Bringing Academia into the Newsroom: An Interview with Akshat Rathi
Despite the repeated claims that journalism is dying, we’re seeing a lot of news outlets spring into being. One of those new outlets, The Conversation, is taking a fairly interesting approach – marrying academia and journalism under one banner.
The Conversation, which is based in the U.K., launched May 16. It is a free news site that (according to a teaser it posted online) is “produced by academics and journalists” and aims to “source news, commentary and the latest research from the academic community.” The site is based on an Australian news site of the same name and has already partnered with more than a dozen universities in the U.K.
The site will also publish its stories under Creative Commons, making the content available for republishing elsewhere.
But how can a news outlet cover research impartially if it is working directly with the universities who conduct the research? How can a free site that also makes its content freely available for republication stay afloat financially? And just what sort of stuff will it cover, anyway?
To find out, I asked Akshat Rathi, the science and technology editor for The Conversation. Rathi has written for The Economist and Ars Technica, among other outlets – but Rathi has a foot in the world of academia as well, having earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford (which is not one of The Conversation’s partners). Full disclosure: Rathi also writes the Allotrope blog for Communication Breakdown's parent site, SciLogs.
Here’s our Q&A. (Bonus: you get to see me stick my foot in my mouth and be factually wrong in a question. Fun!)
Communication Breakdown: You’re the science and technology editor for The Conversation’s U.K. site, which bills itself as “an independent news and commentary website produced by academics and journalists.” Can you explain how that works? What is the goal of the site, and how do the academics and journalists work together to produce content?
Akshat Rathi: Public surveys show that academics are among the most trusted people in society. The idea behind The Conversation is to tap into this trust and expertise and bring high-quality, credible information directly to the public.
This works in two ways. First is where journalists like myself pick a piece of important news and approach an academic who is an expert in that area to analyse the situation and provide context for the news. Take the example of George Monbiot’s attack on U.K.’s chief scientific adviser Mark Walport. Because only the Australian version of The Conversation was live then, we got a lecturer in critical thinking to analyse the role of the chief scientific adviser.
Second is where academics pitch us an idea that they believe is an important topic, deserving more attention and public discourse. We look at the topic from an editorial standpoint and, if the topic passes that test, we work with the academic to bring that information into the public sphere.
CB: You’ve written for a number of news outlets. One of the roles of a science journalist is to bring critical thinking into play and determine whether new research findings are newsworthy (and why). What is The Conversation doing to ensure that reporters who are working with academics are able to preserve their impartiality?
Rathi: There are two things which help us. First is that we make sure that the author (or authors) of every article discloses information about their funding and of any conflicts of interest. This is published prominently on each article. Second is that journalists who edit articles remain highly skeptical of everything that is written. Thus we ensure that whatever is being said is based on evidence. If there is a piece of information that we feel deserves justification, we ask the author to provide additional references and/or explanations.
CB: Who came up with the idea for The Conversation, and how long has it been in the works?
Rathi: The Conversation was founded by Andrew Jaspan, who has been the editor of The Observer in the U.K. and The Age in Australia, and Jack Rejtman, a journalist and digital media expert. It was first launched in Australia in 2011. The U.K. project has been in the works for the past year.
CB: You’ve touched on this a bit, but how will The Conversation (U.K. version) differ from other news outlets in terms of its sci/tech coverage?
Rathi: The hope is to pick important stories in my beat and get the right expert to write about them. This article by a population geneticist breaks down the rhetoric that made headlines worldwide: “All Europeans shared common ancestors on 1000 years ago.” We would like to get conversations started based on evidence. For example, we have a biomedical researchers write on how trying anti-ageing therapies may do more harm than good.
Also, we hope that academics will approach us to pitch stories they think deserve more attention. We already have one such story looking at the rapid stealthy spread of a deadly fungal infection in North America that scientists are having a hard time fighting.
