Many publishers have enjoyed traffic spikes over the past few months, from news publishers covering the developing crisis to hobby and special interest sites providing entertainment and light relief during lockdown.

The Conversation is a publisher who sources work from the academic and research community, and works with journalists to unlock that knowledge and research for use by the wider public. Not only is it free to read, but all content is also published under a Creative Commons license, which means it can be republished and shared by others under some guidelines. This has helped propel its stories to hundreds of millions of people, bringing research and expertise to a global audience through many different types of publishers.

For The Conversation UK Chief Executive Chris Waiting, their own traffic records have given the publisher a unique opportunity to build bridges between the public and publishers who can bring academic research in an accessible way to an audience who are now eager to hear from trusted experts. Waiting spoke to us in an episode of the Media Voices Podcast about how they are building communities around this expertise.

Coronavirus as a step-change

Waiting is keen to avoid calling the coronavirus crisis an ‘opportunity’ for The Conversation, as he is well aware how challenging it has been for the whole news ecosystem. Because of the way the publication is funded – as a charity with the bulk of money coming from universities – they weren’t facing a cliff edge in the same way as many other publishers. But he has noticed a change in the way The Conversation is seen by readers.

“One of my frustrations in the last few years has been that, as we’ve covered elections and other moments, there hasn’t been a step change in the public suddenly saying, ‘Actually, I want to hear from experts. I don’t want politicians. I want someone who really understands what they’re talking about,'” he explained. “It was different this time.”

“From February or March, we saw our traffic go through the roof because everything was changing. Nobody knew what was going on. So the public was just really hungry to have experts not only explain the current moment, but to put it in context.”

In March, The Conversation’s stories were read 100 million times globally, from 1,600+ stories published since the beginning of the year. That has now come down slightly to around 70 million according to Waiting, and has been followed by an uptick in newsletter subscriptions, podcast listens and more. His goal now is to retain the interest of these new readers, and enticing them to visit the site regularly.

The daily newsletter is a core part of this. With 72,000 people on the list, a third of whom open it every day, it acts as a funnel for first-time readers. “By appearing in their inbox each day, we can give them a curated selection of perspectives on the news, something topical, and something that will capture their imagination,” said Waiting. “But it’s also presenting them with things that they won’t see anywhere else, the really distinctive stories we have.”

The Conversation isn’t the sort of site people turn to for breaking news; something Waiting has worked hard to make clear. They publish two main types of content, the first being an analysis of key stories after the news has broken, which provides an expert perspective on what is happening. The second type of content is directly research-based, such as an academic paper which has been published somewhere, which the expert and journalist will work together on writing up for a wider audience.

“I don’t think we could ever be a one stop shop for all of your news,” admitted Waiting. “But certainly we want to grow those relationships so that we are part of the handful of news sources that people come to regularly when they want to learn more about a particular topic.”

Developing relationships with experts

The Conversation’s unique way of making expert insight accessible is something that Waiting hopes others can learn from as a way of developing trust, both in publishing and academia.

“At the heart of our model is a partnership between an academic and a journalist,” he explained. “Academics are sometimes seen as a bit woolly and inconclusive; they put too many caveats on their story, they bury the lede, whereas a lot of academics are quite sceptical of talking to the mainstream media. They’ve seen their work misrepresented or over-sensationalised. The trust between the two has broken down, and so the partnership we create is very important to [addressing] that.”

Much of The Conversation UK’s focus now is on building further relationships with universities. They currently work with more than 75 UK universities, and have also recently added around a dozen European universities to that.

“There’s a real opportunity to engage with top-tier European research universities because their academics want to engage with the public,” Waiting said. “We want to bring that knowledge to not only the UK public, but to our readership globally. And that’s ultimately about finding the best expertise, the best research, and that means having the relationship with universities.”

Information for free

A core part of The Conversation’s model is ensuring their content is spread as far and wide as possible. They are one of a rare number of publishers who run an open access Creative Commons model of publishing, and as well as giving the information away for free, they also don’t have any advertising. Of the 100 million views of The Conversation stories in March, a third of those came from other publications who had republished the content, from the BBC to Le Monde, The Washington Post, El Pais, and more.

It’s something that Waiting has wrestled with in the past, because information is valuable. “Sometimes I worry, if we’re giving it away for free, it has no value?” he questioned. “But with our charitable status and mission, which is to take this knowledge which is locked away in the brains or laboratories of universities in particular, and bring that to the public in an accessible way, there is no way our content could ever justifiably be locked behind a paywall.”

The distribution model has also meant that The Conversations’ readership is both younger and wider than other news publishers, with more than 50% of readers being under 49. There are a disproportionate number of people with advanced degrees amongst the readership partly due to the academics they work with, and this in turn helps build trust with wider academic circles and the growing global audience.

Problematic publishers

The Conversation’s open access model has on occasion caused difficulties with authors, as stories are able to be republished on any site, provided the guidelines are followed. In fact, The Sun is a regular republisher of The Conversation’s content, which Waiting says is positive as it brings an academic’s high-quality work and findings to that audience, in their own words.

Waiting recalls one academic who felt uncomfortable when one of their stories was published on Breitbart, a controversial American far-right news and opinion site. But Breitbart had complied with all of the Creative Commons licensing conditions; the article was unchanged, it linked back to The Conversation’s site, was attributed correctly, and included the pixel tracker they used to measure readership.

“There’s always a bit of tension if a story ends up in a publication that might run counter to some of your values,” Waiting explained. “But actually, the argument we made was this means the readers on that site are seeing a perspective which perhaps challenges them. They haven’t distorted the content, they haven’t edited it.”

“Although that can occasionally be uncomfortable…ultimately it’s good that the high quality information is out there, and it’s better that we’re challenging misperceptions.”

Is the age of the expert finally here?

Not all publishers may be able to get academics and researchers contributing to content, but what The Conversation’s experience shows is that the public appetite is finally shifting towards wanting to hear from experts.

Their focus is now on widening the number of places that content can be found, and the formats it can be found in, from their new podcast series, or events over Facebook live with academics.

For Waiting, brand awareness is key to this. Although many ‘people in the street’ have probably read a story from The Conversation somewhere, he acknowledges that only a handful may have heard of the name of the publisher.

“We’re trying to make sure that things are packaged and targeted for the right audiences, as well as building relationships with other news organisations to make sure that not only people find our content, but our content finds people,” he concluded.

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