Boston Globe‘s new life sciences site brings larger strategy into focus

Healthcare and life science wonks take note: Boston Globe Media this morning launched a standalone site dedicated to reporting and analysis on “the frontiers of health and medicine.” The publication, Stat, is the latest single-subject offering in the media company’s effort to attract audiences and advertisers far outside of Massachusetts. And with more than 30 journalists spread across the country, the outlet will be far larger in scope than its predecessors covering the realms of tech and Catholicism.

Stat will “take readers inside science labs and hospitals, biotech boardrooms, and political backrooms,” a news release says. Led by Rick Berke, former executive editor of Politico, the staff boasts writers, editors, and producers from the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other top-shelf mainstream and niche publications. Along with traditional news writing and analysis, the outlet will produce regular video features and a biweekly podcast, conduct monthly national polling with Harvard, and revive the popular pharmaceutical industry blog Pharmalot, among other features. 

“You have to try new ways of storytelling,” Berke tells CJR. “I’m not afraid of failure.”

Stat’s team is spread among outposts in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, though the vast majority of the nascent newsroom remains in Boston. “We’re not bound by any kind of regionalism,” Berke adds. “That said, we want to really own Boston and then, secondarily, Washington, because there’s so much politics and policy and money going toward research.” 

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On its first day of regular publication, Stat features an investigation of a Donald Trump-backed supplement business; a feature, complete with video, on the dual-edged sword of cancer drugs; and a quick, expert-filled response to claims that dementia led comedian Robin Williams to take his own life. 

“Over the coming decades, many of the most important stories in the world will come out of life sciences,” Boston Globe owner and publisher John Henry wrote in an inaugural post. “There is simply not enough coverage presently of these vital matters.”

The standalone venture also brings Henry’s broader publishing strategy into sharper focus. Since his purchase of the company in 2013, the Globe has launched single-subject sites to build upon the newspaper’s in-house expertise. The first, BetaBoston, focuses on the city’s tech scene, while the second, Crux, explores the Catholic Church and faith. The commercial goal is to attract advertisers outside of the Globe’s geographic coverage area. And Stat, broadly aimed at the healthcare industry, targets a pool of huge businesses and interest groups.

The three sites not only hold the potential of bringing Globe journalism to national or international audiences, but also tie the news organization more closely to Massachusetts’ premier institutions. Those specialty publications come in addition to Boston.com, a free site with more web-friendly local content. 

Henry’s blueprint has been aptly described as a “hub-and-spoke” model, with the newspaper and its paywalled site, BostonGlobe.com, at its heart. In the past few years, those core products have been fairly effective at replacing their shrinking print subscriptions with digital audiences. 

The Globe’s paid digital circulation numbered more than 90,000 in the second quarter of this year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, up from about 50,000 in 2012. That has more than offset declines in weekday print circulation, and it has almost made up for dipping circulation of the Sunday dead-tree edition. In terms of overall digital reach, BostonGlobe.com averaged about 6.7 million monthly unique visitors between February and September of this year, comScore analytics show. That’s up from 4 million monthly uniques during the same period in 2013—a period, it should be noted, that included a huge traffic surge after the Boston Marathon bombing. 

Despite the digital gains, however, the Globe has slashed its newsroom headcount twice in as many years with Henry atop the masthead. “We’re simply looking to turn a modest profit, which the ownership will then invest in the enterprise,” editor Brian McGrory said in a memo announcing the most recent round of cuts, which claimed dozens of positions in October. 

Stat is the latest of those investments, far larger in terms of manpower than either BetaBoston or Crux. “It takes a bit of chutzpah to name a digital-age life-sciences publication after a buzzword born when leeches still roamed the apothecary,” senior writer Bob Tedeschi says in a post on the site’s name, an abbreviation of the Latin word for “immediately.” “But we’ll be honest: We’re coming at this with no small amount of ambition.”

Building a newsroom of nearly 40 journalists is quite an undertaking. It’s also an interesting step for Berke, a longtime New York Times editor who last year left Politico after only 10 months following disagreements with management.

“I don’t think there’s any news organization that has the benefit of being a startup and having a sort of soft launch over months within a big news organization,” Berke says, adding that about 60 Stat stories had been published in the Globe before today’s launch. “Even though it’s a huge commitment building a startup, to me it’s also a once in a lifetime opportunity. I felt like I had to do it.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.