In March of 2014, the Wellcome Trust launched Mosaic, an online science magazine devoted to publishing long-form science journalism. At the time, I interviewed Mark Henderson, the trust’s head of communications, about his expectations for the fledgling publication. Now, almost two years and about a hundred stories later, it’s time to check back in. Has Mosaic lived up to expectations? And how has it evolved over time?
To find out, I caught up with Giles Newton, Mosaic’s editor. Giles earned a Ph.D. in genetics and worked in academic publishing before joining the Wellcome’s editorial team in the late 1990s.
Communication Breakdown: According to its website, Mosaic is “dedicated to exploring the science of life.” That makes me think of conventional life sciences, such as biology or ecology. But Mosaic has published stories on everything from wheelchair basketball and the stigma associated with disabilities to parenting techniques. Did you think you would be defining the science of life this broadly when you first launched Mosaic, or has that definition evolved over time?
Giles Newton: The Wellcome Trust has an extraordinary range of interests, which stems from its founder Henry Wellcome. His work ranged from biological and medical research to the history of medicine and archaeology. So, today, Wellcome supports research in the life sciences, history, ethics and the wider humanities, as well as backing early stage innovations, the arts, exhibitions and debates, and science education projects. And it has Wellcome Collection, a public space with exhibition galleries and events, and the Wellcome Library – a huge library on the history of medicine.
All this makes Wellcome a fascinating (and fun) place to work. And it set the scene for Mosaic when we were setting it up in 2014 – Mosaic’s remit spans Wellcome’s interests. So we define the science of life as including biology, medicine, public health and the human condition more widely. We haven’t changed or evolved this definition, but we’ve been surprised and delighted by the range of stories that writers have pitched to us, as they’ve found ways of exploring the science of life that we didn’t expect.
CB: How do you decide whether a subject would be a good fit for Mosaic?
Newton: When we get a pitch, there are a few questions we ask right away. The first and most important is: does it have a story? There needs to be a journey for the reader, a reason to follow the narrative through thousands of words. We also think about how new the story is, whether it’s something genuinely transformative and if it’s got wider implications.
In terms of subject, the mental checks I use most often are barnacles and astronomy. Fascinating though barnacles are (I still remember doing fieldwork on barnacles and limpets in South Wales, even though it was 30 years ago!), we don’t cover ecology or conservation. And though astronomy epitomises the aspects of physics or technology that I love to read about, it’s separate from biology or health.
CB: Do you ever get story pitches that sound incredibly interesting, but just don’t fit within Mosaic’s parameters in terms of subject matter?
Newton: We’ve had quite a few pitches for stories that, had they been related to health in some way, we would have commissioned right away. In such cases we’ve encouraged the writers to persevere with pitching to other publications because they are stories that we really want to read.
But many pitches are ‘topic no story’ and aren’t really for us. For some, the angle on the topic is so intriguing that we encourage the writer to do more digging and see if they can find a narrative arc. Sometimes this works; other times nothing emerges.
CB: Wellcome Trust is a philanthropy that focuses on improving health, including funding biomedical research. I asked Mark in 2014 about whether Mosaic’s ties to the trust might present potential conflict-of-interest concerns. He said at the time that Mosaic would not just to cover research funded by the trust, and would “cover interesting life science wherever it may be and whoever is funding it.” He also stressed that Mosaic would be completely transparent about both its Wellcome Trust funding and about highlighting when research it writes about is funded by the trust. Has conflict of interest been an issue for Mosaic so far? How many stories have you published with ties to the trust?
Newton: We’ve not had any issues with conflicts of interest so far, and the organisation has been very supportive of Mosaic tackling difficult subjects and experimenting with the types of story it publishes. To date we’ve done 97 stories, and by my count 13 have links with Wellcome: seven where Wellcome has funded to some extent the story’s main character (or one of the main characters), and others where some of the research discussed in the story has been funded by the Trust. It feels about right as a proportion – we can take advantage when we hear about some remarkable work by a Wellcome-funded scientist, but can also cover a far more diverse range of stories by being unconstrained.
CB: One of the things that sets Mosaic apart from conventional publications is that it publishes its content under a Creative Commons license, so that other news outlets can re-publish the stories for free. My understanding is that Mosaic is using this model so that its stories can reach the widest possible audience. How successful has the Creative Commons approach been?
