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Margin Notes

Australian researchers bypass media to tell their stories

The Conversation, a website barely three months old, provides timely reports on issues of the day, written by researchers themselves.


This is a guest post by University Affairs’ editor Peggy Berkowitz.

If university researchers think that the media are “dumbing down” their field of knowledge and that important developments are routinely ignored, should they try to bypass news outlets to get their stories directly to the people?

That is what a group of eight large research universities in Australia (with a few other partners) has begun. The Conversation, a website barely three months old, provides timely reports on issues of the day, written by the researchers themselves and directed at the Australian public.

The website was founded by Andrew Jaspan, a former daily newspaper editor in Australia. About 1,000 researchers at 39 Australian universities are contributing articles to the website, assigned and edited by 14 professional editors who work with the academics to make the stories relevant and accessible. (Mr. Jaspan aspires to have 2,000 contributors and 20 editors in the near future.)

The Conversation seems to have found a market: one million article views were recorded in its first 10 weeks of operation, and 200,000 unique visitors are reading it each month, he told the international Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education in Toronto last week.

The motivation for the site was a combination of several factors, he explained. The business model for journalism “is imploding” (due to the loss of classified advertising) and trustworthy content is not making it into the media. Laid off from his job as editor of Melbourne’s The Age, he wrote a report for the University of Melbourne on how it could communicate better with the public.

His timing was opportune. In recent years, Australia’s universities have faced a raft of accountability requirements in three areas: education, research and communication with the public. Australia invests the equivalent of about $9 billion Cdn a year in universities, and the eight largest decided that an $8-million investment over three years was a reasonable investment in the endeavour. (Government and a few companies also contributed.) The site was set up as an independent, not-for-profit trust. Mr. Jaspan said he hopes that positive results will convince the partners to invest more after three years and also that the site will attract advertisers.

The topics covered by the Conversation range from the big issues of the day, like a multi-part series on climate change, to the always-topical, such as the female orgasm.

The turn-around time is fast, he said. Working with researchers in their own area of expertise means it’s possible to get a story posted within two hours of assigning it.  It’s distinct from other collaborative sites that disseminate university research in that it’s independent, said Mr. Jaspan.

Unlike most news stories, the articles are mostly sole-sourced, each written by a single researcher. But, multiple articles are assigned on hot topics to give varied points of view. Mr. Jaspan’s goal is to include researchers from other countries.

The Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education was the brainchild of Mark Rosenfeld, editor of Academic Matters, a twice-yearly publication of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. Co-organizers were University of Toronto/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Insider Higher Ed, and University World News.

Over three days last week, a couple of hundred academics, public relations professionals and journalists, particularly those working with specialized higher ed media, discussed the coverage of higher education, how social media is affecting everyone’s work, new developments, hot topics that should be covered, and reporting about higher education in the developing world.

Some of the high-profile presenters (among more than 100 speakers) were Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College; Tony Burman, formerly editor-in-chief of CBC news and now a manager with the Al Jazeera network, and David Naylor and Indira Samarasekera, presidents of the universities of Toronto and Alberta. William Ayers, the 1960s activist who founded the Weather Underground and formerly distinguished education professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke via video recording — he’d been refused entry to Canada before, and apparently had been advised he wouldn’t get in this time, either.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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