A media mogul with pockets twice as deep as Rupert Murdoch’s makes a public promise to “being open to the widest mix of ideas, expertise and thinking” and sets down a mission statement to “improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive”. Imagine that!
Sir Henry Wellcome died in 1936, when Murdoch was five years old, and he was a pharmaceutical giant not a press baron. But his posthumous influence on society is multi-faceted and it is now influencing the future of journalism, how it is paid for and how it is produced.
Mosaic represents a unique publishing model, funded from the cavernous coffers of the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation which was established on Sir Henry’s death and has an investment fund worth £20.9bn. It is a home for a type of journalism which it is hard to find elsewhere, with articles the length of a typical book chapter and each supported by original artwork.
Mosaic’s strapline is "The Science of Life" but, in line with the interests of Sir Henry, whose famous London collection of cultural artefacts is devoted to the "incurably curious", it uses that mandate to cover a great breadth of editorial interests.
There is no better example of this than the story which has recently propelled Mosaic into the consciousness of a raft of new readers. Under the headline "Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn’t listening", it told a story that was as much about social affairs as science. Icelandic teens, Emma Young reported, were not succumbing to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, because of radical changes to the country’s provision of after-school activities. As well as the hard data to support this, the piece carried portrait pictures of the children and landscape shots of the Icelandic landscape taken by Dave Imms.
The headline proved strangely beguiling, with 330,000 people coming to this story on a marginal website within a week of publication, a figure that later rose to more than 500,000. Because Mosaic produces work under a 'creative commons' licence, other publishers (including Vice, the Atlantic, Business Insider and Quartz) were able to republish the piece on their own platforms for free, a process which has drawn another 600,000 views.
The 'blood, death, life, sex' editorial formula
At its editorial offices at the Wellcome Trust’s base in north London, Chrissie Giles, who became editor late last year, explains Mosaic’s approach. “Having the support of a rich, or well-resourced, foundation behind us means that we have the time to do a really thorough job, and the time to really dig into the story with the writer,” she says.
She says that the most popular subjects for Mosaic’s readers fall into what she calls “the blood, death, life, sex bucket”. Mosaic has investigated body decomposition after death, male suicide, the history of the foreskin, the history of the female condom, and the phenomenon of women that never age. It’s hardly the shallow end.
Mosaic turned three years old last month. In that period it has published just over 150 stories, unveiling a new piece every Tuesday. Typical articles run to between 4,500 and 5,500 words. Other hits have included an attempt by John Walsh to evaluate chronic pain. “It isn’t really talked about because people are reticent to bring it up or it’s a bit of a downer,” says Giles. “So, how do you quantify your pain to doctor? That piece did really well.”
One of the oddities about this journalistic enterprise is that it is run out of a PR office. Mosaic was founded by Mark Henderson, who is now its editorial director but also the Wellcome Trust’s head of communications. Giles has worked in communications since she joined Wellcome in 2006, and her team of five or six editors are also part of that department. But she also has a biochemistry degree and a background in journalism, while Henderson is former science editor of the Times, where he launched a short-lived supplement called Eureka!, which was the inspiration for Mosaic.
Giles says she is able to maintain editorial independence. “Most of the story ideas come from freelance writers pitching story ideas to us. There’s no merit given to people who talk about Wellcome-funded research over other research, we are just interested in the most compelling stories, the ones that get us excited.”
The commissioning process she describes would be unrecognisable to a newspaper features editor enslaved by the 24/7 publishing cycle and the need to constantly replenish an editorial sausage-machine that devours budgets and allows minimal time for preparation. Giles has the luxury of reminding herself that “thinking time is still work”. She can send her writers overseas when the story demands, and give them many months to research and then finesse their piece.
Each article is overseen by a designated editor who works closely with the writer and decides whether a photographer is assigned to the project. The writer submits a first draft, and then a second. Giles even employs professional fact-checkers to go through the piece line-by-line and confirm the accuracy of quotes with subjects (while not giving actual quote approval).
These fact-checkers (some are themselves journalists, others are studying for doctorates) are “extremely good at nit-picking information”, says the editor. It is a safety net that is rare in UK news publishing but common place in high-end in American journalism, which is the standard Mosaic is aiming for. “We look at the New Yorker and the Atlantic,” she says. “American non-fiction, long-form (writing) is the goal, right?”
And then there is the money. Within UK journalism, Mosaic are seen as being close to the best payers in the market. Rates vary – just as articles can range from 4,000 words to 12,000 words – but it’s not unusual for a commission to be worth £2,500 to the writer.
Mosaic, which has had 4.6 million unique visitors to its site in its first three years, does not stand completely alone in its field. It measures itself against the London-based not-for-profit site Aeon, which was founded by Australian couple Paul and Brigid Hains in 2012, and offers beautifully produced long-form content, much of it about science and much of it authored by leading academics. New York-based Nautilus, founded in 2013, is an issue-themed digital and print magazine spanning science and culture. Its latest edition is dedicated to the subject of balance. The Long + Short was an ideas-based digital magazine, championing long-form journalism and supported by the London innovation foundation Nesta. It sadly closed down last week, although its archive is still online.
A gift to other publishers
The Conversation, which like Aeon sits at the intersection of academia and journalism, publishes to shorter lengths but is another exponent of creative commons, which Giles says has been “very successful” for Mosaic, amplifying its profile as pieces have been republished by the likes of CNN, BuzzFeed, El Pais and the New Statesman.
The licence means that writers are not paid extra for republication and publishers that use the work are able to edit it as they please (although not to commit libel or introduce inaccuracy). Giles says she has yet to have an author be unhappy with an edit and most are delighted to be republished elsewhere. “Quite often people will get bylines in four or five more papers,” she says.
Mosaic produces a podcast, because “not everybody wants to read, some people like to listen”. Professional actors are employed to read out articles, although some of the writers are broadcast journalists and comfortable in audio.
It is a valuable public service, not least because of the pressures on science journalists working in more traditional media organisations, and the limitations of a pulsating modern news cycle that demands brevity and has no time for scrutiny of the grey areas that exist in most scientific debates.
“Presenting science in a way that is engaging and compelling is really important and it is getting harder as science journalists are laid off and science desks are closing,” says Giles. “I feel like there is a real gap and that is really scary because if people don’t know about research, and the ethics and what is possible, then how are we asking them to make decisions around policies on the futures of countries?”
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell