Academics find their voice online

Julian Lee March 23, 2012

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Starting the conversation ... Andrew Jaspan believes readers will turn to academics for trusted information. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

WHEN Andrew Jaspan launched The Conversation, pitching the website as a way for academics to get their work read by the wider world, cynics in the traditional media stifled a collective yawn and predicted it would have little or no impact.

But a year on, The Conversation is attracting 20,000 individual readers a day, reading on average 38,000 articles, putting it just in the top 100 most read websites and on par with Crikey.

Proof, says the former editor of The Age, that there is an appetite for the unexpurgated views of academia. He argues that as the fortunes and reputations of the traditional media decline more readers will turn to academics for trusted information.

Mr Jaspan says The Conversation will also be where universities turn to for ''social engagement'' metrics - such as how widely they are read and by whom - which is increasingly a condition of future funding. ''Hopefully within three years we will have a format that allows us to move away from asking them to support us to people paying for it,'' says Jaspan. Initial $6 million funding for the site came from the Victorian and federal governments, universities and corporations, and is secure for another two years. It employs 26 people, 15 of them in editorial, and has plans to open bureaus in Brisbane and Perth.

With 2500 academics regularly writing for it, The Conversation can rightly claim to be the largest ''virtual newsroom'' in Australia.

But the sheer volume of material (it posts around 20 stories written by academics a day) means some of the editing process has to be automated.

Registered writers are given online tutorials on how to write and the site tells them if they are getting too long-winded or technical; it is programmed at a level suitable to a well read 16-year-old. Editors then finesse with the permission of the authors who get the final sign off before publication.

On the eve of CSIRO's climate change report a fortnight ago, the organisation had an article by its chief executive, Megan Clark, up the night before its release to the rest of the media. Jaspan denies this amounts to little more than a press release, saying: ''It's not PR because there's a process. A lot of PR you don't know who is behind it or who is funding the research,'' he says.

He sees The Conversation as setting the record straight. ''There's a partisan view [on the environment] and it's a bit of a problem in Australia where some outlets are quite sceptical so you are getting a view that is mediated by people's perspective on climate change.''

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