It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. As newspapers and magazines struggle to find sustainable business models in the face of the digital revolution, more and more are cutting back on in-depth, serious, longer-form science journalism. Yet that same revolution has opened wonderful opportunities for fresh players to make their mark in science writing, allowing innovative online publications such as Matter, The Conversation and Nautilus to fill empty niches in the media ecosystem.
The Wellcome Trust is about to become part of this ecosystem. In the early part of next year, we will be launching Mosaic, a new digital publication dedicated to exploring the science of life, in the sort of depth that is increasingly rare in the mainstream press.
In Mosaic, we’ll seek out the most compelling contemporary stories we can find about biomedical science and its impact on society. We’ll explain these developments and set them in context, so that people who are curious about science, but who lack specialist knowledge, can better engage with them. We hope Mosaic will help to give life science, and the many issues it raises, a more central place in the national conversation.
Mosaic isn’t intended to replace or replicate what existing science media already does well, so it won’t be a news or comment site. Instead, it’ll focus on longer features – several thousand words, the sort the papers rarely find space for -- that really get behind a subject and explore it from different angles. We want our audience to feel they’ve understood something they didn’t before, that they’re better placed to consider the opportunities and challenges that science raises. We don’t necessarily want to give people the answers, but we want to help them to ask better questions.
We think the sort of content you’ll find in Mosaic matters, and we want it to find the broadest possible audience. Not only will it be free to read, we’ll also be publishing under a Creative Commons licence, so that anybody else can re-publish our content on their own platforms. That applies to paid-for websites and magazines, publications that are funded by advertising, or independent blogs: we want anyone who wants our content to have it.
In keeping with this open access publishing model, we also want to be open about our editorial processes. We’ll be encouraging our writers to blog about their progress, and to ask questions of their readers, recognising that among their audience will be people who know their subject better than they do. And after we publish, we’ll be curating discussion. Science doesn’t stop when a feature is published, so neither should we.
We’re doing this because the Wellcome Trust is committed not only to its vision of achieving extraordinary improvements in health, but also to engaging the public with the areas of research we support and encouraging discussion around the contributions and challenges they bring. We already do this through our exhibitions and events at Wellcome Collection and our public engagement grants and activities. Digital technology now gives us the chance to back great writing (and other media) that does much the same thing.
We also want to be transparent. Mosaic won’t be a corporate magazine showcasing the Wellcome Trust’s achievements, and most of our content won’t cover research that the Trust funds. But as we’re looking to explore the most exciting developments in biomedical science and the medical humanities, we do expect Mosaic to touch on Trust-supported projects from time to time. When this happens, we will always make our interest clear. And when science raises controversy, we aim to cover that fairly. For me personally, Mosaic is also an opportunity to follow through on one of my long-term goals – broadening the range of media content that’s available to the large but poorly-served general audience with an affinity for science.
Five years ago, when I was Science Editor of The Times of London, I persuaded the then-Editor, James Harding, that there was a gap in the market that the paper could exploit. Every serious newspaper had copious sections and supplements catering for those interested in sport, business, the arts, even food. Yet none offered anything bespoke for the large and growing group of people who are curious about science.
The result was Eureka, a monthly science magazine launched in October 2009, which won awards and praise for its design and content, and reliably put on sales for the paper. It proved that there’s a market for in-depth stories about science. But while Eureka proved popular, it was never commercial: it always struggled to attract advertising and in autumn 2012 the magazine folded. It fell victim to the challenge of funding quality writing about science at a time when media business models have been thrown in the air.
When I moved to the Wellcome Trust to become Head of Communications in 2012, I realised that if this sort of content is hard to do commercially, perhaps there was a way at a charity with a commitment to making a difference. It is the best of times, it is also the most opportune of times.
Mark is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust.