The Profile

The Conversation thrives during the pandemic

June 12, 2020
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At a time when journalism is being hit hard globally and some are predicting the end of independent journalism in some parts of the world, it’s time to take a look at what may survive. The Conversation—a nonprofit that brings together scholars and journalists to bring academic writing to a general audience—may tell us a bit about where nonprofit media is headed. 

The Conversation—which was founded by Andrew Jaspan and Jack Rejtman in Australia in 2011 with $6 million in funding from four universities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and the State of Victoria—is thriving amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Traffic is soaring, while its funding model insulates it from the collapse in advertising and subscription revenue hitting other outlets. Its stories are available for republication, for free, under a Creative Commons license—a model that seems particularly beneficial for other news outlets at this moment. “If there were ever a time for expertise and smart journalism, now is it, and we are doing it at a volume no one else is doing and there is no paywall. It is free to use and free to publish,” says Stephen Khan, the editor of The Conversation’s UK edition. 

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Today, The Conversation has 10 national and regional editions and more than 150 full-time staff, many of them former journalists with decades of experience at outlets like The Scotsman, Financial Mail, Huffington Post, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Climate Change Weekly. The Conversation’s editors specialize in wrangling academics and editing their dense writing so that it can be understood by general readers, sometimes spending as much as 10 hours on one article. Since the pandemic started, submissions from contributors have tripled in some places. Global pageviews for April 2020, including republications, stand at 81 million, up from 40.1 million in April 2019. Google Analytics records that onsite visits have risen to 38.1 million in April 2020 from 15.9 million in April 2019.  

In a moment pandemic reporting has been overtaken by partisan infighting, The Conversation has thrived by staying focused on the science. 

What’s the difference between pandemic, epidemic and outbreak?”  was read more than 900,000 times, translated into Danish and Indonesian, and used by multiple sites, including Market Watch, EcoWatch, Premium Times – Nigeria, and the Good Men project. Since publishing “Could chloroquine treat coronavirus? 5 questions answered about a promising, problematic and unproven use for an antimalarial drug” in The Conversation US, Dr. Katherine Seley-Radtke of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has been interviewed by outlets all over the world, including NBC Euronews, Newsy, NPR, The Washington Post, and the South Asian Times. A piece on which household cleaning products can kill the virus was viewed more than a million times, and republished in ScienceAlert; The Sun, a British news tabloid; and the New Zealand Herald. That article, and many others, performed particularly strongly on Apple News.

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The Conversation’s business model varies in each region, revealing a lot about the state of nonprofit media in different parts of the world. In Australia, funding comes from reader donations and universities. In Africa and Indonesia, it relies on foundations. In the UK and France, some 145 universities have signed on as financial members, including prestigious research-intensive institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. 

In the US, 64 universities (including entire state systems, such as the University of California system) have joined. As with all editions, academics from any institution can pitch to The Conversation. Institutions that fund the project receive “expert requests” each morning, seeking scholars for topics editors want to focus on, and so get first crack at pitching. They also get access to Conversation metrics and training in how to write for general readers. Conversation editors do campus visits and workshops with scholars, discuss rejected pitches, and help scholars think through how to translate their research to the public.

In areas with a relative dearth of academic think tanks and researchThe Conversation—funded in part by the Gates, Mellon, and Carnegie foundations in Africa—has become particularly essential. Traffic has grown substantially over the last two years and more than doubled in Nigeria and Ethiopia, with articles picked up by more than 600 outlets across the continent.

The Covid-19 debate there, as in many developing countries, is about the tradeoffs between lockdowns and the livelihoods of the poor. Plus, public health programs are chronically underfunded, so Covid-19 feels less important than day-to-day survival and health problems.

“Immunization is really important. It’s important for us not to take our eyes off the vaccination challenges we have on the continent. We are carrying quite a few articles about the other programs that cannot be ignored, like measles,” says Caroline Southey, editor of the Africa edition.

Health misinformation is also a chronic problem, and so The Conversation’s authoritative, science-based writing is helpful.  “We play an enormously important role in busting those myths about cures,” says Southey, who notes that such misinformation has “been abetted by political leaders. There is a lot of fake news to fight on the continent.” 

Apart from misinformation that is spread deliberately, Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, notes that unsettled science can confuse people.  There is so much unknown about Covid-19 that journalists everywhere are struggling to know how to report. Scientists are rushing research into pre-prints that have not been peer-reviewed.

For Southey, part of the solution is to focus on publishing peer-reviewed work; to scrutinize articles offered to the site on the basis of pre-print academic papers; and to be honest about the unknowns. 

“I reject a lot of material about what will happen because we just don’t know. Material that’s based on peer-reviewed journal articles are our stock in trade. But, in the wake of Covid-19, we’ve put in place processes that enable us to assess pre-print, too, but with great care,” Southey says.

US editor Beth Daley says she, too, understands the need for important information, even if it’s not always been peer-reviewed. Each non-peer-reviewed piece is carefully vetted and, when used, authors and editors try to give an overview of what other research is going on in the area. The stories also note the work is not yet peer-reviewed; such stories sometimes appear in a new series The Conversation US is running called “Research Takes,” which highlights ongoing research.

The point, Daley says, is that The Conversation can play a vital role in bringing news of pandemic-related research to lay audiences as it happens. “We have a direct line to the front lines of solving—or trying to solve—Covid-19, and our researchers are willing to share that with the public in real time,” she says. That’s a role any conventional news outlet would be proud to play.

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Dr. Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.