Cities at the centre of knowledge collaboration

Back in the day, when the research-based news and analysis website The Conversation was building its impressive audience across Australia and New Zealand, there was little discussion about philanthropy’s potential for funding journalism.

The first step towards any digital upskilling or transformation programme is to be clear about the objectives you are setting out to achieve. What problem are you trying to solve, or what opportunities are you targeting through a digital approach? Taking stock of where your organisation is at when it comes to digital is a good place to start.

There just didn’t seem to be the need or the thinking, even if the commercial model that underpinned generations of journalism had been devastated by the proliferation of free internet news sources. Instead, the effort was put into exploring how to eke out funds from the big media companies, rather than the smaller foundations who could deploy a strategic grant to tilt the dial in the brave new information age.

In 2015, The Conversation Australia and New Zealand and the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne came together over an idea that worked so well that it has continued for six years. The Foundation granted $50,000 for each year to help fund a Cities Editor at The Conversation: their role would be to work with the nation’s academics and researchers to enable them to contribute their expertise on cities, urban living and metropolitan issues, as part of the website’s broader coverage of other topics from a growing bank of university experts.

Philanthropy supporting journalism

The relationship between The Foundation and The Conversation is one of several recent collaborations between philanthropy and public interest journalism.

The Balnaves Foundation is funding an in-depth arts reporting project at The Guardian Australian, following on from its funding of an Indigenous investigations project that was recognised with two Walkley Awards.
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The Judith Neilson Foundation also announced earlier this month its support for two Indigenous affairs journalists, one at The Sydney Morning Herald and another at The Age.
Read more here

That unique collaborative relationship – between journalist and academics – is at the heart of The Conversation’s model.

A decade ago, the website was established with a team of editors who worked with university experts and researchers to help make knowledge more accessible through easy-to-read articles. The articles are not only free to read but free to be republished, and represent the mission driving the not-for-profit company – to provide accessible quality explanatory journalism that is integral to a healthy democracy. Universities help fund it, along with some philanthropic support and thousands of loyal personal donors.

In this instance, what galvanized the Foundation's interest in working with the publisher, were the pressing issues confronting Melbourne.

“We thought what we’re really working on is what are the big issues facing Melbourne at any time and at the moment, they’re all around affordable housing and homelessness, climate change both mitigation and adaptation, economic inclusion and community resilience,’’ The Foundation's CEO Catherine Brown remembers. “So, we thought, actually to have The Conversation with their independent view to have a cities editor who was bringing all that academic capability and independent thinking to these issues, would be a really big contribution and would actually fit with [our philanthropy] tool box in terms of community education and communication and policy.’’

Implicit in the position was an understanding that the issues that affected Melbourne were common to so many other cities, across the nation, and the world, and impacted the big smoke as well as the smaller towns too. Lisa Watts, CEO of The Conversation, notes: “Arguably what the Cities desk produces, we were sort of doing but not with a dedicated editor so what it allowed us to do when it kicked off, was to gather it in to one place – everything we were thinking about.’’

“And to have an editor, he could then be more actively plugged into those communities, whether it’s the planning institute or the various government departments and agencies that are concerned with housing or even digital resilience, [the] City of Melbourne, read the papers, go to the events, understand what people are seeing and thinking in that area, so he can then commission people who are doing that research but also ask for experts,’’ Lisa says. “It might be about safety and security in the city in terms of lighting and what works best in other countries, or if there was an event in the news that might be related to some sort of crime or vulnerability, thinking what are the design solutions the city could put in to place, and so it allowed some of the things we would have done to have a shape and to be packaged up and to be more focused. Which was really helpful and also helpful in building audiences around it as well.’’

That audience has been growing steadily for some time: The Conversation has eight million unique reads a month in Australia and New Zealand. It is, by that measure alone, a success story at a time when mainstream media’s commercial success and its credibility are under forensic scrutiny.

