Do academics make better journalists than journalists?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

“This used to be the janitor’s residence,” says Stephen Khan, editor of the Conversation, by way of explanation for the fact that you walk through the front door of this unusual online news organisation and find yourself in a kitchen. The newsroom, it seems, is in the janitor’s old lounge area, while Khan’s office, adjoining a bathroom suite, is in a former bedroom.

The Conversation might be a scene of domesticity but it has grand and global ambitions for its news model which, uniquely, sits at the intersection of journalism and academia. It’s symbolic that its base should be a seventh-floor eyrie atop London’s City University, although its intention is to bring the professors and lecturers down from their ivory towers and find them a broader audience.

The prime ministerial candidate Michael Gove might believe that “people in this country have had enough of experts” but Khan, who can draw on the expertise of academics at 65 member universities, believes that – in these febrile times – the opposite is true. “That’s not our experience at all,” he says of Gove’s conjecture. “We are finding that people come to us specifically for that expertise and the reassurance and knowledge that we can bring to some of these big stories.”

Journalism with academic rigour?

On the morning of the Brexit vote, the Conversation became a part of the breaking news environment, running more than 20 pieces of expert insight from a pool of writers that includes professors in law and economics, and researchers in international relations and fisheries. Its content is frequently republished by news outlets from CNN to the Washington Post, the i paper, the Guardian and Scientific American (science is the Conversation’s strong suit).

In less than three years it has transformed the relationship between academia and the media, conquering suspicion and restoring some of our most learned voices to the public debate. Many professors had “disengaged with the mainstream media because they felt that they would be misquoted, misinterpreted and spun”, says Khan. “This has allowed them to engage in a way they are often much more comfortable with.”

It’s the universities themselves that pay for the Conversation, with their £15,000-a-year membership fees contributing more than 90 per cent of the site’s income. In return, the 20-strong editorial team visits campuses to give seminars and lectures on writing for a public audience. The site is run as a non-profit organisation and is a registered charity, raising the potential for other news outlets to adopt such a model.

The big educational institutions (the Conversation works with 21 of the 24 elite Russell Group, including Oxford and Cambridge) wish to raise their profile for business reasons, and many professors crave a bigger audience. “A lot of academics are publicly-funded and view it as part of their role in public life to communicate their knowledge,” says Khan.

You have to wonder why nobody came up with the idea before Andrew Jaspan, the former editor of the Observer, who founded the Conversation, first in Australia in 2011 and in the UK two years later. An American edition has since opened, based in Boston. The UK site contributes 50 per cent of the total 30 million visitors a month worldwide.

The Conversation, which has an editorial team that includes former staff journalists at the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mail, starts each day with a 9am news conference. Editors have specialist briefs, such as “arts & culture” and “education & society”. “We work very much like a normal newsroom,” says Khan. “We talk about the key issues of the day and then go out and get our writers to write. Those writers are largely within that academy of 65 universities and there’s very little expertise that doesn’t exist within that group.”

When he took the job, Khan was nervous that academics wouldn’t hit deadlines. “A number of colleagues from mainstream journalism thought I was mad. They said academics would never be able to write on time and never in a way that works for the general public. What I have found is that many of them are perfectly capable of these things and with the guidance of good editors they become extremely good at it.”

The Readability meter

To address this issue, the Conversation developed in-house a “Readability” meter for its academics, scoring stories on such metrics as word length, average words per sentence and average syllables per word and judging suitability for publication with a red, amber, green traffic light system. “It encourages them to write with short sentences and more simple language,” says Annabel Bligh, business & economy editor.

Despite this, some academics still struggle to break old habits, says Gemma Ware, education & society editor. “They set out their methodology first, exactly as they would for an academic paper. You have to flip it round completely.”

But Khan and his team have a “big broad skill set” in a writing pool that has extended to 8,000 contributors since the Conversation UK began.

When fighting in Ukraine spread to Donetsk in 2014, the Conversation was able to turn to Dr Adam Swain, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham. Not only was Dr Swain based in the city but he was sitting on 25 years of research into the geography of post-Soviet Europe. For Khan, who previously worked on national newspaper foreign desks, this was “something really quite unique” compared to the reporting of a generalist stringer. “It’s not the usual colourful ‘have backpack, will travel’ journalism,” he says.

And when part of the South Devon Railway collapsed into the sea at Dawlish, also in 2014, the Conversation provided unrivalled insight, this time unearthing David Dawson, a research fellow at the University of Leeds who had written his PhD on that very section of track. “It was his moment of fame and he wrote a piece for us,” Khan recalls.

Creative Commons

The Conversation publishes its articles under creative commons licence, meaning they can be republished by any other outlet for free. The intention is to maximise the reach of the content. It means that an author can potentially reach a far wider audience than if they wrote for a single media title. One piece, detailing the effects on the brain of giving up sugar in the diet, written last year by Jordan Gaines Lewis, a neuroscientist based at Pennsylvania State University, has been republished so many times it has been read by 6.3 million people.

The Conversation’s chief executive, Max Landry, says: “The mainstream media republishing our articles is a win-win situation; they get high-quality content for free, and we get to disseminate it to the broadest possible audience. We do not carry advertising so are not in competition, we support each other. Our only aim is helping our academic authors reach the general public in the most effective way.”

But traffic is not chased at all costs and the Conversation is noticeably more measured in its headlines and tweets than most mainstream outlets. “I do think there’s an issue around chasing clicks in some media and I think that’s not something we do,” says Khan. “We want this content to be read by as many people as possible but ultimately we want it to be valuable and to reflect what’s happening and provide trustworthy explanation of sometimes quite complex events.” This restraint is partly a result of the caution of academics, anxious not to be seen as sensationalists. Crucially, Khan stresses, nothing is published before the author has signed off the copy. “The editors who work with these academic experts give the content journalistic verve but it’s in the very DNA of the project that what we produce is a collaboration and not a misinterpretation or spin of what that expert author intends.”

Khan admits that he has to address a left-wing political skew among academic writers. “I don’t think it’s any surprise that there are many people coming from left-wing perspectives in academia but some of our best writers provide very different perspectives and I do think it’s our job to provide balance.” During the Brexit fallout, the Conversation ran with a piece from economics professor Philip B Whyman suggesting the result was “an exciting opportunity" for the British economy. From whatever position it comes from, any article still has to get through an “extremely rigorous” editorial process, says Khan. “People can’t just file a rant. It has to be informed by knowledge, well-argued, and worthy of publication.

Mr Gove may think the day of the expert is done but the Conversation’s growing audience suggests otherwise. Back in the kitchen, deputy editor Jo Adetunji, who joined from the Guardian, says that “more than ever” such insights give vital context to the tumult of news media. “Lots of people are looking for a way through the insecurity affecting lots of areas of life and we are hoping to be part of that,” she says. “We are trying to cut through some of the myths and the BS.”

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