In Conversation: Lisa Watts on Data, Privacy and Publishing

Partnership, Technology
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Lisa Watts in conversation with Megan Anderson
Photos courtesy of Lisa Watts and Pe3k
This conversation was produced in partnership with Pause Fest

After launching in 2011, The Conversation has grown to become one of Australia’s largest independent news and commentary sites. We chat with CEO Lisa Watts about open-access publishing, data and privacy ahead of her appearance in Melbourne at Pause Fest, the world’s largest creativity-infused business event.

Megan Anderson: Firstly, are you prepared for the heat today?
Lisa Watts: Well, sort of. I'm in shorts and a T-shirt so that's pretty good.

How did your interest in publishing begin?
Well I am someone who, in my non-professional life, has always been very interested in books, literature, ideas and theatre – I'm an avid reader and theatre goer. But my career led me towards publishing because I started working in businesses that were thinking about digital quite early in the piece – I grew up in a sense professionally at Yellow Pages, at a time [when they were] transitioning from the print product, which was a very valuable, profitable business, to an online world, where it was very obvious that the business would be massively disrupted by the internet.

When I heard about The Conversation's business model I was really impressed by it…I'd heard a lot of pitches and ideas about new ways of thinking about doing publishing or communicating to people online, and when one of the co-founders told me the idea, and that they'd raised some money, I was really blown away by the power of the idea and the simplicity of it: that you can basically create a new way of doing journalism by hiring a whole lot of fantastic editors and pairing them up with academics to write about current events that are happening in the world around us, and to provide that explanatory journalism.

You’ve seen [The Conversation] grow a huge amount in recent years. How has it changed? Is it still true to that starting idea or has it morphed as the digital landscape has changed?
The idea is very much intact, and part of the reason why it is so successful, and has grown so fast, is because we've been quite relentlessly aligned to the original vision. We haven't been persuaded to do things that people might have wanted us to do. And I think because of our non-profit status we've been quite rigorous in terms of really looking at the project as a public good. We're not here to make anyone any money – we're here to better inform a democracy by giving them access to high-quality content that they can [use to] make sense of the world.

We've also put a lot of energy into a global expansion of the model. So now we're in eight countries and have academic authors and readers all over the world … Last month we had just over 40 million readers in total, including readers of all the republished articles – that's a lot of people.

That’s huge! Building trust among readers seems to be something The Conversation has done really well, especially in a digital publishing landscape where it’s difficult to know what's reliable and what's not.
Absolutely, and we often describe The Conversation as being public interest journalism. In Australia we’ve been able to effectively build a brand around that degree of trust. The reason it works so well with academics writing is because they're not try to sell you something – they have to disclose if they've got any funding that might be relevant to the article on every single article that is written. They have to provide a full disclosure statement. You can click through and see the profile, you can read about the author and understand who they are and get a bit of context. For us, that trust is pivotal in terms of our capacity to have a loyal and engaged readership.

Why do you think that transparency is so important right now?
Most people are consuming news through other platforms – they're not going directly to a brand, and articles can be indistinguishable in a news feed, or on whatever platform you are. If news is being shared among peers, it's very difficult to explore who is publishing it, who's written it and what interests they have –for example are they trying to push an ideological or a commercial or another sort of angle? It's just very difficult for consumers to make sense of.

Our audience is very diverse, but it's not an academic audience. Only 20 percent of our readers are academics. The rest are just the general public, but a lot of people use The Conversation in their work, especially teachers, health professionals and policy makers.

How does your work with The Conversation tie in with the conversation around data, privacy and ethical use of online information? How has this affected you and your work?
It guides our decision-making. We're very cautious about what we do and don't do around data. For example, we've got a big audience now, and we've been approached many times to think about ways in which we could monetise people coming to the site, but we would never do that. In the same way, we wouldn't aggressively think about an advertising model. We really want to make the experience as clean and as purposeful as possible, and not surprise anyone.

We're quite risk-averse in the sense of data and security and privacy…because everyone must expect to get data breaches. It will happen. It's just a matter of trying to minimise the impact of that...We put a lot of effort into making sure we're as secure and as careful as possible about what we collect, why we need it and how we might expose it even accidentally through other parties.

Cambridge Analytica’s homepage (June, 2018).  Photo by Slovakian photographer Pe3k.

Cambridge Analytica’s homepage (June, 2018).
Photo by Slovakian photographer Pe3k.


It feels a bit out of control – the amount of data available online about people. Do you think we're too trusting?
I think people have given up knowing how to try to protect their information. There's so many instances where you can't get access to something unless you sign up via Facebook, or even just managing passwords – there's a few people that use password managers, but not many. Which is sort of unbelievable, really. Most people still have a variation on the same password for all their things … It's almost gone too far to worry about.

What do you think the implications of that are?
Well I mean it's interesting, isn't it? Have you ever known anyone who suffered from identity theft in a proper way in your life?

I haven't either. But we're all sort of frightened – that's the worst-case scenario, right? ... Once it becomes a dystopian nightmare, we can worry about it. But until then we're like, “Oh well, let's just hope the bank rings me if I'm being hacked.”

Because it's for convenience, isn't it, that we're giving this data up for?
Yes, it's convenience. And so that's the trade-off, really … But I think there's more awareness about some things after Cambridge Analytica – you know, not signing up for weird quizzes and not giving survey data out to someone on a social platform. I think people are much more aware of that than they perhaps used to be. But in terms of other ways in which you can navigate your way online, I think most people still preference convenience over privacy.

I guess the flipside of this is open-access publications like The Conversation, where sharing information becomes a good thing.
That's right ... Part of what we wanted to do is have limited barriers to sharing the knowledge and getting articles out there, so that's why The Conversation is as light as possible in terms of signing up for things and doing things – even at our own inconvenience. It means that any other media site or blog or school or business can take any article on The Conversation and reproduce it in full without getting permission, under Creative Commons licensing.

How does The Conversation manage the data it collects about readers?
We allow universities to have access to a lot of the data that they create. There's probably more that we could choose to share and do, but we also think, “Well to what end and for what purpose?”

So you decide what's relevant and what's not?
Yes, even in terms of collection. Because we operate under a charter, we're not trying to monetise it – we're trying to think, “How does this help citizens be more informed with good information that they can trust?” Once you have that as a guide, you're allowed to say “no” to a lot more things.

That sounds sensible. Do you think there should be more regulations like this in place?
Yes I think so, [but] I think it's also very hard to regulate – because it's up to humans to decide what they give over.


"I think people still preference convenience over privacy."

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