There’s a two-way mirror in the small conference room where The Conversation begins. In the basement of a nondescript former apartment building on Commonwealth Avenue, where Boston University’s College of Communication now has offices, an unprecedented journalism start-up is taking shape under watchful eyes.
Staffers don’t actually use the adjoining room that was designed to observe focus groups. In the conference room, the mirror has been covered with a whiteboard mapping editors’ assignments; the staff members, who work at desktop computers around a conference table, sometimes step into the narrow, dimly lighted observation room to take phone calls.
But with news organizations around the country shrinking under intense financial pressure, journalism scholars are watching The Conversation, a new partnership between veteran news editors and professors from the world’s leading universities. After successful launches in Australia and the United Kingdom, the United States edition of The Conversation debuted at BU in October.
The website is designed as a scholarly contribution to the news cycle, presenting interpretive research to bring greater context to the issues and events on the broadcasts and homepages of conventional news outlets. The concept by founder Andrew Jaspan, a British native who served as editor of the Melbourne daily The Age, is simple.
One of the major costs of running a journalistic enterprise involves employing a staff of reporters to produce pieces. Instead The Conversation taps the wealth of information and knowledge of the academy for free. In return, the nonprofit publication offers professional editing to help the academics reach a general readership, at a time when institutions of higher learning are seeking more public engagement.
“We’re bringing the best of both worlds together,” said Maria Balinska, managing editor of the US edition, who worked for 10 years for the BBC as a world news editor. “We’re looking to unlock the research that’s going to get people talking.”
As an example, The Conversation recently published the results of a survey concluding that a clear majority of Americans (including six out of 10 Republicans) favor continued diplomatic efforts to negotiate a nuclear arms agreement with Iran.
The author, a senior researcher at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, is “not just someone who has an opinion,” said Balinska. “There’s plenty of that.”
Instead, The Conversation aims to provide a public service through data analysis and contextualization. At the height of the Ebola scare, the site ran a piece by an epidemiologist explaining why Americans should be more concerned about a measles outbreak.
“It was prescient and timely,” said Jessie Schanzle, associate editor of health and medicine. She previously worked at WBUR and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Jaspan, in town recently for a board meeting, said Boston was a natural pick for The Conversation’s US office.
“When you think of Boston, most people will agree that it’s probably the academic heart of the US,” he said.
Tom Fiedler is the dean of BU’s College of Communication. Having worked for years at the Miami Herald and contemplated the future of journalism at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Fiedler said he was immediately intrigued by Jaspan’s idea.
“The scholar has complete control,’’ he said. “He isn’t being asked to depend upon the understanding of a journalist to try to get it right, which can be a hit-and-miss proposition. At the same time, the journalist is there to make sure the way the information is presented is accessible to what we would consider a public audience.”
The Conversation’s US edition follows other contemporary models of data-driven journalism, including Ezra Klein’s Vox, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and The New York Times venture The Upshot.
Some journalists are skeptical that such models can remove all bias from their content.
“To have no politics whatsoever, no ideology or ideological assumptions — that, I think, is an impossibility in today’s world,” said Victor Navasky, chair of the Columbia Journalism Review and publisher emeritus of the 150-year-old magazine the Nation.
Northeastern professor and media commentator Dan Kennedy has mixed reactions to the new enterprise.
“I do think journalists ought to do more to seek out real experts on subjects they’re writing about,” he said. But he’s not yet convinced about The Conversation’s viability here.
“The media market here is very different. In the UK, most serious journalism tends to be done by the broadcast outlets,” he said, leaving a vacuum for the website to fill.
Like a newspaper, The Conversation also produces articles not obviously tethered to breaking news. One lead story in March explained how a team of researchers solved the mystery of 19th-century artist Paul Gauguin’s unusual printmaking methods.
The most widely read piece to date on the US site came from a Vanderbilt astronomer who wrote about dwarf planets, suggesting that NASA may soon reinstate Pluto to full planet status. The story has drawn more than one million readers, many of them through re-publication by other news sources, a practice The Conversation encourages by allowing others to use the material for free.
Overall readership has been growing quickly as committed readers discover the site. The US edition has drawn more than 1 million unique visitors (the number of individuals who access a website, regardless of how many pages they view) as of the beginning of April.
Jaspan and his team have secured major funding from several familiar grantmakers, including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. BU is hosting the US office over a two-year span in the basement space on Comm Ave., a funky maze of rooms surrounding an area once used as a reception desk and waiting room.
As with their United Kingdom and Australia operations, the US Conversation hopes eventually to move toward a membership program, in which universities and research institutes agree to help fund the project.
In Australia, with a population over 23 million, Jaspan’s four-year-old flagship publication has a staff of 32. In UK, The Conversation has 20 on a staff serving a population over 64 million.
In the United States, Jaspan said, “My feeling is we cannot operate at the levels we really want until that team is doubled or trebled. We’re doing extremely well with a very small team. We really need to scale up.”
For now, about eight staff editors sit shoulder-to-shoulder around the conference table each day, brainstorming, putting out calls to The Conversation’s large and growing list of university partners (well north of 100, including BU, Boston College, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and many others from the Boston area), and editing incoming pieces.
“The work attracts a particular kind of journalist — someone who gets excited about ideas,” said Balinska.
Deputy managing editor Martin LaMonica, who has been a contributing writer for The Guardian and The Boston Globe, among others, has been energized by the entrepreneurial spirit of the operation..
“You don’t get many chances like this,” he said. “It’s a nice opportunity to get in early and try to influence the product and the culture of the place. That was definitely one of the draws for me.”
There’s a sense that some of the work the site publishes could have a direct impact on seemingly intractable societal problems. In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, The Conversation published a piece by a psychologist leading an international effort to devise methods of interrogation that are efficient, scientific, and humane.
“We’re not here to replace direct reporting,” said Ari Fertig, the staff’s editorial liaison, who develops relationships with university partners. “Academics can’t be on the ground live from Islamabad, or whatever.”
What they can do is provide explanatory journalism, with the aim of fostering “better public conversations,” as Jaspan has said. “That’s something really important in a democratic society.”
Balinska recalled a recent conversation with her daughter, who posed a question so often heard about the traditional news industry.
“Why is the news always bad or sad?” she asked.
With The Conversation, Balinska hopes to provide an answer.