“It’s brought well-informed independent thinking to the general public, so the community has a greater understanding the issues they’re facing without any sort of political or media filter,’’ Catherine says of the initiative. “But it’s really about educating the community about the big issues we’re working on: that’s where I could see the synergy and that’s why we kept funding them. They’ve done really high-quality work and across all the different areas. I think it’s just a really invaluable source of information and education.’’

The first step towards any digital upskilling or transformation programme is to be clear about the objectives you are setting out to achieve. What problem are you trying to solve, or what opportunities are you targeting through a digital approach? Taking stock of where your organisation is at when it comes to digital is a good place to start.

One of the appealing elements of funding a digital organisation such as The Conversation is its extensive data collection about its own performance that provides a reliable measure of engagement, and a reliable pointer to its potential impact.

 “For us its quite easy for them to report and say: “We’ve done this, and it had that reach’’, x-number of people read it and it was on this topic, and we can see that the Cities Editor is looking at the big issues facing our cities,” Catherine says. “It’s not hard for them to demonstrate their impact.’’

“We can’t say because of X article, Y happened but we can say that because of X-article, a 1000 people are informed about homelessness in Melbourne….and that’s important because it will have a trickle-on effect on how we address homelessness and how we increase affordable housing, or whatever the issue is.’’

Lisa is well-versed in just how powerful that data is, for a range of stakeholders. “When we’re thinking in terms of engagement and impact, what we can demonstrate to funders, to the academics, the authors and the universities – because we’re a free model – our currency is knowledge and the exchange of ideas,’’ she says.

“We don’t have shareholders…[and] all that money is ploughed back into the work. So, it takes money out of the equation. But you need to give something back to all those who are giving for free their energy, their creativity, their time and in some cases, their money – universities pay us a fee to be part of the conversation, philanthropic organisations fund us with grants – so to be able to give them Best of Breed engagement analytics – not just reach (how many people are reading it on the site) but where it’s been republished, what people are saying on Twitter and Facebook, other interesting post-publication activities that happen as a result of it, it’s sort of a reward that you need to excite the imagination for next time,’’ Lisa explains.

In this instance, the Cities Editor worked with 368 authors to produce 236 articles for the Cities section between 1 June 2019 and 31 May 2020, at a rate of five articles a week and more than 40 per cent of surveyed authors on the topic said they had been contacted to do post-publication activities, including media interviews. And these were just some of the analytics.

 The overall impression is that now, more than ever, it is easier to track how often, where and when information is consumed. Combine that with the acknowledged need to not only diversify the information sources in Australia but also to strengthen national debate with robust research and rigorous thinking, and supporting independent public interest journalism becomes an appealing option.

The Conversation has had significant support from a range of funders, including the Ian Potter Foundation, and more recently, the Paul Ramsay Foundation, to curate and develop particular projects to support young science researchers and also to work with academics and researchers who were interested in natural disasters and transformative resilience.

And the Foundation's experience with The Conversation was an important pointer to the Foundation’s recent decision to support the Australian Associated Press, itself rescued from closing by a mixture of government and philanthropic funding.

Under the Foundation's proposal, AAP will receive $50,000 to establish a dedicated environment and climate change reporting desk to produce approximately 500 news stories a year that will be distributed to AAP’s 400 media customers. According to the Foundation: “The impact will be that environmental and climate change news will be mainstreamed and the public will be better informed about the issues via fact-based, unbiased reporting. The Environment Desk is part of a social enterprise so it will also aim to generate revenue to help fund its activities.’’

“I actually think it’s a pretty important area,’’ Catherine says. “I think it’s incredibly valuable in our funny world where you are fed the same stuff all the time, and you live in a little bubble and sometimes you have to read other media to understand what the whole of Australia is thinking.’’

For The Conversation, the partnership with the Foundation shows how a trusted relationship can work to everyone’s benefit. “They are the ideal partner because they appreciate and understand the need for complete editorial independence,’’ Lisa says. “They just enabled us to do the work and trusted that it’s going to be of value to what they’re thinking of, as well as what the broader community want as well.’’

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