The boundaries between entirely professional, distinct news organisations on the one side and amateur, distributed citizen journalism on the other are softening and dissolving. At the point of convergence between professional journalism and amateur news engagement, a variety of new models for news are emerging, exploring diverse organisational configurations and drawing on a range of expertise across journalism, marketing, digital media and other fields.
This paper examines one of the most remarkable, internationally successful new platforms for the publication of news from outside conventional journalistic frameworks: The Conversation. Initiated in Australia and now operating across the US, UK, France, and southern Africa, this platform is financially supported by a coalition of academic institutions around the world and provides what can be understood as ‘journalism-as-a-service’ (JAAS): a small team of journalistically trained staff are working with a large community of scholars from participating institutions to convert their research findings and other evidence-based interventions in current public debate into formats that are more closely aligned with conventional news writing, and thus more accessible to non-expert readers.
As a result, these articles stand a greater chance of being recognised and used by other news organisations as well as by the general public. Further, by publishing under Creative Commons licences, The Conversation facilitates the broad re-publication of its content in conventional news outlets, news and science blogs, and other online sites. This substantially increases the circulation of such scientific insights; for the academics involved, such exposure also frequently leads to added exposure in the news media through follow-up interviews and other engagements. Overall, this JAAS model has been remarkably successful at inserting scholarly knowledge into public debates.
As a born-digital platform, in addition to staff-led content sourcing The Conversation invites scholars to initiate the process by submitting their draft story ideas for development by TC staff; this crowdsourcing-inspired approach generates considerably more breadth and depth of coverage than a reliance on conventional science journalism. But this paper highlights the ways in which a considerable level of journalistic control is still being maintained at sites like The Conversation, with traditionally-trained journalists acting as gatekeepers in soliciting contributions from academics as well as in helping them to construct their articles. At the same time, this model is also giving up some aspects of journalistic control and relies on experts to produce the majority of information themselves, rather than merely being questioned by journalists.
Documenting the impact of this site on the visibility of scholarly work in public debate, and the take-up of Conversation content by the general public, the paper also presents an in-depth analysis of social media-based dissemination of Conversation stories, drawing on a multi-year study of news-sharing practices in Australia. Read against the context of what is known about overall news engagement practices through social media in this country, such detailed quantitative data provides compelling evidence for the impact of The Conversation in inserting scientific findings into the national conversation, as well as identifying areas requiring further development.