Ian Burrell: In-depth science goes digital, but it’s still for the ‘average intelligent lay person’

The media column: Mosaic's launch on Tuesday shows there is space for science coverage

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eureka, as you would expect of a magazine named after Archimedes’ famous exclamation, was supposed to represent a breakthrough in British media.

A ground-breaking monthly science supplement from The Times, it was refreshingly ambitious. Launched in 2009 by then editor James Harding (now head of news at the BBC), it was a glossy 60-page title that was free with the paper on the first Thursday of each month but probably would have held its own on the magazine news-stand.

“We believe that many readers want a broader read about how science can transform our lives and our planet, which demands rigorous, engaging and exceptional reporting,” said Harding at the launch.

It seemed to be of its time. With climate change and other scientific issues increasingly prominent in the news running order, there was a hunger for greater context. The BBC responded to the same public interest by commissioning a year-long celebration of science for 2010 and raising the profiles of popular science presenters such as Brian Cox.

But Eureka was not to be. After 37 issues, publisher News International (as it was then called) decided to abandon the experiment in October 2012. But this does not mean the public is uninterested in science coverage that goes beyond the scare tactics of tabloid headlines that assign a carcinogenic threat to almost any feature of everyday life – only to later identify life-saving qualities in the very same activities or foodstuffs.

The National Readership Survey showed that Eureka garnered a monthly following of 552,000 (481,000 of them ABC1s). But although BAE Systems, Shell and BMW had taken space in the launch edition, advertising was in short supply. In the ecology of publishing that’s unsustainable.

Worse, the green-minded James Murdoch, chief executive of his father’s British newspaper stable at the time of Eureka’s launch, had left for New York, and the phone hacking scandal was escalating. By the time the science supplement was ditched, Mr Harding  was heading out of the building too, having incurred the displeasure of  Rupert for his brave coverage of hacking. Without executive champions, the magazine inspired by Archimedes went down the plug hole.

But the story didn’t end there. Next week a new long-form science read will launch with 3,000-word articles on such topics as the need to design a female condom that will combat HIV, and the rise in south-east Asia of a drug-resistant strain of malaria that would cause devastation if it ever crossed to Africa.

Mosaic is potentially a wonderful new addition in science journalism. The editor-in-chief is Mark Henderson, and as science editor of The Times, watched the demise of Eureka with a sense of dismay.

He now has a chance to fill the space that it left. Henderson works at the Wellcome Trust, a charity with an endowment of some £13 billion and a remit to improve public education on bio-medical science. He has come up with the idea of a digital magazine called Mosaic, arguing that detailed science coverage, though it has improved, is not something “done well” by the press.

“Doing longer-form, more explanatory content about science is expensive  and takes up space that’s scarce and  the standard mind set of newspaper  is that it isn’t commercially viable for them,” he says.

As well as being editor-in-chief with a budget to commission assignments which many science journalists must have thought had gone the way of the dodo, Henderson is Wellcome’s head of communications. His hybrid role and Wellcome’s embrace of his magazine idea is indicative of the diverse nature of modern publishing, stretching far beyond the confines of traditional media.

A digital model means the Trust can have a more meaningful input into science debates. Because not only will Mosaic be free to access when it launches on Tuesday but the articles it commissions will be available for re-publication on a Creative Commons licence, meaning  that mainstream news websites will be able to use the content (even for commercial benefit).

But only if Henderson commissions readable material. He sent London-based science writer Ed Yong to Cambodia to investigate the dangerous new malaria strains. Rose George went to Nepal and Bangladesh to examine the effect of menstrual hygiene on women’s life expectancy. And (squeamish readers look away now), he sent American journalist Bryn Nelson to probe the value of faecal implants in treating gut infections. The editor-in-chief admits this examination of the transfer of one person’s excrement to another “activates a primeval disgust instinct in a lot of people”. But he says the writing is so strong that it’s his favourite among the long reads that will form the first incarnations of Mosaic.

New pieces will be added every Tuesday. The product has been designed with consultancy from former Guardian executive Mike Herd and is intended for use on mobile devices as well as desktop. Getting readers to ingest 3,000 words of gritty scientific investigation via a phone is a significant test.

Henderson hopes that social media users will be advocates of the content and that phone users will take advantage of read-later apps such as Instapaper and Pocket to store articles for when they’re ready to read them in comfort.

One thing he’s sure of is that the audience is there. Because he is not restricting Mosaic to the lab coat-wearing classes who already subscribe to Nature magazine. His product will have a broader appeal. “We are writing for the intelligent and engaged lay person,” he says. “It’s the person that studied biology at A-level and doesn’t work in science but as a middle manager in Marks & Spencer.” There you have it. Henderson’s Principle.