Cogent Conversations: Episode 1 - Cogent

Cogent Conversations: Episode 1

Lisa Watts and Misha Ketchell from The Conversation

Episode 1: The Conversation (Part 1)

It seems fitting that we kick-off this season with an organisation that shares Cogent’s commitment to transparency.

The Conversation describes itself as an “independent source of news, analysis and expert opinion, written by academics and researchers, and delivered direct to the public”.

Central to the way they deliver news, The Conversation requires that every author reveal their area of expertise, how they get their funding and any conflicts of interest they hold.

With over 10 million monthly visitors and a reach of over 37 million people through replication, this not-for-profit news organisation that started in Melbourne now has staff based in over 10 different sites around the world.

We visited the Melbourne office to chat with three people who work at The Conversation about what goes into making this a great digital business that’s creating excellent value in the world.

In this episode we talk with: Lisa Watts, CEO and Executive Director; and Misha Ketchell, Editor.

To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe to the blog, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

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Adam Murry

Meet the host: Adam Murray

Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).

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Full Episode Transcript

Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at Cogent.co.

Lisa Watts: But there is, certainly, a sense within a cohort of people in Melbourne, that it’s important for the country to have access to quality information.

Misha Ketchell: People often have other interests, or other passions, and if you give them opportunity to pursue those in the workplace, they can often bring other things that you just totally didn’t expect when you hired them.

Adam Murray: Hello, it’s Adam Murray here and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. In this episode, we are talking to an organisation called The Conversation. The Conversation is one of those Melbourne organisations that has so much to love about it. The way they work, their mission of bringing transparency and depth to news, and what the people who work there love about working there. This is the first of two interviews I had with The Conversation. In this episode, I speak with CEO and Executive Director, Lisa Watts, alongside editor, Misha Ketchell. Let’s get into it. Misha, thanks for chatting with us today and taking the time.

Misha Ketchell: Thank you.

Adam Murray: This is about thriving digital business and particularly businesses in Melbourne. So, I wanted to talk to you about what do you think it is about Melbourne that enabled something like The Conversation to emerge out of this city?

Misha Ketchell: Well, to some extent I’d say, maybe it isn’t Melbourne, in that in any city where you’ve got a concentration of smart, educated, creative people an organisation like this, which really more than anything relies on intellectual capital people who have got ideas. There are many cities that could create an organisation like this. You think of Boston, San Francisco, London, Kuala Lumpur, I mean, you know, anywhere in the world. There is a particular interest in Melbourne in matters of public interest in public policy and part of what The Conversation does is try to provide a better way of informing the public about matters of public interest. I think that maybe some of the interest in that is something that would be a little bit unique to a Melbourne sensibility.

Adam Murray: Yeah, and it’s something that’s catching on in other geographies as well, from what I understand.

Misha Ketchell: Yes, so we’ve launched in the UK, the US, Canada, Africa, France, Spain. We have a very small team in New Zealand and one editor. And we’ve got a very small team in Indonesia. It’s terrific to have an idea that started in Melbourne that now has become a global network. It’s interesting because there are challenges being in Melbourne because you’re in possibly the worst time zone for everybody and you only really realise that once your organisation becomes a global organisation and you realise you’re out of step with everybody else.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Lisa’s just joining us. Hi Lisa. Some of the things that you talk about, I guess what your brand stands for, which I’ve inferred are things like transparency, you are not for profit as well. I’m interested to hear a little bit about how you see your mission and also how that translates to the culture of what it’s actually like to work here.

Lisa Watts: I think in a way I’ve often described it like this: You know, when you work for a big corporate company that makes profit for shareholders, and it might be any kind of industry you can imagine. There’s a whole lot of emphasis put on trying to create meaning for employees and what are we really doing? What are we doing underneath that? We don’t have to do any of that here because it’s mission orientated work, which is really great. You know every day that you’re doing what we’ve set out to do, which is really unlock knowledge that’s all tied up in the research sector and deliver it to the public through really good editing and creativity and translation, really. So it means that it attracts people who care about that. No one’s going to pick to work here just to get a big pay cheque, for example. It’s very much a sort of calling, if you like. So we have other issues to deal with, but we don’t have issues about creating purpose and meaning for people, which is awesome. Yeah.

Adam Murray: Yeah. So, how many people actually work here in the Melbourne office?

Lisa Watts: I think overall, it’s about 30, yeah. And all up we’ve got another 10 people distributed, working from home or usually there’s a… we’ve got a team at UTS. Usually most of Misha’s team editors, they’ll have a desk at home and then spend some time on campus at universities. 

Adam Murray: What do you think… people who work here, why do they love working here? I know Misha you’ve been here for about seven or eight years; I think you said. And Lisa, I think you’ve been here for quite a while as well. That’s quite long in today’s employment culture. What do you love about it?

