Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Rebuilding trust in journalism: The Conversation model

With the rapid evolution of technology and the consequent shift to digital, journalism has been forced to evolve and thus the reliable business structure that had worked so well before has been forced to change.

Launched in May 2013, The Conversation UK was among the first news outlets to recognize the digital shift and its importance while remaining true to core journalistic normative values. Unlike most news outlets, The Conversation is sourced from the academic and research community and delivered directly to the public. Their aim is to allow for better understanding of current affairs and complex issues which will allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversations.

The Conversation’s unique journalism model

The Conversation is an independent source of news, analysis and expert opinion, written by academics and researchers, and delivered direct to the public.

Unlike most conventional publishers, The Conversation is a not-for-profit media outlet that uses content primarily sourced from the academic and research community. Since the Australian website’s launch in March 2011, it has expanded into six editions, with the addition of a UK version in 2013, US in 2014, Africa in  2015, France in September 2015, Canada in June 2017, and Indonesia in September 2017.

The Conversation publishes all content under a Creative Commons license, and actively disseminates content to more than 22,000 sites worldwide. That gives the content a global reach of over 38 million readers a month.

What makes The Conversation’s model unique is how information for the site is sourced. Its writers are academics who are either commissioned or pitch articles about their area of expertise in relation to current affairs. There are no staff writers, but a team of editors covering the UK and Northern Europe, in the English language, who both instruct new contributors on how to write journalistically and advise them on their articles. Authors work with professional journalists who help them share their knowledge, in a way that it can be easily understood. Material published on The Conversation is free to be republished by other news organizations on the agreement it runs as written.

“We are taking journalistic skills and saying to people who have the great detailed knowledge, here’s how you can share that knowledge at a key moment,” said Editor Stephen Khan in a recent interview with PressGazette. “We take them from that point of being trained and then lead them through the process, so commission if they’ve got a good idea and help with the writing process.”

The website is rapidly expanding with the number of editors more than doubling in the last five years, from eight at its launch to 20 in 2018. The website also has two commercial staff, including new chief executive Chris Waiting, who previously held senior management roles at the Associated Press and the BBC.

Rebuilding trust in journalism

One of The Conversation’s goals is to help rebuild trust in journalism, at a time when public trust in the media is at historic lows, and many believe that the majority of news they encounter is biased. In addition, the publication wants to make complex issues easier to understand.

“Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy,” The Conversation’s website says. “Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.”

The Conversation is a global knowledge project, with staff based in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, US, Africa, Indonesia, France and Spain working with more than 71,000 specialist scholars and researchers.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit has become the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of only two worldwide accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. The accreditation process is part of a broader effort by The Conversation to restore reader trust in journalism, as the profession faces limited resources and funding.

Speaking on the issue, Khan emphasized how The Conversation has worked on rebuilding trust. “I think we launched a pre-emptive strike against fake news, we were talking about (how) we were concerned about this issue of trust.”

The Conversation’s adaption to the digital age and creation of a journalistic model which aims to rebuild trust in journalism can be useful for publishers in an age where many print publishers are struggling to remain viable as they navigate the transition from a print to the digital-based economy.

The Conversation is funded by universities, research institutes and corporates, as well as foundations and reader donations.

A firm believer that the digital revolution signifies a change for publishers, Khan said, “People were being stretched by being asked to do too much, or more with fewer or less experienced resources, and mistakes would be made. The demand to stem declines in circulation would cause editors to push desks to push for more dramatic takes on pieces and I think sometimes that led to content that was perhaps less reliable than one might aspire to in certain cases.”

This new publishing model signifies a major change in the publishing ecosystem and is expected to spark new trends in content creation itself.