In 2011 Andrew Jaspan launched The Conversation, the news website featuring articles written by academics for a general-interest audience. Four years after his acrimonious departure, he’s ready to do it all over again. Hal Crawford talks to him.
For a passionate guy who has a reputation for provoking strong reactions, Andrew Jaspan sounds remarkably reasonable when I speak to him.
The 69-year-old has been a newspaper editor in the UK and Australia, founded a globally influential media network and model – The Conversation – and famously fallen out with some of the people he’s worked with. Now he’s ready to do it all over again, launching a news start-up that has the potential to change the way information is distributed from academia to the wider world.
360info is a kind of academic wire service, and because it’s Jaspan who is driving it, people are paying attention: he has a track record of making things that work.
Obvious in retrospect
The undertaking that really made Jaspan’s reputation is The Conversation, and it’s still dear to him. The Conversation’s current boss, Lisa Watts, observes it was one of those ideas that makes immediate sense: getting subject-matter experts in academia to write news articles for the general population, with the help of professional editors and journalists. Back in 2009, when Jaspan was doing the rounds drumming up support and funding, he had to sell his “immediately sensible” idea hard. In the end, he says, he raised “between 35 to 40 million”, launched the site in 2011 in Australia and New Zealand, and went on to seed The Conversation globally. There are now eight affiliated organisations, including in the UK, US and Indonesia.
“The reason I was able to raise that money – I raised it all from larger universities and philanthropy – is because I had a vision which they liked and bought into. That’s usually what happens with philanthropists or foundations: they want to see who is the person leading it.”
A continuum of quality
Jaspan’s vision is to provide good, accurate information to as many people as possible. He says it’s the thread running through his career.
“I’ve always been interested in the serious end of journalism. So I sort of gravitated towards working for The Times, The Sunday Times. And then I luckily became editor of the Scotsman, Scotland On Sunday and The Observer newspapers in the UK and then The Melbourne Age. There’s one continuum all the way through: I’m just interested in serious quality journalism.”
Jaspan struggled for editorial resources amid serious cost cutting while editor of The Age from 2004-2008, before falling to the axe himself.
“I started The Age with a staff of over 300. When I left, it was down to just barely 150. What happened was that the real expertise in the newsroom just walked and what I wanted to do after that was see if I could figure out a new way of providing high-quality information.”
A different tack
Jaspan doesn’t want to talk about the circumstances under which he left The Conversation in 2017. What is on the public record is that the founder, editor-in-chief and public face of the organisation resigned following a period of turmoil and pushback from some senior managers, including from the global startups. Jaspan is diplomatic about The Conversation’s current path, but he’s also clear that his new venture is a different beast.
“The two areas we’re staying away from are breaking news and opinion,” he says. “I parked the news cycle entirely. I’m leaving that to The Conversation. What we’re doing is focusing on the world’s biggest problems, we’re kind of shadowing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“That is our agenda: let’s examine the biggest problems the world faces … let’s look at them from a global perspective.”
360info is not a public-facing site, instead providing articles and multimedia to publishers, who then distribute the content to their audiences. This makes it similar to a news agency (or “wire service”) like Reuters or AAP (Australian Associated Press). The big difference is that 360info’s content is free. A publisher signs up for an account, peruses the 360info content management system (CMS), downloads the content and then publishes on their own platform. The only requirements are to credit the source and retain the author’s byline.
There are plenty of wins with this approach: the publicity is good for the academic authors, the free content is good for the publishers, and the authoritative information is good for audiences. So who’s paying the bills for Jaspan and his startup team of nine editors? Monash University in Melbourne, whose vice chancellor, Margaret Gardner, “could see the value of it and wanted to support it. But it is an independent service.”
Jaspan says Monash is bankrolling the service as a “positioning statement” for a global university, and because Gardner believes that universities have to “work much harder at demonstrating their public value back to society”.
“I’m not interested in building a brand. We’re literally just a supplier of information. We supply goods to people who can then retail it for their own use. In doing that, I think we can get to many more readers. We have 750 outlets as opposed to just having one destination outlet if we had launched a website.”
Among those 750 are several New Zealand publishers who will be free to use the content come the full launch early next year. The service uses a CMS developed specifically for wire services and is currently running a closed trial.
When I log into 360info.org for a test run, I find a simple and well-presented content feed service with two big content specials: “Living to 100” and “Energy in Transition”. These are topical content holders, with a bunch of sub-articles that could happily run in many general-interest publications without alteration. One of the “Living to 100” features catches my eye: “Why your grandmother doesn’t want to Zoom”. It was written by a senior sociology lecturer at Monash University, Barbara Barbosa Neves, and has been well pitched by 360info assistant editor Adrian Black:
“June, 73, has been living alone for 20 years. She tells everybody she loves living by herself, but she actually hates it.”
Although the system is currently weighted with content from Monash University, it will take content from academics working anywhere. Authors get sign-off within the system before anything goes live.
Will it work?
It is liberating that 360info’s success will be determined not by the traffic it generates – remember, there is no public site – but by the number of times and by whom the content is republished. With news media currently in financial crisis, it’s easy to see 360info’s high quality free content being used extensively.
Part of 360info’s secret sauce will be Jaspan himself, who The Conversation’s Lisa Watts describes as “a persuasive character … a highly motivating force of nature.”
On the other side of the ledger, many content organisations have come to grief on the rocks of worthy content. There is also the risk Jaspan is taking in staying away from breaking news: in my experience the best way of generating traffic is to stick closely to the topics of the day.
There is one way to gain audience attention, though, without being a follower. I ask the former editor whether he secretly hopes the site will actually end up setting the news agenda.
“I’d like to think we’ll do that, but it’s a pretty tall order to think you can do that at the beginning.”