The Conversation and the future of the news

The Group of 8 universities have launched a new site — The Conversation. It is a venture designed to report on academic research but also to encourage academics to write about their research and research going on in their fields. It is a fundamentally good idea. It is also not a new idea. Every single University had it and tried to implement it on their own. So the newness here is that they are coordinating.

But if you look at the site, it is slick and readable. Not as readable as this blog on an iPad but it is state of the art. The closest comparator is what Microsoft have done with their Technology-Academics-Policy site.

What is also new is the interface with academics. Academics are strange creatures and have more trouble than most (some would say pathetically so) in engaging with the broader community. (Yes, before you point out people who have no trouble, I’ll admit there are some academics who are saavy but the vast vast majority are not). If you are an academic, you should sign up to The Conversation if only to look at their dashboard for receiving submissions. It is strikingly simple. And in terms of just setting up a profile, it is dead easy. Facebook easy. The best I have seen.

I have just had my first piece published — “In the digital world, ‘sunset’ media can’t cling to old ways” — and the final product looks excellent. What is more I can see in my dashboard how many readers it has had, etc. This is exactly what you want as a contributor to these things. If this can’t make engaging cost-effective enough for academics, I don’t know what can. It is certainly much better than the information I receive from Harvard Business Review for my weekly contribution to their (ahem) “The Conversation” blog.

Obviously, The Conversation is currently a subsidised site. And so it should be. It should be the mission of Universities to do this sort of thing and it should be in the performance criteria of their academics to contribute to it. But there are monetisation opportunities. When visitors come from domains, they can be shown ads of relevance to academics and students. When they come from elsewhere, they can be show ads about conferences and courses. I think that such things can fit into the site easily although one cannot expect ad revenues to be a huge cash cow.

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