroom. Content is written by academics working in collaboration with professional editors using a custom built collaborative publishing platform”.
That was 10 years ago. The Conversation launched in 2011 to what Jaspan says was “a bemused and sceptical audience. Countless people said beforehand: “So you want to get academics to write to deadlines? Forget it. It won’t work. They can’t even write.” I ignored the warnings and gave it a go. Before long, the idea went viral and global with editions springing up in the UK, US, Canada, France, Spain, South Africa and Indonesia. Together, they now employ nearly 200 staff with a monthly reach of 18m. It’s been a game-changer, though I still fail to know what to call this hybrid of journalism and academia”.
The Conversation had secured initial funding of A$10m over three years from Australian universities, the Victoria state government, and the Comonwealth Bank.
A decade later, Andrew Jaspan puts The Conversation’s survival and success down to:
- “We set the editorial bar high to ensure we created intelligent, reliable and easily understandable content to inform better public discussion and understanding.
- To address the dumbing down of information, we only allowed those with deep understanding of their subject area to contribute.
- We set about rebuilding through strict codes of conduct and full disclosure of all funding for The Conversation and the authors who contribute.
- We developed a funding model that would avoid a reliance on advertising. So we introduced a tiered membership model (depending on size) whereby each university makes an annual contribution. To secure that, meant knocking on the doors of all 39 university VCs. And though many held out for years, they all ended up joining. That has given The Conversation its funding security and independence.”
For an interview with Andrew Jaspan, listen to Mumbrellacast.