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Bridging the gap between academia and general audiences
Bridging the gap between academia and general audiences
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Bridging the gap between academia and general audiences

Date Released: Mon, 8 October 2018 14:07 +0200

By Lelethu Tonisi, Journalism & Media Studies postgraduate student

The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet that has played an important role in communicating academic writing to the world at large, recently hosted a workshop for Rhodes University PhD students and staff on how to write about research for the media.

At a cocktail event following the workshop, The Conversation Africa editors Caroline Southey and Natasha Joseph presented the media outlet’s progress and achievements and outlined its association with the University.  

The Conversation Africa workshop focused primarily on how to ‘translate’ academic papers and research in easily-digestible formats that are suitable for general audiences, something that seldom comes naturally to academics.

Rhodes University was one of the first universities Southey approached, and it has since committed itself as a strategic partner and funder, as well as an editorial contributor to the publication.

The Conversation helps Rhodes University fulfil its contract with society - which is to make the University’s research and knowledge more widely accessible.

“There’s a financial barrier as well as a specialist barrier to reading journals, and so one of the things that we really need to do as an institution is to reach a broader audience. The fantastic thing about The Conversation is that is ideally positioned for academic and research writers. In part, it teaches us to write for popular media, but it also ensures that readers have access to real data and research, because so often the media gets it wrong,” explained Dr Peter Clayton, DVC of Research at Rhodes University.

Showcasing research results on a platform such as The Conversation can also draw in funders and grant awards. “Potential funders want to know what the University is doing and whether it is an institution worth investing in. However, they don’t always have the time or inclination to go through research papers,” Dr Clayton said.

Analytics show that many of the Rhodes University articles published through The Conversation are picked up by mainstream media such as the Mail & Guardian and City Press. This greatly increases the visibility of the work being done at Rhodes. Relative to other categories, the political articles appear to have a much higher readership. Dr Clayton mentioned South African activist, academic, journalist, and public figure Raymond Suttner, who is affiliated to Rhodes University, as the star performer in terms of drawing readership which he does by actively critiquing the political sphere in South Africa with his in-depth knowledge.

Southey stated the success of the publication is two-fold. “One, is it is a very simple model. The knowledge exists, it just needs to be put into the public domain. Secondly, newsrooms are shrinking and even dying off due to certain media models becoming outmoded, and these are being replaced by new media models,” she explained.  

The Conversation Africa publishes four stories every morning and 92% of the some 3000 articles published to date have been republished by at least two or three other media outlets each.

Said Southey, “These statistics are telling of an immense hunger for research-based articles and that media houses are struggling to produce such articles.”

Furthermore, the publication gets 1.8 million reads a month from the daily four stories a day. Additionally, 350 000 people visit the website every month and to Southey this shows that The Conversation Africa is fulfilling a need and proving to be really useful to media houses.

Joseph, who is a Rhodes alumna, marveled at the exciting work that is being produced by the University. She added, “People also appear to have a very high interest for what is happening at Rhodes University.”

The science category ranked the lowest in terms of article submissions, and Joseph encouraged science writers to share more of their research. “I am looking forward to welcoming new people from my alma mater into our digital newsroom,” she concluded.