Giles Newton, editor of Mosaic and Head of Editorial at the Wellcome Trust, on the secrets to the magazine’s success, writing tips, and creating stunning science stories.
Mosaic Science, which launched in 2014, publishes one in-depth online feature each week on an aspect of biology or medicine that affects our lives, our health, or our society. Giles has worked at the Trust for more than 17 years.
Why launch Mosaic?
We were looking at what we could do in journalism around science. We wanted to do something that wasn’t news, as news is already covered really well. And one thing we like about science is that it tends to be a story. A person who comes up with an idea, follows it through and discovers something amazing about biology, or medicine. Or it might be an individual who has encountered an illness, but has had a transformative experience through it, and has helped other people.
By telling that story we can get the layer under it — what is the science? What are the issues? What’s happening to the body when this occurs? How do cells talk to each other? How does cancer arise? There are fascinating scientific aspects of stories, but you’ve got to have those personal arcs to make the reader want to follow the story.
Mosaic covers some incredible stories, for example the woman who is cured from a deadly disease by bee stings.
The story about the bee stings was about a lady who had an amazing experience — well, it must have been horrific at the time — of being stung by hundreds of bees. In some way it helped her Lyme disease. In the story we explore Lyme disease, venoms and poisons, and what their role in medicine is. And it shows that there things we don’t know — it wasn’t entirely clear what the role of the bee venom was [in her recovery].
Another story, one of my favourites, is about a guy [Stephen Sumner] who had an accident on a scooter in Italy and lost one of his legs. He had a lot of phantom limb pain, as his brain was thinking that his missing leg was in agony. He discovered mirror therapy by using a long mirror to reflect his existing leg. You’re essentially tricking the brain into replugging itself, to reset its match, shall we say. Now, every year he goes to Cambodia and cycles around with a load of mirrors meeting people who have lost limbs through land mines, war, or conflict — telling them about phantom limb pain, giving them mirrors, teaching them about mirror therapy, and helping them.
We sent Srinath Perur, an Indian writer from Bangalore, to Cambodia, and he spent a week cycling around with him. So the story is about this guy, Stephen, but it also allows you to explore what phantom limb pain and mirror therapy are, how it is understood and what people think is happening. Why do some people think that it’s not as robust a therapy as others? There are lots of issues to explore, but the key thing I always remember is this guy cycling around with lots of mirrors.
Which stories have been the most popular?
The two most popular stories have both been about blood groups. We had a story written by Carl Zimmer on why we have blood types, which opens with when he was at school and found out he had blood type A+. He thought “Well, that’s brilliant, I must be the best”. As he gets a bit older he realises, actually, it makes no difference at all if you are an A, B, or O. If you are having a transfusion then it matters of course, but there have been various things, like diets based on your blood type, which are just rubbish. Yet there is now some science emerging suggesting that blood types may play a bit of a role in biology, perhaps around resistance to certain diseases.
The other story was The man with the golden blood, a title which Chrissie Giles, our editor, came up with. It’s a winning title. It was about people with incredibly rare blood types. The author talked to somebody who was one of only 40 people in the world known to have a different blood type. These people are precious because of their rarity. We can’t just write about blood, but it is remarkable that those two stories have done really, really well.
Do you think Mosaic is encouraging public engagement in science?
I hope so. We look at things in three areas. Reach — how many people has it got to that have read it. Engagement — have people been having discussions and debate around it? Then, impact — this is really hard to measure, but that’s what we prefer to think about in the long-term.
The engagement is the one that’s really interesting. We chose not to have comments on Mosaic, our thought process being that, because we release our stories under Creative Commons and encourage republishing on other sites, debate and discussion would most likely happen on social media, or on sites people are used to coming to and feel comfortable discussing on. They wouldn’t have to come to a whole new site that they didn’t know, Mosaic, and suddenly have to engage in comments. I think that was right. We look at some stories, which have hundreds and hundreds of comments in discussion threads, like on Gizmodo, for example. With the story about circumcision, some other sites had nearly 1,000 comments on them.
