It’s bad timing that as I begin my career, journalists are some of the least trusted but most widely read professionals. Conversely, academics are some of the most trusted yet least understood. Australian news publication, The Conversation, confronts this problem – as I’ve experienced interning with them for the last two weeks in Melbourne.
As a lover of harder topics like science, tech and environmentalism – I’ve been a dedicated reader.
The Conversation describes itself as a unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It’s the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. Their work is published worldwide and often finds its way into places like the ABC.
I was offered the opportunity to intern at the science and technology desk late on a Thursday afternoon. It would start that Monday – only four days later – in Melbourne. Naturally, I stayed up all night rearranging work, university, accommodation and flights.
To be fair, if I had carved out two weeks of my life to spend in absolutely any way I liked, I think it would have looked pretty similar to exploring a new city while writing nerdy science and tech articles :)
My first impression was an office buzzing with an inviting feeling of community-mindedness. I think it takes a special kind of person to work in public service journalism and have the patience required to translate academic speech into something useful to the average person.
The Conversation inverts the usual journalism practice. Rather than using quotes from knowledgeable people, The Conversation has the knowledgeable people write the articles and then works with them to transform that writing into news. That’s why the academics pop up as authors, and the journalists become editors.
My endlessly patient science and technology editors were Noor Gillani and Micheal Lucy, and they eased me into the process by assigning me a few “Curious Kids” articles. I worked with academics to make complex questions like “how is fabric made?” and “will the storm on Jupiter ever go away?” into answers understandable by children.
And then, I worked on my own project, with two future-thinking academics from the CSIRO.
The process began by finding a story, then locating the best academic for the job. From there, I commissioned the piece and sent a brief with what it should include. Together, we worked the original dense piece of writing into fluid journalism. The Conversation’s process requires much back and forth – but that’s the important part.
The academics have to sign off on the facts as their own, so integrity is at the heart of the news.
I believe this is an excellent way to produce journalism than fights misinformation and disinformation.
Along with the practical work, the interns sat down in the board room for an hour masterclass each morning. We covered The Conversation’s editorial processes, and then more comprehensive content like editing, headline writing, storytelling, social strategy and reporting on research.
“What can an academic usefully add?” Misha Ketchell reminded us to ask ourselves.
“Leave! Just leave your journalism degree!” industry icon Peter Martin encouraged us with a grin, highlighting the importance of practical experience. Peter also encouraged us to become topic specialists to ensure future journalism maintains its depth. I felt glad that I’d loved science and technology!
Heading out of Melbourne, I thought about how commonly, journalism interns often cut our teeth on softer news – covering the local arrest, community event or doing media release rewrites. I have learnt so much from these activities in the past, but The Conversation’s academic focus was very different. Hopefully, this marks good timing for a much needed collaboration between trusted academics and relied upon journalists.