In the virtual newsroom, scholars tell the rest of the story

Simon Baker gets the scoop on a website offering expert insight on breaking news direct to the public

October 6, 2011

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty
What's the number for Oxford? Time-pressured hacks lack specialist expertise

When news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US special forces, who was best placed to assess the global political impact: a rushed general reporter in a short-staffed newsroom, or an academic expert on the Middle East, terrorism and international relations?

After bin Laden's assassination, hundreds of ill-prepared reporters around the world must have hammered the phones searching for an academic expert in international relations to comment while simultaneously trying to swot up on the subject by scanning a jumble of press cuttings.

As they scrambled around, an Australia-based experiment in online journalism that had begun just months earlier came into its own.

Putting their faith in the university experts, the founders of The Conversation website created a virtual newsroom of academics and offered them the chance to communicate their research to the public without fear of misrepresentation.

When its editors heard the news about bin Laden, they contacted one of their writers, Mat Hardy, a lecturer in Middle East studies at Deakin University. Within two hours, his expert analysis of the event's ramifications was online.

For Andrew Jaspan, editor and co-founder of the project, this is a powerful example of how the site can not only provide specialist analysis on almost any subject, but also do so within the 24/7 news cycle - and possibly even faster than traditional media.

"With most newsrooms being hollowed out and with greater reliance on generalists, every time those journalists are asked to respond to breaking news, they increasingly need to read around the subject to research it, then ring around some specialists - often academics - to get some expert analysis, and finally write," he said.

"All that can take three times as long as commissioning an expert academic - who in this case turned the article around in less than two hours."

The project was born when Mr Jaspan - a former editor of The Observer, The Scotsman, The Big Issue and Australian daily The Age - realised that academics were growing increasingly frustrated at being misquoted or misinterpreted by ill-equipped reporters pressured for time.

"Increasingly I heard (scholars) saying: 'We actually want to get out there but we just can't find a safe way of engaging in the public discourse,'" he said, citing the example of a Nobel laureate who claimed that he was misrepresented by a young reporter with little knowledge of his specialist subject.

After spending time at the University of Melbourne, where he had already got to know Glyn Davis, its vice-chancellor, Mr Jaspan concluded that a university was "not that different from a newspaper" in terms of having a number of specialists covering different disciplines.

Mr Jaspan recalls: "I had this idea: why don't we just turn the university into a newsroom?"

The basic tenet of The Conversation was that journalists would remain central to the process, but simply as editors who would ensure that academics' articles were "readable, accessible and within the news cycle".

The project began as a collaboration with academics at Melbourne, but Mr Jaspan quickly realised that the project was so big it needed to seek a funding partnership with a wider group of Australian universities and support from the national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

That partnership has led to the drafting of a three-year business plan and the creation of a prototype website, which was launched in March.

The site now has more than 1,200 academics - the majority in post at Australian universities, but some hailing from the UK, the US and elsewhere - writing on a range of subjects, including news events as they happen.

Its web traffic has been growing rapidly: since its launch, the site has had 1.2 million unique visitors and is currently running at a monthly average of about 250,000 visits.

Full disclosure

Mr Jaspan said The Conversation could help lift the miasma of mistrust that has descended on the media, partly as a result of the phone hacking scandal in the UK.

"There is a real feeling of unease about how trustworthy a lot of content is in the media. We're trying, and I stress we're trying, to reinvest trust - and the content providers we have are people who we consider to really know their subject."

To guard against claims that a scholar might be driven by "commercial or party political concerns", all academic contributors to The Conversation are asked to complete a disclosure statement about their background, which is viewable in a profile online.

"Everybody has to note who they work for and where they get funding from. That is to avoid conflicts of interest that are quite often hidden from the reader (in other publications)," Mr Jaspan said.

The website's journalists also thoroughly verify that writers are accredited academics in their field.

"We don't want someone who has spent five minutes or half a day mugging up; we want people whose careers have been dedicated to understanding the subject," Mr Jaspan said.

This approach, he believes, helps to distinguish The Conversation's offerings from "citizen journalism". Some argue that the latter produces content that is difficult to verify or trust.

Mr Jaspan also wants The Conversation to produce genuinely new angles and break stories through academics' own research. Australian media outlets are already using the site as a content source (although they must agree not to edit the articles they reprint), and for potential lines of enquiry and expert contacts.

While such use by traditional media outlets demonstrates its value, The Conversation is still intended to serve primarily as a source of news and expert opinion for the general public. To that end, its key weapon is a "readability index" built into its bespoke publishing software.

The index is set to the reading age of a well-educated 16-year-old. During the writing process, it lets academics and their editors know whether the article will be accessible to readers, using a "traffic light" system of text colour-coding.

"We will not publish anything on the site if it is too complex or too long," Mr Jaspan said.

"We want this to be a general consumer website, informed by people who really do know what they're talking about, but not written in the usual impenetrable academic language that is the enemy of plain English."

He said the readability index, style guides and editorial tips on writing for scholarly contributors help to ensure that the site is in no way an attempt to "replace academic journals and the way academic speaks to academic".

Stories with impact

Although they are not paid, the main benefit for scholars who write for The Conversation is something that is becoming increasingly important to universities on both sides of the world - demonstrating impact.

Mr Jaspan said a crucial factor in getting universities involved with the project was that it enabled them to measure how research and academic writing was being disseminated to the wider community.

The project also clearly has commercial potential, but the plan is to keep its goals aligned with those of the academic community by being a not-for-profit operation (the academics are not paid for their contributions). However, Mr Jaspan does not rule out expanding it beyond Australia.

He added: "This is a period of flux in the media and we're just hoping that people will find what we have useful and engaging, (that it) will increasingly play a part in involving the academic and research communities in the big issues of public debate, be it phone hacking at one end or climate change and global economic meltdown at the other."

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