Twelve months ago, we made an informed bet. That there was a gap in the media ecosystem. That stimulating longform, explanatory science articles aimed at a non-specialist audience were in short supply, but higher demand. That bet was Mosaic, the Wellcome Trust’s digital publication about the science of life. And looking back now, it paid off.
We thought Mosaic would be popular. But the extent of its success with both readers and critics has surprised us. Mosaic’s own website has had more than 1.5 million views, a figure well in excess of our targets, and we know that our content has attracted more than 8 million readers when republished by other newspapers, magazines and websites. The true readership is likely still higher – the Creative Commons publishing model, which allows third parties to re-use our content freely, means we have data for only a subset of our readership.
Critical praise, too, has been gratifying: our features have appeared among the Best Reads of 2014 for Longreads.com, Longform.org and Digg, and have been promoted by the Financial Times, the New Yorker and Quartz, among others. One feature won a Medical Journalists’ Association Award , our video series Last Chance Saloon won the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Toronto Web Festival, and mosaicscience.com has been shortlisted for Website of the Year at the British Media Awards, where our commissioning editor Mun-Keat Looi has also been nominated for the Rising Star Award. This is a testament to talent and hard work of the Mosaic team. It was new territory for the Wellcome Trust – a journalistic endeavour, in which we had little prior form or reputation. My thanks and congratulations to Giles Newton, Chrissie Giles, Mun-Keat, Peta Bell and the rest of the team.
Just as pleasing as the audience figures is the depth of engagement that Mosaic has received from readers. The average reading time for stories is an impressive 8 minutes, and there has been rich discussion on social media and comment threads elsewhere on the web. Our decision not to have comments on features has, I think, been vindicated: we are starting more fruitful conversations elsewhere.
Besides readers, writers and editors have engaged too. One of the founding principles of Mosaic was that our content shouldn’t just be free to read, it should be free to share and republish too – we wanted to pay great writers properly to cover important stories in depth, and then allow their work to find the broadest possible audience, wherever that audience might be. That is why we decided to publish under the most liberal Creative Commons licence – CC-BY. We had a hunch that other media outlets would be more than happy to take this great material and bring it to new audience, but I must confess that I thought the concept might take months to catch on. It isn’t a publishing model with which the mainstream media is especially familiar.
What was stunning was the way in which other media started taking and re-using our content from day one. BBC Future, the Guardian and CNN took content straight away, swiftly followed by the Independent, New Statesman, Gizmodo, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and Buzzfeed. Most gratifying of all has been the way outlets we would never have thought of approaching have taken our content to huge audiences – Jezebel, for example, republished Rose George’s menstrual taboo feature, garnering more than 300,000 views on their site. We’ve made other unexpected appearances in Stylist’s popular Emerald Street newsletter, Hacker News and the popular Dutch site Geenstijl. Then there’s the many non-English translations made possible by our model: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian. CC-BY has allowed us to explore unknown unknowns.
When we launched, we wondered whether writers might be cautious about publishing their work under a CC-BY licence. It is not, after all, what they are used to. But with a very few exceptions, what we and they have found is that the exposure they get for their work through CC-BY is extremely valuable. We pay writers the market rate that they deserve for creating outstanding work, and CC-BY allows it then to reach the widest possible audience. About 60 writers have now contributed to Mosaic, and almost all of them have embraced the concept. I think the writing community appreciates an outlet that at once recognises that good journalism has a significant cost and a value, and that this can be married with seeking maximum free distribution.
The CC-BY republishing model has become central to Mosaic’s identity. It’s a model that we’ve pioneered and one I’d like to see other non-profit organisations try for themselves, particularly outside the science sphere. We’ve proved that the model works for good content. I hope that others will see its value.
But it’s the stories that I am most proud of. As a reader, I was gripped by Virginia Hughes take on girls who seem not to age, fascinated by Emily Anthes’ account of eating insects (and pleasantly surprised when one day it suddenly popped up in my copy of the Guardian as their three-page Long Read), and moved by Patrick Strudwick’s account of those living with HIV today. That story deservedly won a Medical Journalists’ Association Award recently and what delighted me most was the category it won in: Science Explained. That’s really what Mosaic is all about, what it set out to do.
When I joined the Wellcome Trust as Head of Communications, Mosaic was just a PowerPoint slide at interview, an idea of something that a charitable foundation might do. It’s wonderful to see that idea now reaching close to 10 million people.
What will Year Two bring? The quality bar can always be raised, so we hope to publish even better stories that you’re used to seeing on Mosaic each week. I see us building further on the success of the CC-BY syndication model and exploring co-commissions with some of those new partners. And we’re already branching out into some new avenues – such as an excellent podcast of audio narrations, which we’re launching this week. The focus will not be on expanding volume, but expanding reach. We’ve proved the Mosaic model works. Now we want to show how far it can go.
Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and Mosaic’s Editorial Director.