My UBC Journalism colleague Mary Lynn Young and myself are the co-founders of The Conversation Canada. In this essay written for the first day of publication, June 26 2017, we reflect on the experience and explain why the time has come for this new model of journalism.
The launch of The Conversation Canada is an opportunity to contribute to the quality of explanatory journalism in this country — and the promise such journalism holds for democratic engagement, informed policy and media innovation.
It brings academics and experienced journalists together to share timely analysis and commentary drawing from research, evidence and insights generated by Canadian universities.
We know that research can contribute to our understanding of today’s most pressing local, national and global concerns.
As a new national non-profit organization, The Conversation Canada demonstrates continued momentum for fresh ways to fund journalism. It adds to the growing list — early counts indicate at least 20 — of non-profit to semi-non-profit, foundation or university-based journalism organizations in Canada, according to a study by our UBC colleague, journalism professor Taylor Owen.
We are among an increasing number of institutional entrepreneurs experimenting with and reworking what journalism can and should do in this country.
This process involves recognizing that past forms and ways of being a journalist need to be disrupted and re-oriented for diverse audiences and changing technologies, and to address the continuing impact of what media economics scholar Robert Picard has called Canada’s “extraordinary consolidation of news enterprises.”
Circulation of ideas
For The Conversation Canada, part of the disruption lies in reshaping the role of the journalist as an editor/curator for academic contributors. This is important because universities and scholars have emerged as trusted sources of expertise globally.
Yet a significant portion of scholarly knowledge remains relatively hidden in expensive journals and is more often than not written for academic peers, rather than for a broad public.
The Conversation model is based on fostering the broadest circulation of content and amplifying the impact of ideas and research. All articles are free to republish by the media. The site is not just a destination but serves as a distribution hub for academic knowledge.
The innovation also lies in the funding model. Many new journalism non-profits have a mix of backing because it is such a challenging space. Similar to the early co-operative days of The Canadian Press, The Conversation Canada is based on a membership model. It has received funding from 17 Canadian universities, foundations, federal research funding, and a research institute.
As journalists who later took up positions as academics at a research university, we became intrigued by The Conversation model when we heard about its 2011 launch in Australia.
Founded by veteran editor Andrew Jaspan, the model is based on a partnership between academics and journalists that creates quality explanatory journalism free for anyone to share and republish. Researchers write in their field of expertise, and are edited by professional journalists to make independent, evidence-based contributions to the media.
Journey to launch
It has taken more than two years to bring this project to launch and pilot the service over the summer. We first raised it as a possibility in meetings with Stephen Toope, while he was president of the University of British Columbia, and was exploring how to transform the communications environment at the university.
These discussions led us to apply for funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2015 to explore the demand and viability for a Canadian version of The Conversation global network of sites. The network includes five other sites in Australia, France, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S., with a combined monthly audience of five million users and reach of 35 million through Creative Commons republication.
All of this led to the two big ideas in launching The Conversation Canada.
The first is to transform academic knowledge sharing and advance the quality of journalism in Canada by creating an independent and sustainable way to support researchers’ capacity to do explanatory journalism.
The second is to maximize the digital sharing of scholarly expertise. The Conversation model encourages open source values and collaboration in the university sector, amplifying the national and global impact of Canadian research.
These ideas come out of our ongoing research agenda on journalistic practices, media innovation and emerging technologies. From our perspective, The Conversation Canada provides a lab to investigate and interrogate new approaches to journalism.
It takes a village
Meeting all of these challenges has required a small village to reach launch day.
First, we wouldn’t be here without the leadership of our colleagues at The Conversation Media Group in Australia and elsewhere in the team globally. This includes editors at The Conversation outlets in Australia, France, U.K., U.S. and South Africa and the technology team in Melbourne. They have been exceptional supporters with proven success in connecting academics and journalism.
At The Conversation Canada, we have benefited from the significant contributions of launch editor Penny Park, a respected science journalist and founding executive director of the Science Media Centre, former associate editor Zoe Tennant and research assistants Peggy Lam, Frederick Blichert, John Woodside and Brittany Duggan.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council supported this project with two competitive grants amounting to almost $250,000. We would not have been so successful in securing the funding without the rigorous and insightful institutional grant application guidance of Dawn Whitworth at UBC.
Over the past year, we have reached out to the university sector nationally, meeting many people who committed their expertise to help us think through and/or collaborate on The Conversation Canada. They include Stephen Toope, Sheldon Levy, Paul Davidson, Pari Johnston, Philip Steenkamp, David Estok, Philippe Beauregard, Johanne Lebel, Gauri Sreenivasan, Allison Sekuler, Charles Falzon, Charles Davis, Daniel Justice, Alfred Leblanc, Christian Riel, Alex Freedman, Colette Brin, Noreen Golfman, Ann Sherman, Charles Pascal, Arvind Gupta, Cynthia Milton, Russel MacDonald, Jacqui Tam, Dawn Bazely, Minelle Mahtani, Michelle Stack, Rumee Ahmed, Daniel Muzyka, Robert Picard, Léo Charbonneau, Bruce Anderson, Brian Leadbetter, Lori Yarchuk, Janice Neil, Chris Waddell, Kelly Toughill, Tim Cahill, Nathan Hall, Ying Chan and Susan Danard.
In the philanthropic sector, Jane Bertrand at the Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation appreciated the vision of the project early on and supported it along with some of her partners and colleagues from the early child development funders working group including the Lawson Foundation. Alison Lawton, Graham Dover and Laura Schoenmakers of Mindset Social Innovation Foundation generously contributed the financial leadership and strategic advice for the funding model. Marcel Lauzière, Hilary Pearson, Stephen Huddart, Jean-Marc Chouinard, Chad Lubelsky and Laurence Miall provided essential expertise, connections and feedback about the project.
In the journalism sector, Madelaine Drohan, Malcolm Kirk and Gerry Arnold were early supporters. We also valued the conversations and wisdom of John Stackhouse and Beth Haddon along the way.
And lawyers Mark Crosbie, Christopher Lennon and David Wotherspoon in Vancouver and Stuart Robertson in Toronto helped to bring us up to speed on digital media startups, the non-profit sector and media insurance.
All along we have been fortunate to be able to count on the generosity and wisdom of our colleagues, friends and graduate students at the UBC School of Journalism. Special thanks to Candis Callison, Kathryn Gretsinger, Peter Klein and Taylor Owen.
There is always the risk of missing someone, and there are many more people who helped to make The Conversation Canada a reality. We extend our extreme gratitude to everyone who gave unsparingly of their time and insight along the way. It made a difference.
Mary-Lynn Young, Associate professor, Graduate School of Journalism, University of British Columbia and Alfred Hermida, Director and Associate professor, Graduate School of Journalism, University of British Columbia