Under former Financial Mail editor Caroline Southey, The Conversation aims to use journalistic flair to link the academic world with the ordinary man in the street. In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for Journalism.co.za:
The Conversation, a website that makes academics’ work accessible to the ordinary man in the street and allows anyone to republish the work for free, is launching in South Africa soon under former Financial Mail editor Caroline Southey.
First launched in Australia in March 2011 and then in the United Kingdom (UK) in May 2013 and the United States (USA) in October 2014, Southey is bringing The Conversation to cover the African continent with its initial base in Johannesburg.
Backed by donor funding and with Southey as editor, the plan is to go live in May. The editorial team includes deputy editor Jabulani Sikhakhane (communications director at the Treasury), Thabo Leshilo (former Sowetan and Business Times editor), Edwin Naidu and Natasha Joseph.
This team will set the news agenda, liaise with academics – commission work and suggest ideas while academics will also put forward their own suggestions – plus edit the academics’ work so that it is accessible and concise.
“It’s about taking the fact-based, research-based information that is currently circulated in small communities and predominantly academic institutions and sharing this with the public,” Southey told Journalism.co.za last week.
“For me, the beauty of the model is its simplicity because you’re taking basic journalistic skills – editing skills and having a nose for stories – and combining that with this very deep pool of knowledge. It is the combination of these two that I think is what’s magical about the site.
“I think the reason the site has been so successful is that it taps into two needs: 1). The need of the academics to share their knowledge and get their work into the public domain and 2). A hunger on the other side to have access to this knowledge and insight.
“Strong management team”
“The reason why the site has a fresh feel is that the newsroom behaves like a newsroom. Every morning at 9am, they discuss the events of the past 24 hours, what’s coming up in the next 48, think of story angles and then find academics to write.”
A strong management team that can develop and maintain relationships with academic institutions and outlets across Africa is key to the growth of The Conversation, says Southey, and it includes Tanya Pampalone from the Mail & Guardian and Alexandra Storey. They will also be managing the donor relationships.
“It’s important to understand that the editorial team is key but the running of it as a viable going concern requires dedicated energy and time,” says Southey.
Relationships with academic authors will have to be fostered and encouraged – and this starts with finding the right activators in the institutions to find the potential authors.
Hosted by Wits University
In the UK and Australia, The Conversation is funded by the universities but the local version has gone the route of securing donor funding and Southey has been spending time getting endorsements of support from universities across Africa for the website.
Wits University in Johannesburg is providing free office space.
“We’ve been making good headway [with endorsements]. We’ve been received incredibly well by the vice chancellors,” says Southey.
But just because the content is free doesn’t mean you don’t have to manage the outflow so Pampalone will manage this and also be responsible for The Conversation’s social-media strategy.
“As we all know consumption is increasingly through social media,” Southey says. “And remember we’re doing a pan-African build so you have to know every news editor of every title in the different countries. It’s a massive build and what they’ve found at the other sites is that it takes very active management. So it’s not a question of people finding out about it by accident or stumbling across it – it’s an active encouraging of people to look for material.”
Custom-built content management system
The idea is to concentrate first on SA and then build out into Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana – and create editing capabilities over the next two to four years in these countries.
Research surveys from the existing three Conversation website shows that 80% of the audience is not academic and more than 40% of the authors have had follow-ups from other media. More than 25 000 articles have been republished by 16 000 websites while The Conversation network reaches more than two million unique browsers a month.
The content management system – which also tracks who is republishing articles and how they are picked up by social media – has been purpose-built by The Conversation and the Australian founders will send someone to South Africa to help set it up and train everyone in using it.
There is a lot of support and communication across the network in the different countries, Southey says, and they also share content.
Southey points to The Conversation’s community standards as the embodiment of its spirit. The guidelines include:
- Don’t attack people and don’t respond to attacks – report them and move on;
- We’re here to talk about ideas, not the people behind them; and
- Treat people with the respect you’d like to receive. Admit when you’re wrong. You’ll come across opinions you disagree with. That doesn’t make them invalid.
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