Accurately conveying the work of academic thinkers is one of the more unexpectedly difficult jobs a beat reporter will take on: professorial prose is often abstruse and opaque to non-specialists, and it is time-consuming to develop even the minimal background required to contextualize and weigh the significance of the material at hand. The gap between ivory tower and the rest of us too often remains wide. A welcome recent development, therefore, has been the March debut of The Conversation, a website that devotes itself to the bridging of this gap through the communication of important work from eleven major Australian universities. Founded by Andrew Jaspan, a former editor at Melbourne’s The Age, The Conversation covers subjects like business, the environment, health, and science. Mark Day of The Australian provides a useful overview:
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis confided to Jaspan he was not sure that universities were properly getting their messages out to the public. Put another way, he argued the public was not getting value for the money it invests – about $8 billion a year – in universities. Vast amounts of research goes on; the limits of knowledge are extended daily, but so much information stays cloistered, unused, often forgotten. Uni boffins are fond of saying “we don’t know what we know”.
When Jaspan was squeezed out by Fairfax management in 2008, Davis asked him to write a report on how the university might better engage with the wider community. Jaspan found individual academics and university PR teams alike hit a brick wall when they sought to get attention for their work. News editors had an occasional appetite for weird science, but it was increasingly difficult to get attention for the results of scientific or research projects.
Jaspan put his idea to create a university website, but when the global financial crisis hit it fell on barren ground.