When The Conversation launched in the UK five years ago, “fake news” was a term that had yet to be coined and Donald Trump was still only firing people on US television show The Apprentice.
“I think we launched a pre-emptive strike against fake news,” editor Stephen Khan told Press Gazette. “We were talking about [how] we were concerned about this issue of trust.
“I think we saw the landscape that had been created that was going to allow those sorts of [fake news] narratives to flourish.”
In 2013 the UK press was still adjusting to the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry that followed the phone-hacking scandal, while also facing plummeting print circulation as readers shifted to digital.
“We were in the eye of the storm of the business model meltdown, the advertising collapse,” said Khan, a former news editor at the Guardian who has also worked for the Independent and the Observer.
“There were a lot of questions about where does expertise come from, newspapers were all laying off specialist writers.”
Khan left the Guardian to become launch editor of The Conversation UK, two years after it was founded in Australia by former Observer editor Andrew Jaspan.
“That fear of how the public viewed knowledge and the delivery of knowledge was absolutely a factor in me becoming involved in this project,” he said.
“Certainly I wasn’t predicting that it would become such a dominant factor in presidential elections.
“In 2013 I’m not sure I was even convinced the Brexit referendum would happen. From there the debate around truth but also around expertise, we couldn’t have predicted those specifics, but also we were extremely concerned about how knowledge travels and how expertise is communicated to the public.”
The Conversation has a unique journalism model. Its writers are academics who are either commissioned or pitch articles about their area of expertise in relation to current affairs.
There are no staff writers but a team of editors covering the UK and Northern Europe, in the English language, who both instruct new contributors on how to write journalistically and advise them on their articles. Nothing is published without both sides being happy.
Everything the Conversation publishes on its website is free to be republished by other news organisations on the agreement it runs as written.
“For many of our authors, all of whom are academics based at universities, often this means they are reaching a much bigger audience than they have previously been able to,” said Khan, pinpointing the allure of writing for the website for academics even though they all do so unpaid.
In April, the UK website received 3m unique browsers, a figure which rises to 15m when content republished across external news websites is included, said Khan.
Across all of its websites and republication sites, The Conversation content had 37m total page views in April.
The Conversation UK is funded by 74 UK and five European institutions who pay an annual membership fee, collectively making up 90 per cent of the website’s funding. The rest comes from grants from organisations such as the Higher Education Funding Council.
It began with just 13 members, including City University, which runs one of the UK’s most well-respected journalism courses and on whose London campus the team is based.
Membership means universities “are able to look at where their content is being read, how many people have read it and which publications have republished it” and gets them training from The Conversation’s editors.
“We are taking journalistic skills and saying to people who have great detailed knowledge, here’s how you can share that knowledge at a key moment,” Khan said.
“We take them from that point of being trained and then lead them through the process, so commission if they’ve got a good idea and help with the writing process.”
The number of editors has more than doubled in five years, from eight at its launch to about 20 now. The website also has two commercial staff, including new chief executive Chris Waiting who previously held senior management roles at the Associated Press and the BBC.
At its launch, The Conversation received some criticism over giving sign-off to academics on what it publishes. “I think there was a misunderstanding there of what it was,” Khan said.
“Maybe that was us not being clear about it, but I think that particular journalist thought we were trying to replicate news reporting – that these academics were in some way going to be producing news reports.
“I think this is much more akin to op-ed journalism. The reality is I think this is a new kind of journalism, we often produce a type of content that’s just not been seen before…
“It’s analysis, explanation and commentary. These are academics, they aren’t seeking to come out of the lab and chase ambulances or do live blogs.”
But one way it does share similarities with other newsrooms is in holding a 9am editorial conference to run through stories.
The Conversation has nine sections, including science and technology, arts and culture, and politics and society, each headed up by an editor.
Khan said staff “talk about what they’re putting up that day, what they’ve got on the schedule, but also about big issues that are coming into view and how they plan to deal with them”.
“The concept is very much academics writing to a general audience,” he said. “We don’t make money on basis of how many clicks we get. We are committed to content we feel is valuable and grounded in research and sometimes quite deep knowledge…
“When there are serious events, like gravitational waves – obviously it’s an incredibly dense subject but massively important – that’s where we can come into our own and report these developments in a timely but also a hugely accessible manner.”
Khan said his former newsroom colleagues had been sceptical about the idea of working with academics to respond to current affairs.
“They were laughing and saying, ‘okay, working closely with academics, we’ll see you in six months. They’ll never be able to write in time, they’ll never be able to write to length’.”
But, he said: “It’s just not true, people can do this if they are guided through it. Obviously we have cases where people write far too much or in a very complicated way. We are there to help them and work with them.
“That’s not to say there aren’t sometimes differences of opinion, but there is a very clear and user-friendly system that allows the academics and editors to work on the document at the same time.
“The academic can see what the headline is going to be and what the picture is going to look like, so there are no shocks as they sometimes find when writing in other publications.”
Khan said pieces have been spiked “when the academic has said that’s just too much of a compromise and we’ve said the way you want to do it will not work for a general audience”, but this is not a regular occurrence.
In the early days of The Conversation Khan would encounter academics who felt burned by newspapers sensationalising or misunderstanding their research.
He said: “What we’ve been able to do is bring a significant number of them – 12,000 in this country – back into that debate, and many of them for the first time.”
The Conversation has published some 20,000 articles in five years.
But Khan said the “traditional model” of a journalist speaking to an expert and writing up a piece independently was, “if done in a professional way,” a “perfectly valid” approach.
“I don’t criticise it at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t say stop reading the Guardian science editor and start reading this. I think they can be quite complementary.
“I absolutely quite firmly believe that there is a place for objective reporting, but I think we absolutely went through a period where there was some sloppy reporting and often mistakes were made in the press – not all of it, there have always been fantastic specialist reporters and great news editors and all that sort of stuff – but I do think there was a period of a decade or more where the commercial pressures the industry was under began to tell.
“People were being stretched by being asked to do too much, or more with fewer or less experienced resources, and mistakes would be made. The demand to stem declines in circulation would cause editors to push desks to push for more dramatic takes on pieces and I think sometimes that led to content that was perhaps less reliable than one might aspire to in certain cases.”
He said the “desperation” for sales had now “morphed” into a desperation for online clicks. But, he sees social media as having offered an antidote.
“The minute a small error is made then you’ve got a herd attacking it on Twitter and calling for a correction. I think good publications make those corrections quickly and publicly and I certainly hope we do that.”
Khan said he does not believe the UK has an issue with “content farms” generating fake news to deliberately mislead.
“I’m not sure it’s fake news in the way we were talking about it stealing the US election a couple of years ago, but can we produce better content and channel it to the public? I think absolutely yes we can,” he said.
“I think the quality of what’s produced can be higher and I think at the bottom end some of the headlines and clickbaity stuff that’s pushed out isn’t possibly of the highest order.”
Khan said this had “allowed quite fertile ground for politicians to call upon competing versions of the truth”.
“That’s an environment into which we have been able to walk and actually become quite important.”