Video, podcast and summary: “Is There a Future for In-Depth Science Journalism?”

 

Traditional media outlets have been facing budget cuts and layoffs for years, with specialized reporters often among the first to go. And yet last year, Boston Globe Media Partners made a significant investment in launching STAT, a new publication that focuses on health, medicine and scientific discovery. STAT‘s leadership and reporting team discuss the publication’s progress and how the field of science journalism is changing.

Speakers

Rick Berke is the executive editor of STAT and former executive editor of POLITICO. Berke joined The New York Timesin 1986 and served as a political correspondent and senior editor for nearly three decades.

Carl Zimmer is a national correspondent for STAT and hosts the site’s “Science Happens” video series. Zimmer also writes the “Matter” column at The New York Times and has written 12 books including Soul Made Flesh, which was named as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Rebecca Robbins is a reporter for STAT covering money in life sciences.

Moderator: Seth Mnookin, associate director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.

Summary

[This is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript.]

Panelist for Is There a Future for In-Depth Science Journalism?

Seth Mnookin, associate director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, began the Forum by introducing each of the panelists and asking the speakers to tell the audience a bit about what STAT is and its mission.

Rick Berke said that STAT launched about 3 months ago and it’s an online publication focused on health, medicine and life sciences with the aim to fill a void that the STAT team saw in coverage in terms of writing authoritatively and credibly about these issues for a broader general audience. STAT about 50 people on staff, including the editorial and business teams, and aims to create a new digital news organization that’s more nimble than its sister publication, The Boston Globe.

Mnookin pointed out that Berke’s background isn’t in science journalism and asks Berke how he got involved with STAT.

Berke said that he’s always felt a good story is a good story whatever the topic. STAT has assembled the most best-known and respected writers in the country who write about these issues in a way that gives the publication “instant credibility.” One reflection of that instant credibility is in the 49 percent open rate STAT has for its daily newsletter. “That’s unheard of in the industry,” Berke said. “…That tells me that people have a hunger for a source of this news. People want to read this stuff. We’re building a very dedicated and reliable audience.”

Mnookin says that STAT national correspondent Carl Zimmer is at the point in his career where he’s turning down assignments. What was it that made the STAT project appealing to Zimmer besides the money?

Zimmer says that he had never been part of a publication from the start. He said that he enjoys getting to “really dig into a subject” and work with the STAT team to figure out how they can make STAT stories different from what other publications are producing.

Mnookin asks STAT reporter Rebecca Robbins if she was working for print publications prior to coming to STAT. Robbins says that she was working on stories for both print and the web. Mnookin then asked if anything struck Robbins as being fundamentally different about STAT.

Robbins said that not having to worry about filling space or the artificial deadlines that print publications have “is really liberating.” She has found that STAT can has the freedom to shift the production schedule around in a way that makes the most journalistic sense. She says that for a reporter focused on putting out the best story possible, “it’s been a really great experience.”

Mnookin said that STAT is currently doing broad range of stories including investigations, newsletters, and in-depth features. Has the team identified those types of stories as areas of need, or are they simply trying everything and seeing what sticks?

Rick Berke

Rick Berke, executive editor of STAT

Berke said that when you start a publication from the ground up, you don’t really know what it’s going to be until it happens. Berke said that he had no idea how many stories STAT would have each day when the publication first began. He has been surprised by quantity of stories and the range. He says that his main focus right now is on not doing “commodity journalism” that other publications are doing.

Berke was quick to give credit to STAT’s publisher who Berke said is committed to journalism. The publisher gives reporters and editors the ability to try everything from investigative projects that take months (like this one on clinical trials) to a quick piece on a congressman vaping at a hearing to a poll conducted with Harvard on gene editing. STAT has sent reporters out on the campaign trail looking for intersections of politics and science. They do multimedia projects, explainer stories, animated stories and are not afraid to use a little bit of whimsy to make stories more interesting Berke said, adding that the New York Times takes itself too seriously.

Mnookin asked Robbins about her first story on the site, a piece about clinical trials.

