An expensive conversation
by Jonathon Oake
First things first:
1. I like The Conversation. It’s a valuable contribution to the media landscape in Australia. Academics have considerable expertise to bring to subjects, and can genuinely improve public discourse. They ought to do a lot more public engagement.
2. It’s an important public service. Australians pay for academic research through their taxes, yet much of it is inaccessible to them.
But I’m really not sure what the long-term direction for the site is. It’s a trust model – much like The Guardian it operates on a not-for-profit model. It’s clear that most of its costs are taken care of $6m in funding from Federal and State governments, which is ”secure for another two years.”
Peeking under the hood, a few things jump out: (1) There doesn’t look to be any business model so far (2) It has unbelievable overheads.
First, those overheads. On Twitter last night, the sole publisher, writer, and CEO of tech blog Delimiter, Renai Lemay:
In fact from looking at their website they seem to have six tech staff, and 26 full-time staff all up, which for a site that publishes academic research provided to them for free, is amazing. By contrast, as far as I can tell, Delimiter has two staff members, Mumbrella has 13, Business Spectator has 10 (excluding advisory board), and Crikey has 15.
In terms of monthly unique visitors (Australian, users not machines) The Conversation has less than all of the above sites apart from the quite niche tech blog Delimiter (according to Doubleclick Ad Planner). Looking at unique visitors per single full-time staff member, however…
The Conversation is less than
half one third as efficient as the next nearest competitor, media site Mumbrella (and some of Mumbrella’s staff work across multiple titles EDIT: Tim Burrowes from Mumbrella has suggested in the comments that 9 FT staff is probably a fairer number and I’ve updated the above chart to reflect this). Lean operation Delimiter is 7.5 times as efficient.
But if the funding model holds up (i.e. the state and federal governments continue to pay for the site) that’s fine – but with LNP taking hold in Victoria and potentially federally, I wouldn’t bet on it. In that event, I’d consider the following…
1. Get into paid-for events and conferences. The media listens when academics speak about major issues – The Conversation can become a major brand for high-profile events that straddle the academic and media/business worlds. These can be lucrative.
2. Offer institutional subscriptions for more specialised content. The Conversation, with original research, could easily become a must-have subscription for every university, government department, and major businesses in Australia. A particular subscription channel of, say, academic economists would be indispensable for financial institutions; a health research channel would be much the same for pharma companies.
3. Become a wire service for informed comment. News organisations are pressed for time and pressed for resources. In the same way that they pay AAP to cover off the basic news reporting (press conference reports etc) that they can’t cover, The Conversation can provide fast, expert commentary in the areas that media companies can’t. Given the business pressures media companies are under, not every company can fund in-house expertise in, for instance, environmental science or taxation law. Academia can fulfil that need as long as there’s an efficient distribution model, which is where the Conversation could come in.
4. Get better and leaner. If the Conversation wants to remain a generalist news website, however, it will need to (a) stop publishing so much content and (b) reduce overheads. Looking at the Conversation’s homepage I’m amazed by how MUCH there is and how often it’s updated. At the moment there are more than 70 content links on the site and the earliest published date is the 17th of April (time of writing: morning of the 19th). This means that (a) there will be a very long tail of content that goes virtually unread and (b) given the constant churn it will be difficult to surface and feature the truly compelling content, and give it the audience it deserves. Less is more. The Conversation needs to find a way of having staff sift through content and featuring less content, but of a higher quality, and getting more out of it. A site redesign, away from the blog layout, would help.