Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Chris Waiting: For as long as I’ve worked in media, there’s always been a very strong theme of public service media, the BBC, obviously with its public service broadcasting remit. The Associated Press, although it’s perhaps not as well known, particularly not in the UK, is a member-owned, not-for profit-cooperative, and in its founding documents, the AP being 160 years old, it exists to uphold the First Amendment of the US Constitution of the access to a free and fair press.

I think that those values have always been really important to me. So I was fortunate to be introduced to The Conversation while I was at AP, we had a partnership with them in the US, and then it just so happened that my former boss at the BBC, Carolyn Thompson, is one of the trustees of The Conversation in the UK, and so was able to connect me when they were looking for a new Chief Executive.

It felt like a perfect match of my interests in public service media, along with the opportunity to really grow something that was quite a new business and doing things in a very different way.

Chris Sutcliffe: Yeah, that’s really interesting, that’s serendipity in action really there. But how much of that entrepreneurial spirit remains at The Conversation? It’s a fixture now of the digital media landscape.

I think so, these things can sometimes feel different on the inside than the outside. Yes, as you know, we’ve been going seven, coming up on eight years in the UK. And, actually, that does make us quite, almost establishment as digital news publishers go!

But compared to some of those larger institutions that have been going 100 years, it does very much feel like we are still inventing the future path.

I’ve seen the stats that have been sent over. And as mentioned, it’s doubled, and it’s doubled again, as a result of some very strong performances on COVID-related content for you. Do you see that as an opportunity? Or will we see a reversion to the mean here where people stop looking for COVID-related content, or will they continue to focus on expert insight and everything, as The Conversation provides?

I think it’s always almost all of those things, that early in the crisis, I tried to avoid the word ‘opportunity,’ because you could see quite how challenging this was going to be for the whole news ecosystem. And I could see that we were very fortunate that because of the way that we’re funded, we’re a charity, and as I mentioned, the bulk of our funding comes from universities. We weren’t facing a cliff edge in the same way as a lot of other publishers. And so it’s slightly felt wrong to describe it as an opportunity.

At the same time, it did feel like it was a moment that, one of my frustrations in the last few years has been that as we’ve covered elections, and other moments, that 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 somebody who really understands what they’re talking about.’

And it was different this time, that from February or March, we saw our traffic go through the roof because everything was changing, and nobody knew what was going on, and so the public was just really hungry to have experts not only explain the current moment, but to put it in context.

Traffic has come down slightly from that high; in March, our stories were read 100 million times globally. And that’s sort of ticked down to, I think about 70 million now. I hope that we’ve been engaging with them – trying to encourage them to subscribe to our newsletter, our podcasts and so on – that we’ll be able to retain some of those, that they’ll have recognised that we’re a place that they they enjoy visiting regularly.

And so yes, it’s approaching it as both a publisher and as a provider of information.

You didn’t want to describe it as an opportunity. And obviously, your funding methods are very, very different than a lot of the publications that are out there. But do you feel then that by presenting the stories as you do, and putting them in that wider context, that you’re almost providing a model for how expert insight can be communicated to the general public?

I think so. There are probably a lot of things that other bits of the media could learn from us, and indeed, that academics and universities can learn from us as well.

At the heart of our model is a partnership between an academic and a journalist, that while when you come to our site and you read any of the stories, the byline you see on the stories, the academic who wrote it, you see bits of the media saying that academics are sometimes a bit woolly and inconclusive, and 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 that we create is very important to that.

I wonder, do you think there is a bifurcation then in terms of media between the open access journalism that we’re seeing from the likes of yourself, The Guardian, a bunch of places that make that public access very central to their message, and the hard paywalled organisations who are saying, well actually no that news and that content needs to be paid for. Is there almost a forking path here where both are viable methods?

Information is valuable. And again, one of the questions I slightly wrestled with when I started this job was to do with the fact that we were giving away our content for free. If you come to the site, then you don’t see any ads. There’s no paywall.

We also publish everything under a Creative Commons licence, which means you can republish it for free. So the hundred million reads I mentioned earlier on, I think that particular month, a third of those reads came from other publications, and that ranges from the BBC to Le Monde, to The Washington Post, El Pais, publications all over the world.

And sometimes I worry, does that mean if we’re giving it away for free, it has no value? And I think that particularly with our charitable status, and our charitable 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 be justifiably locked away behind a paywall.

