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The Conversation news site lets academics get in on the … conversation

Site features content written by academics and edited by on-staff journalists.

By DIANE PETERS | APR 27 2016

Journalism’s traditional model, funded by advertising and subscriptions, is struggling. New models abound, and academics play a key role in one of the most promising. The web portal The Conversation, which started in Australia in 2011, now has five editions, including a U.S. pilot that launched in October 2014. It offers intelligent, evidence-based content written for free by academics – including numerous Canadians – and is edited by paid, on-staff journalists. The site’s tagline: Academic rigour, journalistic flair.

The site offers timely stories and commentary in a wide range of areas, including arts and culture, the economy, education, politics and society, as well as science and technology. Authors reference their own research and that of their peers, and aim their writing style for a Grade 12 reading level.

“This is something different in the media market here, which is saturated with opinion,” says Maria Balinska, editor of the U.S. version of The Conversation. “There is a kind of alchemy when it works well,” she says.

Some stories have gone viral, such as one examining the so called five-second rule (about food that’s fallen on the floor). A June 2015 piece on magnets by Bryan Gaensler, director of the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, had nearly 65,000 views and is the top performing story so far by a Canadian. At least one author has gotten a book deal because of a successful piece.

Stories can find wide circulation because they’re licensed under Creative Commons, so other print or digital publications can republish them as long as The Conversation gets credit and no words get changed. Stories have been picked up by The Huffington Post and The New Republic, as well as by local newspapers. Currently, the U.S. edition puts out 40 pieces a month and draws 5.5 million readers, only 500,000 of whom get the content from the main portal.

Along with the Australian and U.S. editions, The Conversation runs versions out of the U.K. and Africa (based in Johannesburg). Sites post mainly local content mixed with posts from the other editions. A French-language edition out of Paris has published writers from Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. The five global editions together attract up to 30 million readers a month.

The sites are funded by donations from foundations and contributions of $20,000 to $35,000 annually from partner schools – the U.S. edition has relationships with 10 foundations including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as 19 colleges and universities. The schools get access to an analytics dashboard that tracks how stories from their faculty members perform. Bruce Wilson, executive director for the U.S. site, says communications and PR staff at universities appreciate this data since it may be used to show their own donors and the impact of faculty research.

Writers, meanwhile, get treated like freelance journalists who have to pitch their ideas and work through a few rounds of edits. But in return they get a mainstream outlet for their research. (Ms. Balinska says they may also get an unexpected amount of fan mail from readers.)

Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the U of T, has written for both the Australian and U.S. editions. He says The Conversation has “exceeded expectations” and is ideal for profs who lack a public venue for their writing. “Everyone who sensibly looks at the university and looks at its place in the modern world thinks well of this stuff [writing for mainstream publications].” He adds, however, “Those aren’t the same people who sit on tenure committees.”

Nevertheless, everyone from postdocs to full professors are contributing to the sites. But Ms. Balinska admits that she’s looking to land more big-name professors, particularly those who already write op-eds for major daily newspapers. And Mr. Wilson says signing on new annual donors has also been a slow process.

Still, the model is robust enough to fund steady growth. The U.S. site currently has 16 employees, 10 of whom are editors, most working out of donated office space at Boston University. A new bureau staffed with two editors is opening soon out of Georgia State University in Atlanta. Mr. Wilson is talking to the University of California system about a West Coast outpost. He has also just inked a deal with the Associated Press wire service to put The Conversation’s new content up every day. Expect new international editions in time – including a Canadian version likely run out of the University of British Columbia, according to a source who wished to remain anonymous until an announcement is made.

The eventual goal is for the web portal to grow to a worldwide, evidence-based newsroom sharing innovative ideas and fleshing out the news. Ms. Balinska wants to see her dream team of journalists and academics start breaking stories, too. “We want to set the news agenda and get a public debate going.”

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