Misha Ketchell: I think it is that sense of mission and purpose that you are actually building something that you believe in and value. And I think everybody in the team shares that and it’s very much a sort of collaborative enterprise where we’re all working together towards the same goal. And one of the things in employment is, it isn’t just about a pay cheque, it is partly about something that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning and that’s really strong at The Conversation. Yeah.

Lisa Watts: The other thing about our project is that when Misha and I started, Misha was a few months before me, so I started just before the site had launched and it’s so different now. Now we’ve… like all sort of start-ups I guess, we’ve well and truly started up and now it’s in eight countries. There’s a couple of hundred editors around the globe. We’re in four languages, three languages, four languages. And so it’s a vastly different company than it was when we started seven years ago. Which makes it feel like you don’t get a chance to go, “I’m sort of tired of this,” because there’s always something new. We’ve only just launched Spain, like two months ago. Even that’s a huge part of the globe that can now access content created by that team and also we’re thinking more about how we translate other material and lots of really new challenges culturally and technically as well to solve. Yeah.

Adam Murray: Yeah. I also saw your ten rules up near one of the printers there and there are some really… like, some really cool things there. Can I talk about those?

Lisa Watts: Sure, yeah.

Adam Murray: But there’s the ‘No dickheads policy’. It seems like there’s stuff around feedback, stuff around transparency and entrepreneurial spirit, having a go, not feeling failure. Not things that I guess are…. They’re starting to become a bit more widespread, but some really, I think things that support people bringing their whole self to work and having a go.

Misha Ketchell: Yeah. I’ve always had the philosophy that the best way of succeeding is to fail your way to success. In journalism, it’s very much sort of a ‘make it up as you go along and try different things’ sort of culture. I think also in development, in agile development, you’ll find people who are also very creative and entrepreneurial and prone to experiment. But you really need to create a culture where people are licenced to do that, where they understand that’s accepted, that’s part of what we want to do. So we’ve really been quite deliberate about saying we want to run experiments, we’re happy to run experiments that maybe don’t succeed or that don’t deliver quite the results we thought they would. And keep through different iterations trying to get better to something that sort of is the ideal of what we want.

Misha Ketchell: It really is about creating a culture where people, as you said, feel empowered to be themselves in the workplace, to take risks and also pursue their passions. I think often in organisations you’ve got very narrow job descriptions and, in a way, organisations do themselves a disservice because they only ask from individuals things that fit within those narrow job descriptions. Whereas people often have other interests or other passions and if you give them an opportunity to pursue those in the workplace, they can often bring other things that you just totally didn’t expect when you hired them. We really want to unlock that as well.

Adam Murray: Yeah, that sounds like a great place to work.

Misha Ketchell: Yeah.

Lisa Watts: Yeah. There’s something about an editorial journalism culture too, that is by its nature quite sort of fast paced and ephemeral. Like, it’s about that day often, but it’s about chasing a story on that day. A lot of people who might know a bit about The Conversation are surprised when they come in here and see that in many ways it’s just like being at The Guardian or The Age. It’s really a quite traditional sense of news conference in the morning that Misha leads with his team. They have that debate discussion, figure out what to chase and there is an expectation that you go quite quickly to make sure that whatever we’re doing around explanatory journalism is really timely, because it’s not just about writing a piece of research based analysis on something that happened last week. We need to provide that into the public debate and discourse right at the time it’s being discussed by other people. So, a lot of what Misha’s talking about with permission to fail, it sort of has to be, because you’re really saying to people, “Go-go-go-go,” and then the next day, “Okay, fresh start, clean page.” So it helps, I think, keep that culture quite vibrant.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Thinking about the actual product that you developed, which I presume is what’s the customer facing website, I imagine there’s some things at the back that enable authors to contribute and for the whole site to be administered as well. First of all, is that a pretty good summary of it or are there bits that I’m missing?

Lisa Watts: It is a good summary. In fact, there’s about seven distinctive and unique code bases, including things like a big analytics platform and a big data warehouse. Actually a lot of the way you really described some of the unique things around transparency and trust and our values, a lot of it’s actually codified into the software, which means that we have been able to scale up to all these countries with all these editors and all these academics because some things you can’t do, the workflow guides you in a particular pathway. So, you can’t publish a story unless the academic author’s signed off on it. You can’t create and finish an author profile unless you’ve got certain things in there about where they get their funding from and disclosures. So it minimises the risk of noncompliance because the software is like that. Yeah.

Misha Ketchell: The one that people always love is we’ve got built into our editing software, basically a guide to how clear the language is, and it’s called the Flesch-Kincaid index. So that if an academic writes something that’s really wordy with really long sentences, it comes out red. So, stoplight and then it goes to amber and green as they make the language simpler. That basically stops us publishing things that nobody would have any hope of understanding. Even little things like that, which is sort of fun, but also, as Lisa said, they take our model and our approach and they build it into the workflow so that you can’t avoid doing the things that we don’t want people to do.