I see. I think what’s quite interesting as well is that you’re talking about engagement there. And I know that you’ve shared some numbers about how open rates and the number of people who have signed up to the daily newsletter, so 72,000 people, of whom a third open it every day. To what extent then is the strategy of the newsletter driven by the news cycle, and how much of it is driven by actually wanting to give your readers a new way to engage with and consume your articles?

It’s a real blend. So I’m going to take a step back, the kind of stories that we publish essentially fall into two categories.

The first is, as you mentioned, things that emerge directly from the news cycle, and in that space, we always say we don’t do breaking news. It’s more like a news magazine, we provide analysis 24 hours after a story has happened, providing a particular expert perspective on what’s happening.

And then the other half of the content we produce is entirely original, and coming directly out of research. And so that might be an academic paper that’s being published somewhere like Nature, and that will be read by a few dozen of the immediate peers of the academics involved. And so they want to write with us because it allows them to reach tens of thousands of people in a different sort of space.

And when it comes to the newsletter, I talked earlier on about trying to capture and engage with the first time readers, and in some ways, we are clearly – this is something common to very many publishers – but essentially it’s a funnel that we take our first time readers, whether those are someone who’s encountered a story somewhere else, they’ve seen it on the BBC, they’ve seen it in the Daily Mail, The Sun, Huffington Post, and perhaps they’ve clicked through to read the story on our site.

And then we want them to come back, perhaps they remember us in their address bar, or perhaps they’ll subscribe to the newsletter. And by appearing in their in their inbox each day, we can give them a curated selection of, here are some perspectives on the news, something that’s quite topical, something that will capture their imagination, hopefully get them to open it, but also presenting them with things that they won’t see anywhere else. The really distinctive stories that we have.

And so it’s finding that blend between the two and building a relationship with them, as you sort of move them through that funnel. I mean happening in about 90 minutes as we speak, we’re doing our first online panel discussion which we made available to people through the newsletter. It wasn’t advertised on the site.

Ultimately, I’ve mentioned before that we’re a charity, encouraging those people who really like us to donate and support us that way. And so it’s really starting to try to build a relationship with the reader so that they’re not someone who comes to us through Google and then disappears, and we never hear from them again. But becoming someone that they go to for a perspective on the news, or to learn things that they wouldn’t learn elsewhere.

And you’ve you mentioned the online panel, and you’ve mentioned podcasts as well. Is that all in service then of building that relationship, and hopefully, getting them to the point of supporter status?

I think the kind of publication that we are, we will always have people who come in, read one article and go away. I think that’s inevitable. I don’t think we could ever be a one stop shop for all of your news. If nothing else as I say, we don’t do breaking news.

But certainly we want to grow those relationships so that we are part of the handful of new sources that people perhaps come to regularly when they want to learn more about a particular topic. But clearly it’s very important for us to make sure that our content is findable in a lot of places.

It’s again, one of the reasons that I think the open access Creative Commons model of publishing, which again, you could look at and say, is that a problem? Should we be making the content feel more exclusive, that you can only find it if you come to our site? And actually, again, in spirit of our charitable purpose, it’s better that we say the content goes to wherever our audiences are.

One of the things that I think sometimes surprises some of our authors is that The Sun is a regular republisher of our stories, because they don’t naturally think of that as a place that academics would be writing in their own words. But in fact, the digital editor of The Sun approached us and said, ‘We’d really like to use some of your content. Can we do that?’ And the first thing I said was, ‘Well it’s Creative Commons, you don’t even need to ask for our permission!’ But it was nice that they did.

And so actually, we’ve got a great relationship with them. And this is not just about The Sun spotting a story, pulling a quote out and writing their own piece, which of course, they can and do as well, but actually an academic writing in their own words in The Sun. And that’s something really powerful that we’re able to enable thanks to that open access Creative Commons model.

Are there ever concerns internally about the context in which the Creative Commons content is taken and presented elsewhere? Or does the Creative Commons licence itself guarantee that the context remains intact, even if it has been republished?

We sometimes ask questions that I know one of the authors got in touch with us a year or two ago when one of the stories was published on Breitbart, and they said, ‘Oh, that makes me really uncomfortable.’ And we took a look at it, and Breitbart had complied with all of our policies; the article was unchanged, it contained links back to us, it had correct attribution that even included the pixel tracker that we use to measure readership.