Robbins says that the summer before STAT’s launch, she spent a lot of time meeting with people and going to events to develop sources and find stories. She went to panel discussion on social media use in clinical trials. During the question and answer session, an executive in audience asked about what her small biotech firm should do about a situation that was driving them crazy. Their stock price was zig-zagging up and down, they believed in response to participants speaking publicly about their clinical trial. That ended up being the seed for Robbins’ story. Robbins talked with patients who were updating the world through social media on a company-sponsored clinical trial revolving around a device implanted into their spines. The story was an intersection of business, the patient experience, and the crazy world that social media has created.

Mnookin asked Zimmer about his “Science Happens!” video series on STAT.

Zimmer said that the concept for this series is, “I just show up in a lab and pay a visit…I look for places where really cool basic research is happening that is potentially going to lead to advances in medicine.” One example is a “Science Happens!” video that features a Johns Hopkins researcher who’s developing a treatment protocol for recovering stroke patients that uses a therapeutic video game where patients become dolphins. In another video, Zimmer visited the Wyss Institute where researchers are engineering bacteria in an effort to hack a patient’s microbiome. A third video features a lab at Harvard Medical School where scientists are studying aging and lifespan by examining tiny worms. This video work, Zimmer said, “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Mnookin asked Zimmer what the reaction has been to the video series in comparison to Zimmer’s written stories.

“Very positive,” Zimmer said. He believes that scientists really like the video series because viewers can very quickly get an idea of what the research is and why it matters. Zimmer has heard from teachers that the videos are helpful in introducing scientific subjects to students as well.

Mnookin asks Rick Berke what types of stories garner the most traffic for STAT.

Berke says that it varies. STAT’s best trafficked piece of all time was a 3,000-word piece Sharon Begley wrote on the gene editing tool, CRISPR. The article “went through the roof” in terms of traffic Berke said and was translated into Chinese. A separate piece by Begley focusing on Eric Lander piece also did well. A profile written by Zimmer of Northeastern University researcher Slava Epstein also garnered impressive traffic. Berke has found that some listicle stories have done particularly well, including a story on the most horrible cures imaginable. Robbins’ recent piece on Theranos also performed well on the site.

Mnookin explained that Theranos is a billion dollar-valuated company who claims that they can diagnose many conditions with a single prick of blood.

Rebecca Robbins

Rebecca Robbins, STAT reporter covering money in life sciences

Robbins added that Theranos was a Silicon Valley darling until the Wall Street Journal ran a series of stories that were critical of the company’s promise of revolutionizing blood testing. Regulators began cracking down on company, drawing a flurry of attention from news organizations. Robbins’ piece didn’t try to do on the ground reporting because that had already been done. Instead, her reporting tried to give readers a guide of what to look out for in the next few weeks and months to figure out whether this once hot company was finished. That story got a lot of attention because it laid out the information in clear and simple terms for readers who hadn’t been following every Theranos milestone.

Rick Berke said that STAT tries to add value that would be helpful to readers in an interesting and authoritative way that doesn’t repeat what other publications are doing. One project that he feels has really succeeded in this arena is a piece on a football player at Syracuse who was kicked off the team after suffering concussions, then was courted by several other lower-tier teams. That story got enormous attention, Berke thinks because of a combination of the lead character’s personal story and the way the STAT reporter followed the story for months to get in-depth coverage. In addition to the print story, STAT also did a video on this player as well as a truncated version of the video that subtitles so viewers could watch it at their office without turning the sound on. The truncated video garnered over 1 million hits.

Mnookin asked Zimmer about the overall reaction to STAT. He asked if people viewing the publication as something that might portend a different future for science journalism, and how the publication fits into that journalistic ecosystem.

Zimmer said that five years ago he was in a glum mood about what was happening in science writing because the business models didn’t seem to be working. Today, he’s more optimistic because of STAT and places like Buzzfeed, that have rebranded into hubs that offer legitimately good science content. Zimmer adds that publications Vox andfivethirtyeight also have very active science reporting going on. Will industry be able to support as many people who were employed in 1995? Zimmer doesn’t know, but he doesn’t look at the landscape apoplectically either.

Mnookin asked what the business plan is for STAT and where the funding is coming from.

Berke said that the publication is fortunate in that publisher John Henry wants to make money but also wants STAT to be an example of a sustainable news organization. Berke believes that financial success may ride on native content from advertisers that’s clearly designated as sponsored and not editorial. STAT has already had sponsored content from Johnson and Johnson on the site and more sponsors are getting interested. STAT may also experiment with different ways to have a paid version of the site, but they don’t have a specific plan on that yet. For now, the priority is to build the audience and develop fans.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin, associate director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing

Mnookin asked if there is a time frame for building that audience.

