Review: The Conversation

4 stars
A unique platform for news and analysis, brought to you by diverse voices within the academic community

The Conversation may well be the most remarkable news site you’ve never heard of. After a start in Australia in 2010, the site has since added five editions: UK, the US, Africa, France, and a Global edition. The premise is simple enough: academics, researchers, and PhD students write news backgrounders, special reports, and explainers for complex topics, targeting a general audience. Readers are encouraged to engage in discussion with clearly stated and enforced community standards – and authors frequently participate in those conversations, as well.

The whole operation is fully non-profit, with funding that comes primarily from a large array of foundations and participating academic institutions. The most recent available tax return for the US edition, which is only 2 years old, notes about $2.3M in annual revenue, but The Conversation Media Group in Australia from which it spun off is a separate entity.

With a network of more than 36,000 writers, the scale of this project is staggering. These authors write in partnership with professional journalists who are part of the Conversation team. All content is under the Creative Commons Attribution/No-Derivatives License, which allows free republication without modifications, including commercial re-use. Because many sites do pick up their content, The Conversation’s reach extends well beyond the 3.7 million monthly users that go to the site directly.

The website runs on a custom content management system which is proprietary and likely to remain so. It is is quite well-designed: pages load fast, the multi-column layout is easy on the eye, the navigation makes sense, and it’s mobile-friendly. The commenting system is one of their own creation which, as of this writing, lacks functionality to edit one’s own comments but is otherwise easy to use.

Each edition has its own Twitter/Facebook/RSS feeds, so in order to get a mix of global and US posts, for example, you can just subscribe to both feeds.

So, what’s the content like? If you’re familiar with, think of The Conversation as a less sensationalist version that is more careful with the facts while serving up more diverse views from around the world. Alongside lots of mundane stuff (the US frontpage article right now is “How making fun weekend plans can actually ruin your weekend”), that includes radical perspectives from time to time when they can be found in academia, such as articles by Greek academic and progressive firebrand Yanis Varoufakis.

And it also includes charming articles like How majority voting betrayed voters again in 2016, where a French mathematician advocates that the US should immediately adopt a voting method for presidential elections called “majority judgment” he and a colleague have devised. (The argument is interesting enough, but without grounding in any kind of political reality it is indeed a purely academic one.)

Consistent with standards in academic publishing, authors must disclose conflicts of interest and “relevant affiliations”, making it harder for the site to act as a conduit for advocacy by special interests.

All articles I’ve read meet a certain minimum bar of quality (they make an effort to engage the reader, they’re accurate and clear), but the ceiling varies considerably. In quite a few cases, you’d be better off heading over to Wikipedia to understand a subject, not because the backgrounder by The Conversation is wrong, but because it just consists of a few links and some fairly banal observations. Still, the site is (in my view) vastly preferable to commercial offerings like Vox because it publishes a truly diverse and increasingly global community of authors.

The Verdict

The Conversation is unique, and the site’s founders deserve credit for realizing a bold vision of a non-profit platform that helps us engage in smarter conversations with each other about the world we live in. Whatever your political views, I suggest adding one or more of their feeds to your news mix to sample their content.

If I could pick one area for the site to improve in, it would be to focus more on truly excellent journalism at the expense of sheer volume. Beyond that, a stronger commitment to open source values (opening up the platform, engaging the community in governance issues, using a more permissive license for the content) would be lovely to see. 4 out of 5 stars.