With the press under attack—along with the very concept of factual information, for that matter—philanthropy’s taken a keen interest in journalism and media projects. One such outfit drawing funders is The Conversation, a nonprofit seeking to inject the media landscape with a strong dose of expert analysis, by way of academia.
The Conversation is a unique nonprofit media project, which, instead of paying for investigative reporting or exploring new models in publishing, gives academic experts a platform—with bylines, editorial guidance, and a chance to have their insights shared across major news outlets.
This model has attracted a varied mix of some the country’s biggest funders, eager either to give the media a boost of credible content, heighten the national discourse, or raise public awareness of work coming out of academia (another much-maligned institution, lately). The Conversation is also drawing lots of eyes, its posts averaging 7 million readers a month, mostly via other news outlets that are allowed to republish the work free of charge.
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“We provide content that’s been triple fact-checked, edited, and it’s from a very reputable source, which means an expert academic,” says Bruce Wilson, executive director of The Conversation U.S., and former publisher of the Chronicles of Higher Education and Philanthropy. “All these media outlets have an opportunity to take our content and run it, and feel very comfortable that it will be well respected.”
A large part of the project’s funding comes from foundation support. Recently wrapping up its third year, The Conversation’s budget—$2.3 million in 2017 and $3.45 million in 2018—is covered about 65 percent by foundations, including major supporters that include the Lilly Endowment, and the Sloan, Knight, Simons, Rita Allen, Gates and Ford foundations.
Some supporters, like the Knight Foundation, back the project out of an explicit interest in journalism and media, while others are focused on educating the public, or they want to get the word out about the kind of work they support.
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“They want that research that they fund to be shared with the public, not just live in these scholarly areas,” Wilson says. So the organization also has an open science component, something foundations like Gates are drawn to.
This high level of philanthropic support wasn’t the plan, initially. The Conversation started in Australia in 2011 and then expanded to the U.K. in 2013, where the model relies more on partnerships with universities and research institutes. When founder Andrew Jaspan pitched a U.S. pilot to funders, the intent was to be supported mainly by universities, Wilson says. Jaspan (a controversial figure in Australian media) left the company entirely in 2017, following widespread complaint from staff and boards.
The U.S. branch is now helmed by Wilson and Editor and Co-CEO Maria Balinska, formerly of the BBC. The current funding plan is to keep the foundation grants coming, but they’ve also started soliciting reader support, and have been engaging with government agencies. The Conversation is a nonprofit and sells no advertising.
The other funding component is university partnerships, making up about 35 percent of the budget. Partner schools contribute up to $35,000 per year and university leaders promote writing for the site, while faculty receive access to editors for pitches, and professional development and coaching on communications.
About 60 percent of content comes from partner universities, but any academic can pitch for the site, and Wilson emphasizes that editorial staff, who have extensive backgrounds in media, have full control over what’s published.
As media outlets pursue new models of funding, including philanthropy, donor influence (or even the perception of influence) on coverage has emerged as a thorny issue.
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Wilson says the organization’s rules and the rigor of its editors protect The Conversation’s integrity. It’s written into grants, for example, that editors have full control over what’s published, he says, and they’ve even backed away from talks with a few funders that wanted to dictate coverage. “It’s actually very important in the negotiations with a foundation for a grant.” Every piece also includes a disclosure statement of each writer’s funding sources.
The pitches editors do run with vary quite a bit—including analysis of current events (“Would impeaching Trump restore the rule of law? Lessons from Latin America”), timely curiosities (“How advertising shaped Thanksgiving as we know it”), and dispatches from faculty research (“Medieval medical books could hold the recipe for new antibiotics”).
Once a pitch is accepted, editors work extensively with the expert to make it palatable while maintaining its rigor. This is a delicate balance, as many academics are uncomfortable writing for a general audience, or fear that journalists will misinterpret their work. The Conversation’s editors seek to close that gap, and also curb self-promotion, which turns off media outlets. Wilson says one piece from Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, took two months to fine-tune, but ended up having a major impact.
Much of that impact comes, by design, from pick-ups by other media outlets, which include the Washington Post, Scientific American, the Associated Press, as well as local publications. While many of the posts it runs have a political charge, editors strive to create analysis that could be picked up by right- and left-leaning media.
“We provide something that can live in all different places, and at the end of the day, that’s so important to us, the ability to have a start point from both sides to be able to be reading the same piece,” Wilson says. Outlets are free to publish under a Creative Commons license with attribution, but cannot make substantive edits.
With The Conversation U.S. publishing about 50 stories a week, that additional stream of reliable content is no doubt valuable, especially to small publications.
There is something a little off-putting about the idea of turning academics into journalists on the side. Part of the reason the model works is because the contributing experts are not being paid to write—they author posts as part of communicating their academic work (public engagement is increasingly factored into hiring and tenure in many universities). While there’s considerable editorial oversight of contributors, the role of the professional reporter or writer is not part of the equation.
Wilson underscores that their goal is not to compete with journalists or news reporting, nor is it to save the industry. Instead, what they offer is expert opinion and analysis as a supplement to reporting. “We’re actually trying to enhance and give the media content that they can trust and put it up on their site, and sell advertising against it.” Publications will sometimes even request posts on a particular topic to add context to their reported coverage, Wilson says.
If The Conversation isn’t trying to save journalism, it may be trying to save the hot take, the flood of opinion and analysis that dominates online discourse—or at least add an element of rigor to it. You might think of it as a scholarly grounding wire for digital dialogue that has become so very ungrounded.