Berke said to ask John Henry. Berke says that both he and Henry believe that people will pay for quality journalism.

Mnookin said that the relationship STAT has with The Boston Globehas not been completely smooth. The Globe has lost all of its science reporters and editors. Mnookin asked if STAT will replace that science coverage?

Berke said that he disagrees with the assessment that the relationship has not been smooth.

Mnookin said that the union representing The Globe employees has filed a grievance with management over STAT.

Berke said that start-up news organizations never have the independence that STAT has along with the ability to draw on infrastructure and platform of a publication the size of The Globe. STAT would never be able to start up this quickly without the legacy of an established news organzation. The down side is that a natural tension arises between reporters who are tied to processes and procedures that come with print deadlines and those who are operating under STAT’s new approach. Berke added that STAT has not replaced any of The Globe’s health and science reporters.

Mnookin said that The Globe no longer has dedicated science reporters or editors. To cover large issues like LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves—a subject that may very well be the biggest science story of the year—The Globe ran a story from the Associated Press. Years ago, that would’t be the case.

Berke said that STAT fills parts of The Globe’s business section and that there would have been cutbacks at The Globewith or without the addition of STAT.

Mnookin then opened up the floor to questions from the audience.

Wade Roush from the Science, Technology, and Society program at MIT asked what the panelists are learning about their fan base? The publication seems to be going after a broad array of readers, but Roush wondered if STAT could build their brand by appealing to so many.

Berke said that’s what sets STAT apart. STAT embraces stories on politics and science as well as pop culture and science, but they’re not afraid to write about the more narrow issues or about people’s human life experiences. What they’re finding is the audience is about 25 percent international. Massachusetts has the most readers (thanks to the connection to The Globe) followed by California and New York. Readers are predominantly and most readers are in 30s or 40s.

David Chandler from the MIT News Office said that he spent 16 years writing for The Boston Globe’s health and science section before coming to MIT. He said that STAT’s new model is “very fascinating and promising,” and asked how the new framework operates differently than the old model.

Berke said that STAT managing editor Gideon Gil would be the best person to answer. Gil is the only person who went from The Globe to STAT. Berke said that when he was working at POLITICO, reporters can think of an idea, ask for the story, and put it on the site in a few hours. That kind of nimbleness is required to be competitive in journalism. STAT can move on stories, design niche beats, and create new ways of coverage. Somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of theSTAT news room is devoted to multimedia, data visualization, animation, and storytelling that’s not text driven. That’s totally different from traditional news organizations.

Zimmer said that he has written for the New York Times for 10 years now and The Times publishes pieces written in a certain style.

Mnookin asked what that style is.

Zimmer said that the style doesn’t have much of a personal voice. Writers can be graceful with language, but not too personal. There are things that he’s proposed to STAT that he wouldn’t propose at the New York Times.

Mnookin asked for examples.

Zimmer said that he is addicted to Twitter and once got into an online discussion with geneticist Craig Venter about the feasibility of a $20,000 per year concierge health exam. Venter called Zimmer naive and Zimmer used the spat as inspiration for a story. Zimmer described the final piece as “a very brightly colored story…I don’ think I would try to write it for a straight newspaper.”

Mnookin said that at a traditional newspaper, reporters must check to see if there space is available before writing a story. Ideas also generally must be cleared with a Page One editor and sometimes several others before work can begin.

Berke said that there are many stories written by STAT reporters that run in The Globe three to four days after being published on STAT. That’s because stories that run in The Globe have to go through traditional news channels before publication, and that takes time.

Zimmer added that there are advantages to working in different kinds of formats. For example, at National Geographic Magazine, the time between when a writer first pitches a story and when it comes out can take three years. The published piece will be gorgeous, but the timeline is different from STAT.

Mnookin asks Robbins to describe a story she wrote about a live feed operated by former pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli .

Robbins says that shortly after Bernie Sanders returned a donation from Shkreli, Robbins noticed that Shkreli posted on Twitter that he was doing a livestream on Youtube. Robbins began watching livestream in November, after Shkreli had gain notoriety but before he was arrested on securities fraud charges. Robbins wrote an article on Shkreli’s bizarre livestream that featured Shkreli wearing pajamas, playing guitar, chess, and video games. After Shkreli’s arrest, several other publications ran stories on the livestream, but STAT had an advantage in that it had a reporter that was paying attention to the human interest side of Shkreli early on.