CB: Will The Conversation break its coverage up into “sections” – e.g., a sci/tech section, a health section, a politics section, etc.? If so, I’m curious about how those sections may be broken down, how you decide what goes where?
Rathi: We have five sections: Business & Economy, Politics & Society, Health & Medicine, Energy & Environment and, of course, Science & Technology. As you rightly guessed, there will always be stories that may fall under more than one beat. In that case, and this is the advantage of being an online-only news website, we may choose to put it in both the sections.
CB: How much of The Conversation’s content will be focused on science and technology, as compared to its coverage of social, political or other issues?
Rathi: Each section has the same editorial resources, so science and technology will produce as much content as any of the other sections. This goes against how standard news organizations work, and I appreciate that The Conversation recognizes the importance of science in public discourse.
CB: Who provided the startup funds for The Conversation? What sort of editorial oversight do they have, if any?
Rathi: Funds for the launch come from 13 universities, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Scottish Funding Council, Wellcome Trust and Nuffield Foundation.
We have accepted these funds on the condition that our newsroom will always remain completely editorially independent. We strive to bring the right people to write for the right topics, irrespective of where in the world they may be.
CB: Will they be providing ongoing funding for the site, or will the site rely on revenue it generates through subscriptions and ad sales?
Rathi: The site will always remain free to use and sport no ads. Also, everything we produce will always remain under the Creative Commons license. Thus, anyone can republish our content for free.
The hope is that, apart from the founding partners, more universities will fund us because they will see how we improve public discourse by tapping into knowledge that their academics create.
CB: Who makes up the U.K. editorial team for The Conversation?
Rathi: Stephen Khan (Editor), Megan Clement (Deputy Editor), Jonathan Este (Politics & Society); Jo Adetunji (Health & Medicine); Michael Parker (Environment & Energy); Will de Freitas (Business & Economics); and myself (Science & Technology). More about the team can be found online.
CB: I’d imagine it’s a little scary to take a job with a media outlet that doesn’t actually exist yet. What drew you to the sci/tech editor job?
Rathi: It was a little scary to leave a permanent job that allowed me to write for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publications and freelance with other outlets. But in the end, it was difficult not to jump at an opportunity where I get to work in a media startup and be responsible for a whole section.
CB: I know The Conversation is just getting off the ground, but are there specific subject areas within science and technology that you think you’ll be focusing on?
Rathi: It is a bit too soon to say, you are right. There are a few things on my mind, of which I can reveal two: open access and science funding, both for and against. Apart from that, there are lots of stories in the pipeline in my section that other media sources haven’t covered, so look out for those.
CB: Does The Conversation have any specific goals for its first year? What will define success for the site, at least in the short term, and what will define success for the sci/tech coverage?
Rathi: The aim is to become a credible source of news and analysis within the first year. We will not be the first ones to report news, but we would like to be the preferred place to understand what it means. We also hope that the service we provide is seen as a resource for traditional media, who of course can republish our content for free. In Australia we have just under one million readers. With the U.K. editorial team, we hope to double the number.
In the process, we hope that academics, who fear that their words may be picked out of context by traditional media, which a lot of scientists are often worried about, will use The Conversation as a platform to avoid letting that happen. If that happens, I will consider the sci/tech section to have been successful.
CB: You have experience as a reporter, but this is your first gig as an editor – and an editor at a brand-new outlet at that. What have you learned from the experience so far?
Rathi: Not my first gig as an editor, but it has been a rapid learning experience nevertheless. We have with us Megan Clement who is on secondment from The Conversation in Australia, which means that the team was able to quickly adapt to what was needed to be in this role. Also, Stephen Khan has been on board with many ideas I have for my section and that has been an additional driving force.
CB: Last question: what tips do you have for freelancers who are interested in writing for The Conversation? What sort of pitches are you looking for, and how should they contact you?
Rathi: We don’t solicit pitches from freelancers. Unless, of course, you are also an academic. If that is the case I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.