We’ve also liaised with Reddit for a few AMAs, which have gone really well. The one on hearing voices had 1,600 comments. They had the science team who were involved in the project answering questions and suggesting interesting papers or other areas to follow up on. We also worked with MH Chat, mental health charity discussions, for their Twitter chats.
Who is the Mosaic Science audience?
Our audience — whether they’ve studied science, or are just inherently interested in science and health — is not the research community. It’s the wider curious audience, who find things about science inherently fascinating.
And we don’t commission stories based upon how many views we think they’re going to get. We’re looking for the ones where we go “That’s a story I would absolutely want to read”.
Sometimes there’s a topic we think is important or fascinating and we’ll ask a writer to find a story to tell that. To find that narrative arc through it, that’s quite often harder. But if someone comes to us with a great story that will illustrate a really interesting topic or issue, then we commission it.
There’s a story sharing culture within the team. When really good stories are published on other sites we share them with each other and once a month the group discusses which ones worked really well, which ones inspired us, and which ones were just amazing pieces of writing. Sometimes it’s an approach which is really interesting. Sometimes we say, “This article was really good up to here, and then it lost me”. It makes us think, actually, are there articles we’ve done that, in hindsight, we could have done better?
Mosaic Science stories always have strong visuals.
We commission new photography, or illustrations, to accompany all our pieces. We have an art director [Peta Bell] who is always out talking to illustrators or photographers, or looking at people’s Tumblrs and Instagrams. Finding young, upcoming artists or working with more established people..
We’ve had a few who have been set builders, who actually make things. There is one by Kyle Bean on a story about people using stem cells to grow part of the eye in Japan. He made an eye and filled it up with white paint and we’ve used that as our motif quite a lot. Others have been embroidery and there have been ones with wooden models.
How would you do this if you were publishing stories every day?
You would have a much bigger team and budget. Our art director reads the story, thinks about it, comes up with the concept, finds a suitable illustrator, or photographer. She works up ideas with them, commissions it, then we get rough drafts in. It’s very similar to how we come up with the stories. We want all the artwork to be different and yet to have a certain common style. As someone who comes from a heavily text-based world, I find it a fascinating process.
Are you able to experiment?
We have quite a lot of freedom to experiment. We hadn’t realised how good Creative Commons would be. We publish on a Tuesday and various other sites will republish the story and attribute it to the author, and Mosaic, and provide a link. It means we can reach audiences we never expected to.
American sites, technology sites, have been interested in our stuff. Then it ranges from the Mail and Guardian in South Africa to Scroll in India, which published quite a lot of ours. We were also republished in Nepal and Australia. If it’s Creative Commons, people will be able to translate it into other languages without having to check with us. So they’ve been translated into French, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Farsi.
We had a story about the polio epidemics in Hungary after the Second World War and how both sides helped vaccinate the population and stop the epidemic, which really affected children. That was translated into Hungarian and republished in Readers Digest in Hungary, which is an audience we never would have got to. We had roughly 1.5 million views on the Mosaic site in the first year, but we know there were also more than 8.5 million views in other publications, print or online, all around the world. Some stories are much larger than others, but the readership is a lot more varied and geographically dispersed than we could have hoped for.
It’s been really exciting seeing publications come across our work, wanting to republish us and bring our stories to their audience. Because we are a charity we don’t have to make money from the stories, we just want people to enjoy and be inspired by them, debate them, or to think the issues are worth reading about.
Will you continue down the format of one long piece a week?
I think our main focus will stay on one long form piece, which will usually be a text feature. We have a reasonably small team. We write a little bit in-house, but we commission freelancers from all over the world to write the pieces. We have two editors and an art director, and other members of the editorial team are involved.
It’s a nice pace because we can publish the piece then look at the impact, and engage with people on Facebook. Each piece has its own time frame and some of them will carry on after that. Sometimes, if it’s a piece a day, stories don’t really have the time and scope to breathe.
There are now many sites focusing on long form content, why do you think this is?
