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November 25, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:47am

The Conversation chief exec Chris Waiting on how pandemic has boosted readership and revenue

By Freddy Mayhew

The Conversation UK’s chief executive is reluctant to call the coronavirus pandemic an “opportunity” for the academic-led publication given the challenges it has brought, but its readership has nearly doubled this year in the wake of the global health crisis.

The Conversation first launched in Australia in 2011 and then came to the UK two years later. It now has eight editions around the world. It has charity status in the UK and relies on university and grant funding for the vast majority of its income, topped up with reader donations.

The title’s contributors are all academics who write only about their area of expertise. A team of journalists works with them, bringing news sense and copy editing know-how to help create articles that combine topicality with cutting-edge research which can be understood by the average reader.

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The Conversation’s articles are published on its own website, but also can be republished by any other news organisation free of charge through Creative Commons. This month it struck a deal with news agency PA Media to put its content on the UK wire (it is already on AFP, AP and Reuters).

‘It feels like a moment for the kind of journalism we do’

Press Gazette reported on The Conversation in 2018, its fifth year publishing in the UK. Then, editor Stephen Khan said it had 37m page views a month globally for its content.

Chief executive Chris Waiting (pictured) told Press Gazette that figure had risen to 106m in March, the peak of the pandemic. The Conversation is continuing to reach up to 70m monthly page views.

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“We saw traffic just go through the roof,” said Waiting, who oversees the UK and English-language European operations.

“Obviously that’s something that every news organisation has seen,” he said. “I’ve tried to avoid describing it as an opportunity because clearly [Covid-19] is disruptive and challenging… but it does feel a bit like a moment for the kind of journalism we do, of actually bringing experts directly to people  [who’re asking]: ‘What’s going on? How should I keep my family safe? Why is the government doing this? What does this term I’ve heard in the media mean?’ All of those sorts of questions.

“The kind of explanatory journalism and expert-led, evidence-led journalism that we do has really played to that and I think that – in contrast to perhaps recent election campaigns where there hasn’t necessarily been too much room for experts – this has been a moment where the public has responded really positively to what we do.”

Unique browsers across the network in October were at 25.7m, up from 14.3m the same time last year. Uniques topped 44.1m in March.

[See more: The Conversation’s UK editor on five years of producing a ‘new kind of journalism’ as academics take the bylines]

With no advertising on its sites, The Conversation has not seen a boost to its coffers as a result of this growth, but equally it has not been affected by the downturn in advertising revenue seen across the wider news industry.

Waiting said the proportion of The Conversation UK’s income from readers had doubled in the year to the end of July 2020 to £90,000 from 3,000 donors. A campaign for reader donations in May/June – pushed back from March – helped drive a “significant uptick”.

Waiting said that 80% of donations were from regular donors who give money each month, “which gives us a baseline that we’re able to build on for the year ahead”.

Across its eight non-profit editions, The Conversation had a combined revenue of about £9m in 2019.

Growing awareness of The Conversation is part of Waiting’s priorities as chief executive. “We are not a household name,” he said. “I’d like us to be, but unlike Australia, where The Conversation first launched, there are already many high-quality sources of news [in the UK].

“We think we really add to the debate the public’s understanding of big topics, but it’s a lot harder to cut through.”

[Read more: New Scientist editor Emily Wilson: ‘We’ve completely changed our business, all from our bedrooms’]

The Conversation’s audience is global – only about a quarter of its readers are in the UK. “We’re also speaking to people in the US, in Australia, all over the world,” said Waiting, “and because everything we publish is released under Creative Commons, people are reading it in other publications as well, whether that is the Mail, Le Monde, Washington Post, CNN.

“So there is always this challenge of I want people to read our stuff – and I’d rather they read it on CNN, or wherever, than not at all – but I’d like them to build a relationship with us.”

Waiting said it is encouraging readers on its own websites to sign up for its newsletters and podcasts “so we can start to build up that relationship” and turn “drive-by readers” into regular readers and perhaps donors. It is also working with “republishers” to receive more prominence for its brand.

“We never want to lock away anything we do, and it is very important to our charitable purpose that the knowledge goes out there and it finds the audience where they are rather than requiring them to come to us, but clearly there’s strategic value in building that relationship with [readers],” said Waiting.

No time to peer review – ‘the science is moving so rapidly’

The Conversation was uniquely placed in covering the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to its global network of academics. UK editor Khan led a project that drew on this network to pull together a digest of different perspectives on coronavirus each week, which included not just the latest news but also related topics from around the world edited by editors from those regions.

“It is the kind of thing that only we can do,” said Waiting. “We can have an epidemiologist talking about how you build models for pandemics, we can have a geneticist looking at the evolution of the Covid genome, but we can also have a historian talking about how the world reacted to crises in the past, literature professors who look at great works of art that have come out of periods of quarantine, and things like that.

“While perhaps science and health is the most distinctive stuff we do, actually it was reflecting the full breadth of academic knowledge, not just in the UK but around the world. Those projects have been really gratifying.”

Covering Covid-19 has led to a change in The Conversation’s policy on academic research. Where normally it would wait for it to undergo the peer review process and appear in a journal, Waiting said “the science is moving so rapidly” that it brought in its own informal system of peer reviewing, using a qualified academic, to help it keep up.

[Read more: After recovering from coronavirus hit, Independent eyes global expansion: Interview with CEO Zach Leonard]

Funding fears ‘keep me up at night’

The Conversation employs 150 journalists worldwide. It has so far not used the UK Government’s furlough scheme during lockdown, but instead hired two new specialist Covid-19 editors.

“There was so much research, so much news,” said Waiting. “We started the year with one health editor and there was steam coming out of his ears, so we wanted to put some extra resource into that… we are very fortunate that we were able to do so.”

The Conversation UK brings in about £1.5m a year. Its main source of funding – over 80% – is from universities, of which 85 are paying “members”. Although academics from any university can write for The Conversation, members get benefits such as detailed analytics on where stories have been read and editorial training. They are also sent a newslist of topics that editors are looking for experts to write about.

This core line of funding is something Waiting said is a “constant worry” for him, especially as the pandemic has threatened even the financial sustainability of the university sector.

“I came up with budgets, saying ‘what do we look like if 50% of our members have to cancel? If universities go bust or get merged or something like that? What does that look like?’,” said Waiting on getting to grips with the pandemic early on.

“Clearly it’s very challenging, we are fundamentally a people business so there’s not much we can do before we start losing journalists…

“If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night it is the relationship we have with our members, which is so fundamental to what we do. It’s why I’m encouraged that things like reading donations are taking up because that gives us a bit of headroom and flexibility to invest.”

He added: “We’ve been very fortunate that so far membership has held up. I like to think that’s because of the value we provide, and because universities recognise the value of having someone helping the public understand what’s going on based on evidence and research.”

Waiting said that while The Conversation has weathered the storm so far he would continue to be cautious about the coming 12-24 months, with the university sector “far from out of the woods”. “As the source of 80% of our funding, inevitably that would have a knock-on impact on us.”

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