Jenny Rood, an MIT alumna and writer at the Broad Institute, asked about the variety of the columns STAT currently hosts, including Retraction Watch and Zimmer’s “Science Happens!” column. She asked how STAT decides on what should be regular columns and what material should be regular series.

Berke said that he was initially worried that STAT would not be credible, especially since Berke himself does not have a science background. To overcome this obstacle, the publication hired editors who could identify a bogus study and who knew the proper way to describe a particular piece of research. Berke said that there’s a natural tension between publications being fast and nimble versus being accurate and right. STAT tries to overcome this challenge by hiring authorities in their field Zimmer, Helen Branswell who covers infectious disease, and Sharon Begley who came from Reuters. If you start with people who are knowledgeable and respected and layer on young and talented journalist, that mix brings “a great energy and authority to our coverage.”

An MIT undergrad who’s studying science writing asked what separates a great reporter from good reporter in this century.

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer, national correspondent for STAT host of the site’s “Science Happens” video series

Zimmer replied that one problem that science writing faces more so than other kinds of journalism is a pack mentality where everyone follows the same press releases and tells the same stories. What science writers really need to do is to weed themselves away from the press release and embargo system and away from what press offices want them to write. He encouraged reporters to go out and find new stories. For his Slava Epstein story, Zimmer knew that Epstein has been covered before. The story was not a scoop. To separate himself, Zimmer went and hung out with Epstein and learned about his fascinating backstory. Zimmer believes that’s the main way to get people to recognize who you are as a science writer.

Mnookin said that there are many, many more good writers than there is space to print good writers. That is not true of reporters. Science writers should focus on reporting. When people are frustrated about where to go with their career, there is always a need for good journalists. If you have a story that no one else has, there will always been someone who will pay you for it.

Jane Roberts, associate editor of Undark Magazine, asked about how does STAT decides who can place native advertising in that publication, and how the publication believes such advertising will affect how readers see them.

Berke said that he doesn’t think they’ve gotten any pushback about native advertising. He said that readers are going to see more and more native advertising, it’s in STAT or other news organizations. Berke recalled being at the New York Times years ago when the publication was debating whether they should having advertising on the front page.

Another audience member asked the panelists about how they find stories.

Robbins said that she finds stories in a variety of places. Some are found through social media. Some are found by reading pieces published in other news outlets. Sometimes press people have pitched her ideas where the specific pitch she doesn’t catch her eye, but a different element might her to take a different approach. She advises reporters to look for stories in as many places as possible.

Mnookin asked the panelists if any of them ever called sources just to see what the source is working on.

Zimmer said he does that as much as he can. There could be a good story hiding in plain view. Zimmer said he deals a lot with public information officers who call at 9AM and say that they have a great story on a giant paper coming out at 2PM that day. In those instances, Zimmer tells the information officers that he can’t do anything on that short a timeline. He said that it takes work to find good stories and sources who aren’t camera-averse.

Robbins said that the pack mentality of science writing can create a situation where reporters are only covering researchers who have a current paper.

Mnookin asked Zimmer where he is finding the most interesting long-form journalism outside of STAT.

Zimmer said that in recent years, many general interest publications have placed a heavier emphasis on science coverage including The New Yorker and New York Magazine. Zimmer said he believes this is a positive development since writers don’t want to relegate science only to readers who are interested in that specific subject.

Mnookin asked Berke what has surprised him about working on STAT.

Berke said that he has learned so much about building an organization. Every day he gets a tweet or e-mail from a reader saying that they are so grateful a publication like STAT exists. Berke did not anticipate that. He originally thought that the hardest part of the job would be launching the STAT site, but he quickly realized that “it gets harder as you go along.” Berke said that he is restless because they want to establish STAT even more and that he won’t be satisfied until the publication’s audience is big enough to provide financial support.

Mnookin closed the Forum by asking Berke whether politicians or scientists have thinner skins.

Berke said that scientists have thinner skins because unlike politicians, they’re not used to the coverage in the same way.

Christina Couch

Christina Couch

Freelance Writer, Administrative Assistant II for the MIT Communications Forum