Our Campus: Alfred Hermida and Mary Lynn Young are “turning journalism on its head” with The Conversation

At a time when digital media is constantly expanding and the need for critical journalism is as high as it’s ever been, UBC Associate Professors Dr. Alfred Hermida and Dr. Mary Lynn Young are seeking to provide media consumers with informed explanatory journalism to make sense of the world around them. 

The two professors at the UBC School of Journalism recently launched the Canadian branch of The Conversation, a non-profit journalism site originally founded in Australia that bridges the gap between academia and journalism. Although the site is organized and edited by professional journalists, its articles are written by scholars who are already experts on the topics they’re writing about.

According to Hermida, who is the current director of the UBC School of Journalism, this model is a good way to get important critical research out of academic journals and into the public’s consciousness. 

“There’s a depth of research at Canadian universities, but often the challenge is ‘how does that research then get presented in a way that is accessible to the public?’,” he said. “And that’s what journalists are very good at.”

Although academics are frequently quoted and referenced in the media, Young explained that they’re often hesitant to talk to them out of a concern that their work could be misrepresented through the filtering and gatekeeping of journalists and editors.

“The media studies literature is clear that often people can have problematic experiences with being misquoted or feeling like their ideas weren’t fully represented,” she said. 

By allowing the academics to write the articles themselves, The Conversation sidesteps this issue.

“They’re supporting academics who might not normally be able to make it through the gatekeeping process or may not want to,” said Young.

“Anyone can take this material and publish it on their website, and that’s part of the power here.”

— Dr. Alfred Hermida

In order to proliferate the academic information as much as possible, The Conversation permits other media sources to republish their articles, as long as they leave the story untouched and note at the top of the page where it came from.

“Anyone can take this material and publish it on their website, and that’s part of the power here,” said Hermida. “We’re turning journalism on its head because, traditionally, when you set up a journalism organization, you’re trying to attract readers and viewers to your product and you’re trying to keep them there. 

“Our model is almost the reverse … it’s more about taking this independent informed journalism to the audiences who have an appetite for it rather than saying to the audiences ‘you have to come to us.’”

For example, an article that Hermida wrote for The Conversation in November about Trump supporters and the media was republished in Salon. Other sources that have republished articles from the platform include Business Insider, the Washington Post, the National Post and Maclean’s

Both Young and Hermida worked as professional journalists before becoming associate professors at UBC. Young worked for various newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun, the Houston Post and the Globe and Mail, but she later decided to pursue a Ph.D in criminology from the University of Toronto in order to get a better understanding of her craft, particularly the connections between power relations and newsrooms. 

“It helped me make sense of what journalism could be doing and should be doing and some of the gaps that I had observed,” she said.

After completing her Ph.D, Young went on to become the director of UBC’s School of Journalism from 2008 to 2011. In co-founding The Conversation’s Canadian site, she’s continuing her work connecting higher education and academia.

“I’m not making any money from this, I’m not getting a job from this — it’s just purely a way to try to support a model that seems to have relevance and importance at this time and stage in journalism and in higher education.”

Before becoming the current director of the School of Journalism, Hermida had already established himself as a pioneer in the world of digital journalism. He worked for BBC for 16 years, where he served as a foreign correspondent in North Africa and the Middle East and worked as a founding news editor of their first news website. 

Through The Conversation, he is working with yet another shift in the ever-changing world of digital journalism. 

“I’ve been in digital journalism now for 20 years, working in this field, and it’s fascinating to see it’s growth and evolution and how it’s developed,” he said. “It’s also what I research to make sense of what’s happened to journalism and how people are getting their news today.”