It tends to be stronger in America. The New Yorker, for example, is a fabulous storyteller. Then, about the time we were thinking about it, other sites came out, like Matter, Nautilus and Aeon. At the time Matter was completely science and has now broadened its remit. They all take slightly different approaches. Nautilus takes a more thematic approach, Aeon takes an essay approach. I enjoy reading stories on all of those. It’s nice to have our own style, in quite a flourishing area.
Do you think you will do more multimedia stories?
When we originally started we thought that while we would publish long form text stories, there are some stories that would be better suited to visual approaches. We published a number of 30-minute films, which were rather lovely and did well.
But it takes a lot of time and work to produce a 30 minute film. So now our thinking is to still try and tell stories through film, but make them shorter. It won’t allow us to explore as much of the science underneath, but we can keep experimenting.
We did our first audio story, which was about people who hear voices, at the end of last year. That did really well and was republished. I think audio is really interesting because you can create an atmosphere just from the people and the environment they’re in, with text that is a lot harder to produce. Where someone is hearing voices it’s perfect for that. So we’re looking at doing more audio series.
Our other podcast is where the stories are read, like audiobooks. We have quite a few people involved. Geoff Watts, for example, wrote and read a story about simultaneous translation, where people hear one language and speak out another language in real time, which is kind of incredible.
So we’ll carry on doing audio where the stories are read out, as well as mixing in a few audio stories. And we’ve got various other ideas. We’ve done our first infographic, and we want to experiment with a long form comic, which will be fun. While our main format will be text, there are some stories we can tell in different ways.
Can you see Mosaic going down the print route?
We have discussed it, but at the moment we have no plans. As an organisation we’re striving towards a digital first ethos.
Do you commission many new writers?
We have a real mix. There are some people who are young, up and coming writers and some who are very established. Some who aren’t science writers at all, such as travel writers; people who have got an interesting voice and an interesting approach to telling stories. We’re not writing about science in such a deep level of detail that you need a science degree to understand it.
We don’t just want variations on the same style of science story every week. Sometimes we want a writer to report an experience of going somewhere remarkable and to visualise it, other times the writer steps back and is anonymous.
What’s the ratio of stories you commission and writers approaching you?
It’s nearly always pitches. We come up with lots of ideas, but don’t necessarily have the time to research the stories. We’ll come up with the topics and bank them as things we would like to do at some point. But it does take some time — and sometimes luck — to find a really good story. The one that did come from us was the story about the girls that don’t age.
These girls in America look about four years old, but are in fact 15. There is something around the ageing process, some part of the genetic issue that’s not working. Mun-Keat Looi, who is one of the other editors in the team, had found this story, thought it was going to be a really interesting way of looking at ageing and genetics together, did some research on it, and then we commissioned Virginia Hughes to write about it. That was a really popular story.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in journalism now?
Write relentlessly. Whether it’s on your own blog or platform, or for publications. If you write hundreds of words a day, you get into the flow, and the writing process almost becomes second nature; then you can focus on telling the story.
How about new data methods?
I find some of the wrok with maps fascinating. There’s a lovely piece I saw about the Everglades, which had a timeline and within each location they were telling the story in someone’s own voice. A story about how their life had changed. That was really, really nice, as it wasn’t just a map that’s changing over time, but about how people’s lives will be affected in these different parts and different places.
Lastly, tell us more about the Wellcome Trust.
The main work the Wellcome Trust does is funding biomedical research in institutions and universities around the world. We fund several thousand, maybe 10,000, scientists in the UK and overseas in Africa and Asia, in all areas of biology, medicine and public health.
A lot of the work of the communications team at the wellcome trust is to tell people about that work and to liaise with the researchers and say, “Here is funding that’s available for you, please apply”.
We funded research in malaria, for example, and Artemisinin, the really effective malaria drug has come from this research that we’ve supported out in Thailand. Wellcome Collection is the physical embodiment of our work in public engagement, where we want to help develop a society that’s really interested in science, that supports science and is receptive to what science does.