Where we learn what we know

How do you find out about what is going on in the world? What is news for you? Where is it found? How does it speak to you and upon what is it based?

My interactions with ‘news’ have changed multiples times during my life, alongside changes in technology and my own repeated migrations. Reading papers based in multiple countries changed my understandings of what is ‘newsworthy’ by highlighting that news in one place isn’t always news in another, and ‘local’ figures can sometimes become ‘global’ ones (as the controversies around Toronto mayor Rob Ford have illustrated). But what about the newspapers or news sites themselves – how do their models help to shape what is news?

For the last year, I have been a regular reader of The Conversation UK, an online news source with Australian and UK editions. Unlike some news aggregate sites that primarily re-post stories from other sources, The Conversation commissions all of its articles under creative commons licenses that allow them to be re-published elsewhere. Since The Conversation only publishes articles written by researchers who are experts in their fields, readers can also have confidence that the news on the site is informed and measured. While some posts address current events, others discuss topics such as typography, Facebook privacy concerns, robot swarms and electric cars.  Having been an author as well as a reader, I thought I would present my top 5 reasons for reading, and top 5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation. If you’d like to hear more about my experience of working with The Conversation, feel free to get in touch.

5 reasons for reading The Conversation

  • It is a not-for-profit organization, and all authors are required to disclose any funding they receive, so there is less concern that the news is being influenced by corporate interests.
  • It is committed to making quality research findings available to a wider audience, in order to help people better understand complexities of current issues.
  • It provides a different take on current events than major newspapers, as well as presenting a wider range of ‘newsworthy’ topics.
  • The creative commons licenses and re-publishing model emphasize the point that news shouldn’t be something that companies own – knowledge is a public good.
  • It recognizes the importance of ethical journalism, and doesn’t have any advertisements in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation

  • Be realistic about the differences between academic writing and the blog-type style of The Conversation pieces, and then enjoy exploring them.
  • If you’re interested in ‘pitching’ a new story idea to one of the editors, be clear about its message and be persistent in following up.
  • Raise your online profile through blogging elsewhere. The Conversation works with a traditional news model of commissioning stories related to current events, and prospective authors are at times found through online searches of university domains (e.g. .ac.uk). Blogging for institutional or personal websites will make it more likely that your name will come up if one of the editors is looking for someone with your particular expertise to comment on a recent event.
  • Recognize that the timelines that journalist/editors work to are much shorter than those in academic publishing and approach the time-pressed collaboration with an open mind.
  • Share your piece widely online after publishing. Since The Conversation encourages and actively seeks re-publishing, getting your article picked up by a major news organization or aggregator can help your work to reach an even larger audience.

If you’re interested in the articles I have contributed to The Conversation, they address the absurdity of how often we talk about ‘keeping the lights on’ when our energy challenges are much more complex and how policy areas can overlap – with for instance changes in educational policy having potential consequences for energy and sustainability.