When a charitable foundation like the Wellcome Trust launches a news outlet focusing on long-form science news, it gets my attention. I’m always happy to see new homes for science features, but it raises some interesting questions. For example, how will it handle conflict-of-interest issues?
The news site, Mosaic, launched March 4. One of the brains behind the site is Mark Henderson, head of communications for the Wellcome Trust, former science editor of The Times, and author of The Geek Manifesto and 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know. I’ve interviewed Henderson before, about making the transition from journalism to institutional communications. This time, the conversation focused almost exclusively on Mosaic.
Communication Breakdown: There’s a long and heated debate in science communication circles about whether non-scientists can ever be competent science writers or science reporters. It seems like every time I hear people arguing about this, your name crops up as an example of someone who doesn’t have a science background but is great at writing about science. How and when did you get into working as a science reporter?
Mark Henderson: I never would have picked myself for the science beat. I did a history degree, then reported on all sorts of things for my first four years at The Times. Then I was asked/told to do science by my then editor. I thought I’d do it for a couple of years and move on. I stayed 11 years then moved on to work for a science organisation. What got me for the first time, when I started to write professionally about science, was the attraction of the method. I came to appreciate that science is not, as Sagan said, a body of knowledge but a way of thinking. It’s the main thing you need to understand to report it well.
CB: At The Times, you convinced a newspaper with centuries of tradition to roll out a new monthly magazine devoted to science (Eureka). When you made the move to Wellcome Trust, did you already have any ideas of new communication tools that you wanted to try?
Henderson: Yes. One of the things that attracted me to the Wellcome Trust job was its long-standing commitment not just to funding biomedical research, but to supporting public engagement too. It occurred to me that there might be an opportunity to support long-form science writing – which makes an important contribution to public engagement, yet which is often hard to fund given the challenging economic circumstances of many traditional media organisations. Digital technology has lowered the barriers to entry to publishing, as well as challenging traditional business models. It has made an idea like Mosaic practical.
CB: Have any of those ideas been notable successes or failures? What did you learn from those experiences?
Henderson: We’re about to find out! Mosaic was the big one – and it’s about to launch. [Note: the interview took place before Mosaic went live on March 4.]
CB: Mosaic is described as a “digital publication,” which is a little vague. What can people expect?
Henderson: It’s about trying to fill what I think is a gap in the market for science features, in what I hope is quite an innovative way. As I mentioned, longer-form science writing is hard for many places that would like to do it to fund. Even Eureka, alas, didn’t quite work – while the magazine got a good audience, The Times closed it after three years as it struggled to get decent advertising. So our thought at the Trust is that we can fund some of this ourselves, directly.
We’re publishing a long-form feature every week, mostly from freelancers, and then publishing them under a Creative Commons licence. This means that anyone else can take the content and republish it for free – a critical part of our proposition. Our offer is that we think this content is great and important, and we want people to see it. If they see it on our site, great. If they see it in lots of places, even better.
CB: How long has Mosaic been in the works, and what are Wellcome Trust’s goals for the publication?
Henderson: We’ve been working on the concept and execution for nearly two years. The goal is to build an audience and engage people with biomedical science and the medical humanities. We’d love to build a significant audience on our own site, but for me, one of the real measures of success will be uptake of the Creative Commons element, the success we have in getting the content republished.
CB: Who’ll be handling Mosaic’s editorial responsibilities, and what will your role be?
Henderson: Giles Newton is the editor – he’s in charge of overall commissioning. We have two very talented commissioning editors working to Giles – Chrissie Giles and Mun-Keat Looi. I’m editorial director – I oversee the project’s overall direction and Giles reports to me, but he and his team run the editorial show.
CB: I know that Mosaic is seeking to tell “the most compelling contemporary stories we can find about biomedical science and its impact on society.” But I think a lot of people may be worried about conflicts of interest, since the trust will likely be funding some of the research being covered in Mosaic – and perhaps especially since all of the articles will be freely available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence.
Should Mosaic be viewed as a reliable source of news or as an extension of Wellcome Trust’s public relations arm? And, if it should be viewed as a news source, how will Mosaic address possible conflict-of-interest concerns?
Henderson: Mosaic isn’t intended as public relations, and I think the proof of that will be in the stories we publish. Read them – they are proper reportage. We’ve taken a very deliberate decision not just to cover Trust-funded research, but to cover interesting life science wherever it may be and whoever is funding it. That does mean we’ll touch on Trust-funded researchers from time to time, but the goal of this is absolutely not to promote the Wellcome Trust and its work. It’s to engage people with great science.
The way we’re managing conflict of interest is through transparency – we are completely open that the publication is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and we’ll be careful to make it very obvious when we cover work in which the Trust has been involved. We also have no obligation to take a “Trust line” on anything – we have a licence to cover viewpoints that the Trust might disagree with.
I’m with Jay Rosen in that every journalist has conflicts, and that the old-fashioned idea of the objective “view from nowhere” doesn’t wash anymore (if it ever did). Transparency is the new objectivity – the best way to help readers and viewers to decide whether information is worth trusting is not to pretend to show an objectivity that can never really be achieved, it’s to be open about where you’re coming from.
CB: Biomedical science covers a lot of ground. Are there any specific areas that you are interested in? Or are there any areas that you feel aren’t getting sufficient coverage in traditional outlets, where Mosaic can fill that gap?
Henderson: We’re interested in anything interesting! More than areas, we’re keen to publish stories that are compelling, but that also set science in its proper context. I often say that we don’t want to publish pieces that are about the big Nature paper of the week. But we might publish features about the big Nature paper of this week last year – explaining how it came about, how it was received, and what happened next, what new directions were opened. And we’d love to publish features about the big Nature paper of next year.
CB: What formats will Mosaic editors be looking for? Short-form pieces? Lengthy features? Video reporting? Animation?
Henderson: We’re looking for long-form articles, generally 3,000 words or more. The idea is to commission the sort of thing that doesn’t get commissioned often by the more mainstream media. The audience is non-specialist – more The New York Times Magazine than Scientific American. We will be running video, but our budgets really only stretch to commissioning that in-house. What we do have are travel budgets – for the right story, we can send people all over the world, and we’ll pay travel expenses up-front.
CB: Any advice for freelancers that are interested in pitching stories to Mosaic?
Henderson: Tell a good story! Be prepared to publish under a CC-BY licence. And talk to Chrissie and Mun-Keat. [Note: More information on what Mosaic‘s editors are looking for is available on the Mosaic blog.]