The University of Melbourne’s storytelling platform is the envy of Australia’s tertiary sector.
It took a long time for the many bright people at Australian universities to realise what they had under their hairy nostrils. Our tertiary campuses have generated world-class research, scientific breakthroughs, technological advances and groundbreaking ideas, but many of the best stories have been told to small audiences at narrowly focused conferences or smeared in academic jargon in low-circulation, peer-reviewed journals.
Weighed down by introspection, stifled by university bureaucracy or gun-shy of unwanted media attention, Australian professors and researchers have struggled to tell their stories to the general public. In almost all fields of academic endeavour – science, maths, technology, engineering, law and even the arts – tales of great interest and importance have gone unreported.
Much of the time, universities haven’t realised their stories might be fascinating beyond the sandstone walls. Some fantastic yarns were turned into a linguistic stew and consigned to low-circulation scientific papers. Others formed a brick in the road on the quiet path to academic enlightenment, deemed by their authors to be not newsworthy enough to show their parents let alone the wider world.
Former Melbourne Age editor Andrew Jaspan launched The Conversation website in 2011 to give prominent academics and researchers a voice. Aside from providing them with a dribble of mainstream coverage, this well-regarded venture has proved yet another channel for members of the university community to talk among themselves.
Then and now, universities are caves of gold and diamonds for content producers. Former journalists who work in university communications and marketing departments wonder why they paid so little attention to the work in the tertiary scene earlier. Most can’t believe such amazing work has been allowed to fly under the public’s collective eye so easily … and why the participants in the subterfuge seem so willing to let such work go unacknowledged.
But things are changing. It’s slow, but it’s happening. Universities are beginning to open their heavy doors to the outside world and tell their stories of endeavour and wonder. Perhaps they’re now just better at selling their stories. But the most telling factor is that universities have discovered they can publish their stories themselves via owned digital channels.
Content marketing, especially in the form of websites, blogs and podcasts, has given well-resourced universities the chance to reach many niche markets at scale. Beyond publishing traditional alumni and faculty magazines, tertiary educators are feeding their top-quality websites with written, audio and video content ideal for social-media sharing.
Some of the better operations are at the University of NSW, which employed former Sydney Morning Herald editor in chief Darren Goodsir to a senior communications role last year, and the University of Southern Queensland, which publishes an excellent student-facing site called Social Hub. Macquarie University in Sydney recently launched a multimedia news platform called The Lighthouse.
“After passing 2 million page views in March 2017, Pursuit powered through 5 million page views barely a year later.”
But the tertiary education publishing powerhouse they are all chasing is at the University of Melbourne (UoM). Its content hub, Pursuit, is the envy of all Australian universities with its quality multimedia storytelling and willingness to break new ground.
Pursuit is edited by former ABC and BBC journalist Imogen Crump. Last March, Crump replaced former Herald Sun boss Phil Gardner, who was the launch editor in October 2015.
Pursuit showcases the journalistic mindset of its masters and the expertise of the university’s smartest minds and sharpest experts. Beneath its austere masthead treatment, the homepage offers a range of challenging and thought-provoking stories that are diverse and regularly updated. Recent examples include the ethical and legal consequences of Iceland’s proposed circumcision ban, whether air strikes on Syria violated international law and how researchers might have made a breakthrough in the treatment of gastric cancer. Lighter articles cover transport issues, bans on Australian cricketers and what students learn from studying video games.
It helps, too, when UoM’s academics have something worth talking about. Pursuit recently published an article from arts lecturer Robert Walton, whose Vanitas app was nominated for a prestigious 2018 Webby Award. The immersive smartphone art app allows people to explore themes of death and transience while on a self-guided tour of selected Melbourne cemeteries. Spooky.
News value is important, but so is readability. Pursuit articles are written for an educated, well-informed general audience – not academic peers. Writers employ simple language and short sentences, story lengths are kept in check and the article pages have useful graphics and crossheads to break up the text. Over the past year, Pursuit’s editorial members have run a series of internal workshops to help UoM academics understand what the website is trying to achieve and the kind of writing it feels works best for the audience.
The team’s efforts appear to have paid off, too. After passing 2 million page views in March 2017, the site powered beyond 5 million page views barely a year later. According to analysis from Cognitives based on UoM’s figures, the total number of visits last year rose from 114,000 in June to 219,000 in August, with the unique audience figures doubling over the same period.
Pursuit says much of this increase is due to the popularity of articles surrounding the same-sex marriage debate, which was the hottest topic on Australian campuses last year. The team also placed more focus on encouraging social sharing and increasing its story count. It now publishes about 46 pieces per month. Most of Pursuit’s traffic (60 per cent) comes through social channels; 30 per cent is referred from the UoM home site.
The vast majority (81 per cent) of Pursuit’s content is in article form, with nine in 10 written by UoM academics. The most popular subjects are politics and society (29 per cent of the content), sciences and technology (23 per cent) and health and medicine (21 per cent). Just over half (52 per cent) of its audience is based in Australia, reflecting broad international appeal.
Podcasts make up 15 per cent of Pursuit’s content. UoM recently added a new podcast to the mix, Starting Somewhere, which it hopes will help graduates make the transition from student to intern and employee.
One more thing sets Pursuit articles apart from those that appear on non-academic sites. They are covered by a Creative Commons Attribution that allows anyone to republish them for free online or in print (as long there’s adequate attribution).
It’s yet another way great ideas can get the oxygen they deserve.
Links & references
Brand Tales’ article on USQ’s Social Hub
Brand Tales’ feature on University of Melbourne’s Up Close podcast
Cognitives’ infographic on Pursuit’s content performance