Lisa Watts: Having author profiles where we’ve got a quite, at the moment, somewhat rudimentary search across all those author profiles by topic. We tag articles and then you can go on and if you want to find experts on wind farms, you can use The Conversation to do that and get a world global list of experts and you can see what they’ve written, you can get a sense of who they are, what their research is about. And then you can just register as a reader and go on and send a connection to them through the site. So there’s networking and all sorts of cool stuff under the hood apart from a jobs board and some event listings and a donations platform and all sorts of bits and pieces. It’s a big part of our success. The digital part.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Amazing. I’ve got three questions for you to go. One is about having new ideas or the process of your product team. So you’ve got, I guess, a whole editorial team and you’ve got a product team as well, I imagine. How are ideas coming into that team and how are they being worked on and then eventually being released?

Lisa Watts: It’s an interesting question because when it was Misha and I and the two co-founders and others in the room, it was completely quite different. All the creativity and ideas came from Australia. We did what… I think probably very much led in the early days by the engineering team. In fact, we’ve only just now had someone join us who is head of product and who is a product expert, for the first time. That’s been quite transformational, and it’s really an exciting next step for us. Part of what Gina’s is doing, Gina is actually developed sort of… well, she’ll explain it much better than I will, but there’s ways in which she’s thinking about prioritisation and feature definition and strategic intent across the whole network, because we’re all at different phases.

Lisa Watts: The Canadian team don’t have tax deductibility, so their interest in reader donations is slightly less than a country that does. If you’re just launched in Spain, you’re just trying to build that initial brand and get audience. Others are very motivated by trying to get articles republished in other media, others are trying to build a local brand to compete more as a destination. So there’s a lot of considerations around what we do next and what’s important for us. Thankfully we’re at that point now we’re growing up a bit, I guess product wise, which is great. Yeah.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Great. Can you talk about, well, two things, you talked a little bit about experimentation. Is there something you can talk about where you did experiment and it didn’t quite work out as you expected?

Lisa Watts: I mean there’s endless examples.

Misha Ketchell: One example was, we’ve got all these teams all over the world, but we wanted to try to create a new form of global journalism that brings them all together. And we tried setting up a separate unit to do global journalism and that didn’t work for us as a separate unit. So what we’ve done is we’ve dismantled that unit and we’re trying to do global journalism now a different way. We’ve got a new way of delivering it which has all of the independent editors from all the different sites around the world pitching in together to collaborate on creating that product. I mean, that’s one example of a little bit of experimentation where we tried something, it didn’t work.

Misha Ketchell: Another one was we were looking at trying to set up a suite of services for universities that would have a commercial focus that would help subsidise our operations. We spend a bit of time looking at that and scoping that out. And in the end we decided not to proceed with that piece of work. Quite often we’re coming up with new ideas, trying them out, seeing if they work and then making decisions about whether to continue or not. Yeah.

Lisa Watts: Yeah, partnerships, one that with… Often people say, “Have you tried monetising the readership through events? You know, people love to go to events. I’ll find events.” And I’m always like, “No, no events.” I don’t want to go broke running around trying to run events. Misha’s speaking at one in 20 minutes, I mean, there’s enough of them. But we’ve had attempts at that through partnerships and others that have been high effort and very low reward in terms of all metrics. And it’s funny because we often test ourselves, Misha and I as leaders in the company where we’re like, “Okay, so if we do this thing that everyone thinks they want to do and 150 or 200 people come, is that good compared to doing something around an integration with Apple News or an improvement in the way something else works that’s really scalable?”

Lisa Watts: You know, since we did Apple News, we got a million more readers a month. So you just got to really say, “What’s our core purpose?” It’s about trying to help academics explain their thoughts and ideas and research to a big, big public for free and in an open way. So how do we just make sure we don’t get too distracted because there’s a big full inbox of invitations to think about new things and extensions and we have to be pretty brutal sometimes. Yeah.

Adam Murray: Yeah. To leverage what you’re already really good.

Lisa Watts: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Misha Ketchell: Really pull the lever that’ll have the biggest impact. So as Lisa said, we’re really looking at what’s scalable and what’s going to grow our audience most quickly.

Lisa Watts: I don’t know if you’re going to get onto the business model and money, but one thing that we’ve really just been talking about today is last year we had a 35% increase in reader donations. It’s something that we’ve been doing over the last few years, couple of years, but it’s going to be a big part of our future for public interest journalism like ours, for us to really invite readers who care about it to become financial supporters through regular contributions, donations, et cetera.