So it is always a bit of a tension that you say, if a story ends up in a publication that might run counter to some of your values. But actually, the argument we made was that 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.

And so I think that although that can occasionally be uncomfortable, and it’s very, very rare that something like that happens, ultimately, it’s good that the high quality information is out there, and it’s better that we’re challenging misperceptions.

Obviously, if someone breaches the licence, if they edit the story, if they add a distorting headline or something like that, then we will get in touch with them and make them either take it down, or make sure they’re complying with the licence. But generally, most publishers are pretty good at that.

Have you seen your demographics shift in terms of who’s signing up to the newsletter? Or have you found that the audience itself has maintained a very broad base?

Our readership has always been a bit younger than other news publishers. I think more than 50% is under 49 last time I checked the stats. But I think that certainly making the stories available in lots of places is helpful.

Sometimes I think we should perhaps be doing more on some of the new platforms as a way of bringing readers in, although quite what an academic communicating their research on TikTok would look like, I don’t know!

That’s worth an experiment just to see!

But certainly, it does mean the readership of our stories is very, very global, and the republication is very, very global. The newsletter we know is a bit more UK-centric, and then when it comes to donations, it’s even more UK-centric. And so it’s sort of concentric circles going out from the core of what we do.

Again, unsurprisingly, given the content and the academics we work with, there is a disproportionate number of people with advanced degrees for example, amongst our readership. But I think that again, it’s because people in the academic world recognise the value of what we do, and they really want to champion it and share it with with their colleagues and friends and networks.

And then what do you then see as being the biggest opportunities for The Conversation, either in terms of audience growth or in terms of funding, or even if they’re divisible from one another, because contributions could well be a huge focus for you?

Yes. So I’ll take that last bit first, that we’ve always allowed people to donate to The Conversation as a charity. But until about two years ago, that wasn’t something that we were particularly focused on.

In some ways we’ve been following the lead of The Conversation in Australia, which was the founding edition back in 2011, which this year has raised more than a million Australian dollars from its readers, and have set themselves a target to, I think in the next five years, bringing in about 50% of their income from readers.

By comparison, we’ve managed to increase our reader donations from about 4% of our income up to about 8% this year, which is absolutely something significant I’m really proud of. But we’re not quite in in that order of magnitude yet. There are multiple reasons for that, I think there’s there is much more of a market failure when it comes to high quality journalism in Australia. And then if you read the Reuters Digital News Report, there’s just a higher tendency in certain markets to donate to media organisations than you get in the UK.

What does that mean for the future of the organisation? Part of it does come back to the two avenues for growth that I mentioned earlier on. One is is growing readership, trying to grow awareness in the UK, because I am aware that I could stop 100 people on the streets and only a handful of them would have heard of us, even though the stats would suggest, in fact, a far higher number probably had read some of our stories somewhere at some point. So trying to make sure 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.

And then growing the relationships we have with universities. As I said at the start, we work with more than 75 UK universities, virtually all of the research-intensive universities in the UK. And in the last couple of years, we’ve added around a dozen European universities to that, so Trinity College, Dublin, Stockholm University, Utrecht University in the Netherlands. And I think there’s a real opportunity to engage with top tier European research universities because their academics, their universities wants to engage with the public.

Also we want to bring that knowledge to not only the UK public but to our readership globally, that it’s ultimately about finding the best expertise, the best research. And ultimately that means having the relationships with the universities.

I think that The Conversation is going from strength to strength. And if people come to the website, they can check out the stories and get a sense of the kind of things that we cover. I think sometimes people are put off by the idea that they think the content we publish is going to be very, very dry, very, very academic. And they start reading one or two stories and they suddenly find themselves going, actually, this is really interesting. This is exactly the kind of stuff that I’d like to read more of.

And so if you find yourself in that camp, try subscribing to the newsletter, try checking out the podcast. We’re just coming to the end of our own podcast series called Recovery, which has picked six moments in the past where humanity was really threatened or really disrupted. And looking at how we rebuilt from that moment. I will point out that we launched that a few weeks before the BBC published their very similar series! So yeah, we got there first on that one.

I would encourage people to check out that. I think the event we’ve got this afternoon, which will be in the past by the time this goes out, I think will be the first of many.

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