The Conversation goes live in Africa

The arrival of The Conversation Africa website allows journalists in newsrooms and researchers and academics in universities to join forces for ground-breaking work. Articles on the site are also allowed to be republished elsewhere, so the information reaches more readers.

Image description The editorial team cheer as The Conversation Africa website goes live after months of planning and hard work. (Image: Supplied)


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Priya Pitamber

Journalists and academics are combining their forces to produce magic, said editor Caroline Southey after the introduction of The Conversation Africa news site in South Africa in early May. Content on the site comes from the “deep knowledge of academics and researchers” which is mixed “with the journalistic skills of editing and having a nose for a story”.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan explained that there was a huge difference between journalists and academics. “Journalists tend to want to tell you the bad news so bad weather outcomes – there is another flood, another hurricane – whereas the academic will try [to] understand those and give you some real context for changes in climate and also offer potential solutions.”

Jaspan wanted to find a new way for the two to work together, and to be able to mend the relationship of mistrust that had brewed between those in the newsroom and those in the university. “My quest was to find a new way for academics and journalists to work together where we still try to understand complexity but try to offer something more,” he said.

“And by offering something more, what we wanted to do was put better integrity of information out there so that all of you can have better public conversations.”

The Conversation was set up in Australia in 2011, followed by the United Kingdom in 2013, and the US in 2014. The Africa version is its latest offering.

Africa’s turn

Southey first heard of the site in late 2013 and thought it would be a good idea to have it on the continent because she felt academics were doing game-changing research. The site would be a perfect vehicle to share that knowledge with a wider audience. She approached two vice-chancellors, Saleem Badat, who was at Rhodes University at the time, and Adam Habib at the University of the Witwatersrand. Both men showed a lot of support and Southey began looking for a way to fund the project.

“The National Research Foundation came on board and then others started to show interest,” she explained. “Alexandra Storey, the general manager of The Conversation Africa, and I worked on the project from June last year and by December we had raised enough money to put a team of editors together.”

More of the same, with a twist

The difference between the Africa site and the others was that “we are commissioning our own stories from academics about issues affecting Africa”, Southey said. The Conversation Africa will still maintain the high quality of copy on the other versions of the site, and has also learned much from them. “The biggest lesson we have learned from the other sites is that it is possible to produce fantastic explanatory journalism.

“We are also emulating the way they have made sure their stories are read by a diverse set of readers,” Southey explained. “We are doing this through active engagement with media houses and an intensive social media strategy, which is being run by Tanya Pampalone.”

Content on The Conversation Africa can be republished, within guidelines, on other websites and in print media. Southey called it an incredible feature because it helped to reach a wide reader base. “Republishing of material on other sites has meant that The Conversation is reaching 22 million readers a month.”

Interest in stories it had published had been overwhelming, she added. “We have been going for only a week and already our stories are being republished by online sites and by newspapers.” But the biggest challenge is creating and growing the countrywide network of academics, and having a regular flow of information and articles.

The groundwork

“Our job as journalists is to use our skills to make the stories from academics interesting and appealing.” This was done by trying to find the most interesting angle from university research and editing it so that it was easy for the user to read.

“I am confident we can do this because we have a fantastic team of editors – Jabulani Sikhakhane, Thabo Leshilo, Natasha Joseph, Candice Bailey, Ozayr Patel and Edwin Naidu.”

In the next five years, she would like to see editorial teams in East and West Africa to get readers from across the continent. “And I hope that we have succeeded in putting game-changing research and ideas and knowledge into the public domain.”

Thumbs up

Readers, academics, editors and journalists have welcomed The Conversation Africa into the fold.

“Well done Caroline and team on getting The Conversation Africa off the ground,” Craig Blewett, the senior lecturer in education and technology at University of KwaZulu-Natal, wrote on the website. “This is going to be an amazing channel for academics to finally have a voice where it counts, outside of the ‘dusty’, unread journals where they normally share ideas (with each other). I’m looking forward to many well-reasoned, well-written, topical articles – let Africa’s conversation begin!”

“Congratulations on the successful launch,” wrote Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “This is a wonderful way for academics to become engaged in real time on topical issues with serious traction. Well done Caroline and the team.”