Newton: We don’t mind where readers come across our stories – it might be on our site, a completely different site or in a newspaper. And if we release them under Creative Commons, it makes it easy for other publishers to use the text and bring the stories to their audiences. They can reproduce a story as is, cut it to size or translate it into a different language.
We thought this might increase our audience, but it has far exceeded our expectations. To date we’ve seen 2.7 million visits to the Mosaic site, and we estimate our stories have had at least 25 million readers in other publications. The stories have appeared around the world – frequently in the UK, USA, India and Spain, and more sporadically in other countries like South Africa and Australia. Translations are growing too. Quite a few pieces have been translated into Spanish and French, and a selection into Hungarian, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish and Farsi.
CB: How much variability do you see between stories in terms of how much pick-up they get from other outlets? Can you give me an example of a story that did exceptionally well?
Newton: Some stories are republished extensively, some not at all. We see large differences between pieces week to week. This probably reflects the fact that our stories are quite wide-ranging in topic and style, and while some will be of more general interest, others will be more niche.
Last month we published ‘Why the calorie is broken’ by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, which not only did extremely well on the Mosaic site, but was also republished widely. It appeared in Digg, the Atlantic, Ars Technica (with 420 comments), Real Clear Science, New Republic, Gizmodo (with 875 comments), the Wire and Scroll in India, Huffpost Science, BBC Future and Business Insider.
CB: Do you or your editorial team have an idea of which stories will get a lot of pick-up and which ones won’t? And, if so, what makes a story really take off?
Newton: A story tends to do well – on the Mosaic site and on other sites – if it is human-centric: if it has at its core something that a reader can relate to and be interested in. Stories with a global outlook also do well. The focus might be on a particular place in a particular country, but the wider message of the work needs to resonate globally.
CB: Now that Mosaic has been around for a while, has it gotten easier for you to find great story ideas? I.e., are you getting more pitches from reporters?
Newton: It has increased steadily as Mosaic’s name has spread. We now get pitches from writers all over the world. But we’re always interested in hearing from writers we haven’t worked with before, as we like to have a mix of voices. We’ve worked with science writers, travel writers and biographers, writers who are more formal and writers who are quite whimsical. What they have in common is an ability to tell a story and to describe the places they visit and the people they meet.
We’re also starting to work with some freelance long-form editors who can develop the stories with the writers. That’s an area we’ll be looking to expand.
CB: You’ve been part of Wellcome Trust’s editorial team for 18 years. Have you learned any significant new lessons during your first two years as Mosaic’s editor?
Newton: We keep on learning new things. We didn’t start out thinking that Mosaic would be a testbed for ideas, but we’ve been able to do lots of experiments: new approaches to doing stories, ways of refining headlines and standfirsts, what works and what doesn’t on Facebook and Twitter, how to do responsive infographics and how to keep developing the site. It’s been fun.
CB: It’s tough (for me) to determine what “success” looks like for Mosaic, since it’s not a profit-driven publishing enterprise. Do you think Mosaic has been a success so far? And, if so, why?
Newton: Mosaic falls very much at the public engagement end of Wellcome’s communications. As it isn’t driven by an agenda, and it’s not advocacy, its success rests on publishing stories that readers want to engage with. So we look at three measures: reach, as in how many people are reading the stories and where they are; engagement, which we can look at through simple measures such as shares and retweets or, more qualitatively, through the level and depth of discussion; and impact, which we’re just starting to examine.
In terms of reach and engagement, we’re delighted with Mosaic’s progress. Its stories have reached millions of readers in many different countries, and we’re making new contacts with republishers all the time. The stories have an average read time of 8 minutes, they often get hundreds of comments on other sites, and there have been some vibrant discussions on Hacker News and Reddit.
CB: What does success look like in the long term – say, 10 years from now?
Newton: A decade ago I thought in terms of print only. Now we’re completely focused on digital and have had to change our approach and mindset completely. So in ten years’ time we’ll probably have been through other transformations and the science publishing landscape might look completely different. I hope that landscape becomes more diverse and vibrant, with a wider range of organisations and individuals committed to telling stories about science and bringing those stories to a greater readership. So success for us would be contributing to that change.
CB: Last question: do you have any tips for freelancers who are interested in pitching a story to Mosaic?
Newton: We love to get pitches that have a clear storyline, that make science or medicine exciting or intriguing, and that have human interest.