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The Conversation website, written by academics, comes to Canada

The site will allow interested professors to share their knowledge and expertise with the public.

By DIANE PETERS | JUL 10 2017

Canada is ready to take part in The Conversation – a website that features news and commentary written by academics and edited by journalists. The Canadian version of the site launched on June 26. Its main newsroom runs out of offices at the University of Toronto, with a satellite office at the University of British Columbia.

The Conversation Canada’s new editor, Scott White, former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Press, thinks the portal will fill a much needed gap for readers. “We’ll have objective information, not opinion, so people can make up their own minds,” he said. “I think everybody in the Canadian media wants to do that, [but] they just don’t have the resources.”

The co-founders of The Conversation Canada are Alfred Hermida and Mary Lynn Young, both associate professors of journalism at UBC, who launched it partly through a $200,000 Partnership Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The two professors said the site offers a straightforward way for academics to get their work out to the public.

Screenshot of The Conversation Canada’s website.

“Increasingly, grant committees and universities are looking for opportunities like this; ways to see the impact of their research,” said Dr. Hermida, who’s also the director of the school of journalism at UBC. Working one-on-one with trained editors will help researchers to polish their writing skills for a popular audience, he said.

The Conversation was originally launched in Australia in 2011. Academics pen pieces on a range of topics such as politics, business, health and technology. Some stories present a scholar’s latest academic work to a lay audience, while others leverage expertise and knowledge of the literature to explain or comment on trending issues. The academics offer their writing as a community service – they aren’t paid for their submissions.

Trained journalists run the site like a newsroom, assigning and editing stories and publishing them in the local edition – although other editions have automatic access to the stories too. Since all pieces are licensed under Creative Commons, external publications can pick up the story at no cost. For example, an article by Dr. Hermida on how rumours spread during a crisis, written for the Australian edition in 2014, ran in the New Zealand Herald.

Currently, The Conversation’s network has over 30,000 academic contributors and attracts 4.8 million users monthly. (Readership numbers soar when counting outside publications reprinting stories.) It runs six editions – Australia, Africa, U.S., U.K., France and a global edition – and is in expansion mode with other launches expected soon. Each of these editions is run as a separate non-profit that’s supported by member universities and foundations that pay an annual fee and get detailed reader analytics in return.

The journalism professors had already been exploring the possibility of bringing The Conversation model to Canada when, about three years ago, Dr. Hermida met the editor of the U.K. edition at a conference in the Netherlands and later visited the London offices. Soon after, he and Dr. Young began planning to bring it to Canada. They received a $50,000 SSHRC Connection Grant for a feasibility study in July 2015, and the Partnership Development Grant came through the following year.

“The grant is acting as seed capital to do the funding and outreach activities,” said Dr. Hermida. UBC and U of T signed on as founding member universities, while Universities Canada joined as a strategic sponsor – that relationship helped Drs. Hermida and Young make connections with prospective partner universities.

“Now, more than ever, there is a need for evidence-based commentary in the public sphere to inform policy-making and political decisions,” said Pari Johnston, vice-president, policy and public affairs at Universities Canada and an inaugural board member at The Conversation Canada. “By drawing on the expertise of Canadian university faculty from coast to coast, The Conversation will help fill an important niche in Canada’s media landscape.”

Dr. Hermida admitted that launching the site presented a steep learning curve over the past year. “Mary Lynn and I are journalists and scholars, we’re not experts in the non-profit sector,” he said.

The duo have managed to secure the backing of 17 universities, so far, each committing to upwards of three years of funding (the schools pay on a sliding scale based on Universities Canada’s membership model). They have also received funding from the Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation, and have inked a deal with Canadian Press to run stories on the CP wire service.

Mr. White came on board last May to set up offices at U of T, hire a small staff – five for the spring’s soft launch – and to reach out to the roughly 500 Canadian academics who’ve already signed up to write for the Canadian edition and build up a bank of content. Mr. White says the aim is to publish two to three original stories each weekday over the summer. By fall, he expects to hire more editors and increase the site’s output.

Drs. Hermida and Young have been supporting a group in Quebec that aims to launch a French-language Canadian edition in the future. In the meantime, The Conversation France will continue to publish articles by francophone scholars from Canada. Some of these articles will be translated to English for The Conversation Canada website.

Soon, the two academics will be extracting themselves from the site’s operations and moving on to the next phase of the project: using the site for research. They’ve earmarked some of their SSHRC funding to study The Conversation’s impact on knowledge translation. “Alfred and Mary Lynn are doing a research project, and I’m their lab,” said Mr. White.

The timing of the launch – just days before the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation – was fortuitous, noted Dr. Hermida. “One of the things The Canadian Conversation does is advocate for Canadian expertise,” he said. “It also offers the Canadian perspective on the role we have to play in the world.”

*A previous version of this story omitted Dr. Young’s involvement in developing the idea for The Conversation Canada before Dr. Hermida’s visit to The Conversation’s U.K. offices.

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