Lisa Watts: We’re fortunate that we’ve got the tax deductibility as a registered charity, but yeah, it’s definitely going to be something that we’re going to be investing more time and energy into because I think like a lot of media brands, it’s part of the mix.

Adam Murray: I think one of your objectives is to have a certain number of readers on site and then redistributed as well. Increase readers through the redistribution that you do. Do you think about second and third order consequences as well? Like creating more public debate or the type of change that you want to see in the world or is that just left to see what happens once…?

Misha Ketchell: No, absolutely. I mean what we’re trying to do is, I mean our primary mission is to inform democracy by putting quality information into public discussion. That’s the key goal. But underneath that there’s another goal which is helping universities share the expertise of academics. One thing that universities are very interested in is creating and measuring an impact for their research. So on not just engagement, not just the number of times your articles are read, but also things like did your article change a government policy? Did it lead to the publication of a book? Did it lead to research being commercialised? And what we’re constantly doing is designing into our workflows, ways of recording and measuring that impact. That actually the work has a transformative effect. It has an impact, it changes the world in some way.

Misha Ketchell: So, we’re very, very focused on trying to keep track of that. So that we can tell that story back to our university funders, back to the community, because that’s a key part of the value of what we’re doing.

Lisa Watts: We send a little survey out to every author a few days after publication to say, “Has anything happened?” It’s one data point, but we have a lot of other less structured ones and some of the feedback’s quite amazing. For example, our health section is our most highly read and there’s still endless appetite for research based ‘what to do, take, eat, how to live.’ I think there’s still a lot of misinformation and confusion around that whole area. So we get a lot of people who are really, I think, grateful for having something that they can rely on around those things. But in terms of policy development and government making policy changes, 13% of our audience, people who work in policy and government and it’s a big number. They are using it frequently in terms of advising ministers, in terms of developing briefs and then going onto contact an academic for further discussion. That happens almost every day. It’s really a big part of why I think people who are in that influencer channel are finding it a valuable tool for their work.

Adam Murray: Last question as we wrap up, tying it back to Melbourne again, is we’re interviewing businesses that have sprung out of Melbourne, thriving digital businesses. And I’m interested in your perspective and what you’re seeing emerging in that, I guess, the tech scene or the digital scene of Melbourne. What are you seeing in terms of other businesses that you’re coming across or in the people that you’re coming across?

Lisa Watts: Yeah. I think the Victorian government, particularly in terms of attracting some of the international digital businesses to Melbourne to set up here has been brilliant. So I think it’s a really exciting time and there’s a lot of talk about this particular innovation precinct that we’re in here. I think there’s more and more opportunities for groups to collaborate and get together. Just in terms of the… whether it’s through Start-up Victoria or other government initiatives, there’s lots of, I think, awareness about if you put a bit of support around a community of people, there’s huge potential to do interesting things. I also think Melbourne is for our readership. More people read The Conversation in Melbourne than almost any city in the world and we’re everywhere. We’re in London and New York, et cetera.

Lisa Watts: I think not that necessarily, Melbournians as superior beings, but there is certainly a sense within a cohort of people in Melbourne that it’s important for the country to have access to quality information and stuff that you can trust. And without a group of Melbournians worrying about media, I mean this project would never have happened. To pull together that much funding for a non-profit, to launch this thing seven years ago, it took the will of some senior university figures plus government and others to really say, “Yeah, this is a problem we have to solve for the good of Victoria, Melbourne and for the country.” 

Misha Ketchell: I think the other thing is that there is a really strong ecosystem of developers in Melbourne and the developers that I’ve worked with all seem to have a very strong sense of the public good and the public interest is a really strong set of ideas about the potential of the digital technology to serve democracy, to serve communication, to make the world a better place. I think there are many developers who are very highly motivated to be part of projects that have a broader sense of mission. I think that that might also be, to some extent, part of what’s made this project successful in Melbourne is the existence of that ecosystem.

Lisa Watts: Yeah. The Ruby community. It’s proud of itself in a way. And I think, again, we’re recruiting at the moment. People who join our team, they’re going to do so because they’re always like, “I love what you’re doing. I love The Conversation.” They can earn all money, more money, doing something else for someone else, but they want to work here because they want to wake up and feel like they’re making a difference.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Lisa and Misha, thank you so much for your time. I know you’ve got a lot on so I appreciate you taking this time to talk more about The conversation.

Misha Ketchell: No worries. Thank you.

Lisa Watts: Pleasure.

Adam Murray: Thank you very much for listening. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what Cogent is up to, including when new episodes of this podcast come out, you can do that by subscribing to our blog updates, at cogent.co/blog and of course to help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite podcast platform. And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is thriving that you think we should hear about, the best way to do that is through emailing us at info@cogent.co. I’m Adam Murray and I do look forward to hearing about how your business is thriving.