From the day it started, the independent media website The Conversation has paid not one cent to advertise itself.

Former editor of The Age, Andrew Jaspen, co-founded The Conversation in March 2011 together with Jack Rejtman, a one-time journo and now a director of the Eliminate Dengue Program at Monash University.

Today, it has 50,000 subscribers to its daily newsletter, and attracts 1.3 million unique page views a month. Managing editor, Misha Ketchell, puts that achievement into content: “By comparison, The Age gets about 2.3 million uniques a month. We feel we are getting to the size of a newspaper.”

Like any good content marketer, The Conversation relies on the quality of its content to build its readership.

Its model is as ingenious as it is simple. Its newsroom, like any traditional media company, has a team of editors: 16 full-timers in The Conversation’s case.

Its writers, however, are not journalists; they are academics and researchers — subject matter experts who work in universities, the CSIRO and other research organisations.

After an early morning news meeting, the editors are on the phones to their banks of experts, commissioning stories on the important matters of the day. These experts provide a depth and context that journalists might struggle to deliver. If needed, the editors then help craft these articles into accessible, readable and entertaining stories of the day.

The site covers five subject areas: Business + Economy; Environment + Energy; Health + Medicine; Politics + Society; Science + Technology and runs special subject campaigns such as Election 2013.

Stories are updated throughout the day, and a newsletter published daily.

Creative commons

Every story on The Conversation is free to read.

But The Conversation takes the free content model one step further – stories are free to republish too. “We are agnostic about where people read our content,” Ketchell says.

That means, in fact, you cannot steal stories from The Conversation: everyone is permitted to copy an entire story from the site and republish it on their own website, free of charge. There are the few requirements. Among them: to credit The Conversation and the authors, to leave the story intact (no editing) and not to resell it.

Ketchell, who is a former editor of the news site, which sells subscriptions for $191.40 (cheapest) a year, says the strategy arose in the initial discussions about media business models. “Public engagement is part of the role of the academic,” he says. “We provide a service to help them communicate, but they are not being paid. We felt it was incumbent upon us to help them reach the widest audience possible.”

So who pays?

In 2012-13, it cost about $3.5 million to run The Conversation, which now employs six admin staff and four developers in addition to its 16 editors.

It is funded via a partnership model. Universities, the CSIRO and other organisations pay an annual fee across several levels: members (19), media partners (2), strategic partners (5) and founding partners (5). “We provide the same level of service regardless of whether you pay or not,” Ketchell says.

As the service is becomes better understood, more members are signing up, he says. “We think there is this massive resource in universities that is not getting out there and we want to unlock it to better inform public debate.

“For universities, we make sure people write in their area of expertise and that it is independent authenticated, high-quality, valuable editorial content. And we are encouraging their staff to improve their public engagement.”

Universities showcase the calibre of their academics (and attract students) via The Conversation and, for ambitious researchers, it’s a venue to build their name and reputation.

The Conversation has also received government grants, gets in-kinds support from some members and takes a limited amount of advertising, both display ads and a jobs board. “We’ve received both Victoria and Commonwealth grants, however the business model is to wean off government funding,” Ketchell explains.

Taking it to the world – the global newsroom

The Conversation launched a pilot site in the United Kingdom in March this year, where it has already secured 25 backers. At the time of my interview with Ketchell, Andrew Jaspen was in India, talking with partners about launching the site there.

For companies interested in content marketing, its multi-stakeholder model offers a fascinating alternative to the emerging content marketing funding model, in which a company owns funds its own site/s, a model for which artsHub is the poster child. By way of comparison, I also take a detailed look at ArtsHub, which you can read here.