Some of us are old enough to remember Michael Gove infamously taking on ‘the experts’ during the EU Referendum campaign in 2016. “I think the people of this country are fed-up with experts [from] organisations [with] acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong,” the Conservative minister told Faisal Islam, in what was a great bit of TV for Sky News.
It took a pandemic and the threat (now actuality) of mass excess deaths for establishment academic-types to come back in vogue with the Vote Leave team, a faction of which ended up running the UK with chief Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister now even often finds himself flanked by scientists as he addresses the nation.
It’s not just the political class clamouring for expertise though, the media and Joe Public are lapping it up too thanks to the mass uncertainty the Covid-19 pandemic has infected into our daily lives. The Conversation has been one of the big beneficiaries of this new appetite for quality information.
Founded in Australia more than a decade ago, it expanded into the UK in 2012. It has been the best kept secret among opinion editors, who can use its content – from economics to the environment – free of charge so long as they cite its origin and the Creative Commons terms that they are sharing the article. CEO Chris Waiting, who joined the outlet in 2018, wants to change the dynamic slightly by attracting more readers directly to its website.
“A lot of this is the classic funnel – helping make first-time readers aware of what makes us different, encouraging repeat visitors to subscribe to a newsletter or a podcast,” he told FN.
“Being smarter with our analytics. And recognising that given that a lot of our stories aren't tied to breaking news and so are fairly evergreen, tweaking our SEO to ensure they're easily findable.”
To help, The Conversation has launched a new weekly podcast and is expanding the number of long-read articles (often involving multiple authors from different disciplines) it produces.
“While historically we haven't done much video, right at the end of the year we started producing webinars, which have performed really well,” Waiting added. The outlet has just finished a survey of its readers and will be using the data from that exercise to see where some new editorial opportunities may lie.
The whole enterprise is run on a charitable model, with 10% of donations coming from readers. Other sources of income come from partnerships with a string of universities and news agencies (Reuters and PA Media are partners, for example).
“We're working closely with the existing editions in France and Spain – we think there are big opportunities for both working with top tier institutions across Europe, as well as growing readership more broadly,” Waiting, formerly of AP and The BBC, said. “Personally, I'm looking to Scandinavia and the Netherlands (where we already have a number of partner universities), as well as Germany.”
So with all of that in the works, what is the status of expertise, the currency that fuels The Conversation, nowadays? Well, across the whole of its network in 2020, the outlet’s stories were read 771m times, a 59% increase on the previous year. Not bad for a website that can tell you all about woolly mammoth DNA.
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