ASPI’s decades: The Strategist

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The Strategist first went online on 17 July 2012, becoming a ‘blog’ that blossomed.

ASPI’s publication set up its stall in the crowded town square of international affairs, seeking to make sense of the passing parade. The reporting and commentary site quickly outgrew the ‘blog’ brand. The Strategist is a think tank’s evolving review of history, presented as an online magazine and digital journal of record.

The masthead launched in 2012 with this welcome from Natalie Sambhi and Andrew Davies:

Over the past 11 years, ASPI has been proud to produce fresh ideas and analysis on Australia’s most important long-term strategic and defence issues.

ASPI’s well-established publication lines have served us well, and we’ll continue to produce a range of quality long form publications. But, like the rest of the publishing world, our audience is increasingly looking for new ways to access our products. We’re already on Twitter and Facebook, and they are opportunities for a greater two-way dialogue than ASPI has had in the past, as well as a way to promote collegiality amongst the wider strategy and defence community.

Building on that foundation, we’re pleased to welcome you to our new blog, The Strategist. With input from ASPI researchers and contributors from around the world, The Strategist will host material to stimulate thinking and discussion about the critical strategic choices which our country will face over the coming years.

The purpose of what became ASPI’s digital magazine was to give the institute a daily voice that was also a platform for readers to be the writers—the voice would feed a big conversation, drawing on many other voices.

The dialogue has stricter rules than those applying in much of the blog world. More than ‘curated’, contributions are graded and gardened, with plenty of editorial pruning.

ASPI’s editors rule the show, even if the writers are the stars. The Strategist aimed to be a quality publication with high editorial standards—a masthead with a daily news tempo.

Unlike academic journals, ASPI’s digital review delivers at speed: headline, byline, picture and text, with hyperlinks and thumbnail pointers to related posts. Here is no slow-maturing academic product, nor a ponderous departmental brief, although articles certainly get the ASPI version of a peer-review pounding, both before and after they’re published. The editing process tests, while the readers judge and often respond.

A Strategist debate is a multi-article wonder that can go in many directions, driven by the intellectual heft of the readership. The arguments can be sharp, but barbs are delivered politely: manners maketh the magazine.

Each item stands on its own, yet joins a tributary of subject conversations as another layer in the think tank’s reporting of Australian defence and foreign policy and Australia’s concerns in the world. The ‘search’ function (symbolised by the magnifying glass) and the ‘key word’ tabs at the base of each article are keys to arraying and accessing those rich layers.

The daily rhythm is set by the pulse of the articles published every couple of hours, starting from 6 am. The Strategist’s short style guide calls for a relatively informal writing style: adopt a conversational tone; without sacrificing meaning, judiciously relax the writing rules; add the hyperlinks to show the thinking and evidence route.

For ASPI’s journalist fellow (formed by service in newspapers, radio and TV), the line that this is old media dressed up as new media rings true. Much is familiar: crystallise the key point, highlight the telling quote, line up the facts. Then do think-tank duty to sketch in the history, pick the trends and point to policy implications. What matters and what will it mean? Adorn with a sharp headline served by a picture that entices, even explains.

The call to ‘favour the reader’ demands a constant effort to talk up to that reader (and not make ’em glaze up, give up or throw up!).

Feedback from Strategist readers is embraced and sometimes highly valued. A prized comment was from a luminary of Australian strategic thinking, Robert O’Neill (ASPI’s first chairman), who observed in 2019: ‘Keep up the good work—you are producing a world class review of what is going on and how we can do better!’

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.