The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, May 31, 2018


 WORDSMITHS OF NO WORTH                     

It was a splendid idea and it has worked.

Instead of reporters tracking elusive academics to explain their expertise, why not get the scholars to do it themselves – then hire journos to slash the verbiage and prune the deadwood?

Finding lucid academic writing makes Jason’s Golden Fleece quest a trip to the deli.  An impenetrable thesis once ensured tenure, but keeping a campus job now means communicating with citizens in terms they understand.  

But how? In 2008 Andrew Jaspan, then 56, had just lost editorship of The Age in a staff purge. Having built high-level contacts in Melbourne since arriving from Britain four years earlier, he turned to flogging the notion of a newsdesk staffed by subs who’d work with writers. The polished prose would be freely available on-line to all through the Creative Commons system.

 The Conversation would be run as a not-for-profit (NFP) with the tagline  academic rigour, journalistic flair’. Features would have ‘a readability index set to an educated 16-year old.’ 

Jaspan must have had the gift of the gab because he coaxed the Federal Government, the Commonwealth Bank and some sandstone unis to kickstart.  Ignition fired in 2011 and The Conversation raced away.

It now trumpets 27,000 contributors, 10.7 million ‘unique readers a month’ plus offshoots in the UK, the US and several other countries, including Indonesia.  There’s much emphasis on quantity. 

Hold Page One revelations are rare, but copy based on research is usually fresh and informative. Not so with op-eds; few challenge The Australian’s stable of stirrers.

According to NSW University Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs, ‘in a media world experiencing disruptive change The Conversation stands out as an exemplar of informed, knowledge-based communication and healthy democratic discourse.’

This and other endorsements have been used as curtain raisers for the website’s annual appeal.  Wrote editor Molly Glassey: ‘We need to raise a quarter of our annual budget in a fortnight to continue the important work we’re doing.’

Last year, according to reports lodged with the Australian Charities and NFP Commission, expenses were about $6 million.

Why these demeaning daily begathons when the site is already maintained by some of Australia’s richest institutions?  Readers are being pressured to pay to read research they’ve funded as taxpayers.
Like many publishers, The Conversation’s business model is founded on the view that keyboarders dwell in a Nirvana beyond debtors.  US author Harlan Ellison’s rant is worth watching:

Tertiary teachers and researchers publish to maintain their credibility.  The website paves a path to the wider audiences they seek, so – the thinking goes - no need to reward those already comfy on campus payrolls.

Australian academic wages are among the world’s tops.  Salaries vary; but on Jacobs’ campus associate lecturers start at $73,597 rising to $98,127, lecturers around $30,000 more.

These figures are beyond belief for uni staff in countries like Indonesia where many moonlight to survive. See here:

It’s the same with part-time tutors jostling to get onto the escalator. In such cases the subs would be earning more from cleansing copy than the author gets from her or his salary.

A fairer system would be to offer contributors an advertised rate; those who reckon filing for The Conversation is part of their job description could forgo fees.  Payment would also sharpen selection – budget-conscious editors could reject floss or demand higher quality.

To its credit this issue has been raised in The Conversation

Payment would set an example for the other tertiary education no-pay websites to follow. These undermine professional freelancers. That’s particular noxious when the institution teaches journalism and expects its graduates to get paid work.

Figures from The Conversation’s annual report appear to show its employees take home $135,000 pa.  Chief editor Misha Ketchell disputed these calculations and claimed the average editor earns well less than 90k.’
Jaspan quit his creation last year after facing a ‘staff revolt’ according to The Guardian.  The British paper started an Australian edition in 2013.  Faced with plummeting ad income it’s also turned to shaking a can in readers’ faces, though using genteel language - ‘a small favour’.

The Conversation says it will never follow the Murdoch Press and go behind a pay wall. But giving academics space is also helping kill reporters’ jobs, and set the agendas in understaffed newsrooms with drained editors.

The ABC is a regular user along with other mainstream media.  Another source of income would be to charge commercial publishers that apply pay walls, like Fairfax and News Ltd, re-run fees.

But the real earner could be advertising, a dirty word to the purists, but the source that has sustained newspaper and magazine jobs across the decades.

The Conversation already carries job ads tucked away at the end of the features. No need to sell diets and vitamin supplements; there are opportunities for promotion of campuses, courses, books, films, grants and fellowships.

Then this otherwise commendable website could stop bothering little readers for our loose change every time the end of the fiscal year draws nigh. The Big End of Town has the cash; tap on their windows like Jaspan did a decade ago – and raise enough to pay the wordsmiths.

Duncan Graham June 2018


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