How Mosaic doubled its traffic by prizing quality science reporting over quantity

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

While social media and tabloid columnists blithely use the term “snowflake” to dismiss patients with almost any modern ailment, one British publisher is building a global scientific reputation by taking the exact opposite approach.

From Dysphagia (the inability to swallow) to Trichotillomania (compulsive pulling of the hair), and even Anosognosia (a refusal to accept you are even ill), Mosaic breaks them all down in lengthy narratives that take around 20 minutes to consume, combining the stories of sufferers with the latest medical evidence.

Mosaic’s model is quite different to traditional advertiser or subscription-funded media. It is supported by the vastly wealthy Wellcome Trust, an organisation that sits on a £26bn investment portfolio. And it operates a shared content strategy that enables its output to be distributed for free by a network of 200 publisher partners under ‘Creative Commons’ licence.

What began as an experiment in long-form journalism has filled a vacuum in specialist science reporting left by the financial pressures on serious newspapers. Such is Mosaic’s reputation among academics that its articles are being included in exam questions and university reading lists. “We know there is a professional audience for our work as well as a public and lay person one,” says Chrissie Giles, the editor.

Mosaic celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, having so far attracted 8 million to its website, with up to 80 million reading its pieces after republication (the content has appeared in 16 languages).

The focus is on quality over quantity and after cutting its publishing rhythm from weekly to fortnightly 18 months ago, Mosaic has doubled its traffic. Its aim is to create the definitive online article on a given subject so that it will be read and shared for years to come. It employs professional fact-checkers in addition to editors, and each of its pieces involves weeks, or months, of preparation. “We are helping our writers do the best work of their lives,” says Giles in the atrium cafe of the Wellcome offices, close to London’s Euston station.

The thing that really sets Mosaic’s work apart is the impact it has on readers, with 90% taking action on what they have read by sharing or discussing it with friends and colleagues, or by searching for further information on the topic. That finding emerged in a survey conducted by Kantar Public that concluded that Mosaic readers take a more positive attitude to scientific research and its effects on human health.

By far the most impactful story Mosaic has published is a January 2017 study of a successful Icelandic programme that uses after-school activities to combat the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and drugs among young people. The piece by Emma Young has been viewed 2m times across Mosaic’s publisher partners and led to the Iceland scheme’s adoption in 24 countries. “The [Icelandic] researchers said to us that in 20 years of doing their work [no-one] really understood what they had done before - so that for us is the best example of real world impact,” Giles says. “It has gone all over the world and back again.”

Every Mosaic piece should set out to “make change in the world” as well as to “tell a good story”, she says. “It’s about getting people better prepared to make health decisions, on their own personal and family level but also in elections, for their country and the world.”

Mosaic has found an audience for articles about unusual medical conditions, and how they can be treated. Alpha-gal (which Mosaic covered in December) is an allergy to all mammalian animal products (from the smell of bacon to the sensation of a woolly jumper on the skin), caused by being bitten by a tick. Bryn Nelson’s piece on dysphagia reported that sufferer’s can swallow up to 1.5 litres of spit a day, with one expert comparing the experience to being “constantly waterboarded”. The article has been republished in the United States, India and China.

The publisher is trying to tackle stigmatisation of mental illness. It has investigated postpartum psychosis among recent mothers, and the use of sleep deprivation as a therapy for treating depression by kick-starting the biological clock. “We find all of these stories do well,” Giles says, “not only because they are fascinating but because so many people either have these conditions, or know people with them, and just don’t see themselves reflected in [media] coverage – they see a stigmatising short account or people that don’t look like them.”

India provides Mosaic’s biggest national audience, followed by the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. “It’s a part of the world that is developing quickly and is extremely advanced in certain areas of research and education,” Giles says of India, where Mosaic has republishing agreements with the influential websites Scroll and The Wire. There is also “a question of scale” in a country where hundreds of millions owns smartphones and there is widespread use of English.

Mosaic is part of an international Diffusion Network dedicated to improving science coverage. It has key republishing agreements with Spain’s El Pais, which produces a science supplement called Materia and frequently translates Mosaic’s work for distribution throughout the Spanish- speaking world. Another publishing partner is Bhekisisa, a health journalism operation founded by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian group and run as a non-profit.

The Wellcome Trust was created in 1936 after the death of the pharmaceutical giant and philanthropist Sir Henry Wellcome, who was born in Wisconsin but later settled in England. The Trust's mission is to “improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive”.

Mosaic, which sits within the communication department of Wellcome but has its own editorial budget, espouses this ethos.

A year ago Giles updated the website and changed its strap line from ‘The Science of Life’ to ‘The Science You Care About in a Changing World’, reflecting its relationship with its readers. “We wanted the idea that we are progressive, charismatic, inquisitive and generous – these are our brand ideas because we know that people are really time poor,” Giles says.

Mosaic is also “optimistic”, she says, and each of its stories should contain “a bit of hope” as well as “a little bit of grit”.

The publisher is expanding its long reads into other compatible formats. Each of its pieces is professionally read as a podcast and made available on platforms such as Soundcloud and Spotify. Giles would like to do more video stories after a film showing how blood is taken from the placentas and umbilical cords of newborns for use in treating adult leukaemia patients was viewed 18m times on Mosaic’s Facebook page.

Mosaic has recruited 8,000 subscribers to its newsletter and its stories regularly feature on key electronic missives such as Nature Briefing, FT Health and Global Health Now.

Last year London-based Canbury Press published two collections of Mosaic articles as books, called Brainology and Bodyology. “We always wanted to feel like the stories we were telling were like book chapters that would sit on the shelf and you could pull them down every time something came up on the news,” says Giles. Like the tiled artwork of an ancient Roman villa, Mosaic’s journalism is made to last.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell.

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