In My Opinion: Peter John Meiklem: The Conversation’s mix of ‘academic rigour’ and ‘journalistic flair’

FRESH in the door to work in the Glasgow Caledonian University communications office, I met with a senior health Professor to talk about his experience of working with the media.

“Well,” the internationally-recognised Professor told me, “somebody once quoted me saying my work was linked to the cartoon ogre Shrek. I haven’t answered the phone so often since.”

The anecdote highlights a serious issue in the effective communication between the media and higher education sector.

It’s part of the job of universities to expand public knowledge and to bring their huge wealth of expertise and experience to bear in solving problems which effect lives not just in Scotland but all over the world.

Academic colleagues receive a significant amount of public money to do this, yet some of them – and it gets worse the ‘sexier’ the subject matter – hide in fear of being ‘shrekified’, leading to some work being hidden from those who may be most interested, or find it most useful.

The tragedy here is that the vast majority of research reporting is, in my experience, engaging, clear and well-executed – yet the all-pervasive ‘fear factor’ remains.

This is especially problematic at a time when all universities are under increasing pressure to demonstrate the public benefit of their work.

It’s against this background that Sunday Herald founding editor, Andrew Jaspan, launched his new online newspaper, The Conversation, in Australia two years ago. The UK version of the site launched yesterday.

The Conversation is written by academics working in partnership with full-time, qualified journalists and editors. The site promises to combine the best of ‘journalistic flair’ with ‘academic rigour’ to create an authoritative blend of news and comment.

The editor of the UK site is well-known Scots journalist, Stephen Khan.

GCU is one of 13 founder members, one of only two in Scotland, though the site has also received support from higher education funding bodies.

The Conversation has been well received by readers and academics alike in its native Australia – where it claims 850,000 unique users per month.

This success is partly down to the site’s editorial approach which gives the academic author, or interviewee, more control over the finished piece than by working through traditional media channels.

It also provides the contributor – and not just the journalist or outlet which first published the story – with detailed analytics on who read the content and in what numbers; increasingly essential data for the higher education sector.

This is not to say that The Conversation has it all sown up. Questions remain over whether its approach allows the academic community to avoid too many important questions – though The Conversation’s team would argue that their journalists are fully trained to ask them, regardless.

It is also not to besmirch the vast majority of excellent reporting on the university sector, both nationally and internationally, across all channels and mediums.

But it is to highlight the existence of a new player in town. One that has certainly thought about the challenges of journalism in a post-Leveson world and has come up with a compelling method to restore some public trust – and to ensure that when we’re talking about the best work being done in UK universities, a certain green ogre stays firmly out of the picture.

Peter John Meiklem is research and community communications officer at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is a former journalist on The Big Issue in Scotland magazine and the Sunday Herald newspaper.