For the last few months, word of British digital science journalism upstart Mosaic has been circulating quietly, as a roster of all-star science journalists have been talking about taking reporting trips for the longform publication.
Though Mosaic bills itself as covering the biomedical sciences, in practice its work has broader topics and grand aims. Its editors have sent freelance journalist and National Geographic blogger Ed Yong to Cambodia and Thailand to report on drug-resistant strains of Malaria and their launch publication, which goes live on Tuesday, includes a piece on the redevelopment of the female condom.
But the most significant thing about Mosaic’s entrance to the marketplace is its unusual distribution model. All of Mosaic’s content—one new longform piece, released every week—is affixed with a Creative Commons license. This means that their content can be republished anywhere, in any magazine or newspaper or website, for free.
This altruistic distribution is supported by an equally unusual business model. Mosaic is a project of the Wellcome Trust, a Britain-based charity that supports global biomedical research with an endowment of about $25 billion. In short, the point of Mosaic isn’t to make a profit.
“We want our work to reach the kinds of people who can’t commission things themselves,” says Mark Henderson head of communications for the Welcome Trust, who also oversees Mosaic. “The kind of outlets that would never be able to afford to have Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong or Virginia Hughes write 4,000 words for them—but they might like the outcome.”
All of their longform includes a “re-publish” button, so editors can grab the text formated for a CMS. They already arranged regular syndication with CNN International, but Mosaic’s real goal is for smaller publications to be able to use their narratives to replenish the kind of science coverage which, when newspapers had more resources, might have found a home in a Sunday supplement. “For us success is in part drawing traffic to our site, but really success is having that ‘newspaper in Kansas’ effect,” says Henderson.
Mosaic groups itself with the abundance of upstart narrative science sites, newcomers like Aeon, which bills itself a longform-focused exploration of ideas and culture, and Nautilus, which launched last year. With a supervising editor, two commissioning editors, two staff writers and a budget to send top freelancers careening around the globe, Mosaic certainly harkens back to a grand age of narrative writing. But Mosaic is based in a kind of anti-golden-era style of thinking. By offering stories for free, it’s filling in the gap left as contracted budgets have eschewed expensive longform for cheaper, quicker news stories.
By telling explanatory stories about science, intended for a general audience, Mosaic also aims to fill an area of coverage that Henderson, who spent the bulk of a 15-year career at the London Times covering and editing science, says is particularly desolate.
“People who aren’t scientists themselves, but have a curiosity in science, aren’t desperately well served by the mainstream media,” he says. When Henderson worked on Eureka, a science magazine intended for a general audience, put out by the London Times, they attracted a large audience but few advertisers. Three years after he left his job, the magazine folded.
“It’s hard for a lot of publications to commission this kind of thing, because it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time, it’s risky,” says Henderson. And because they don’t have to make a profit, foundation-funded journalism is a way of serving this audience. Nautilus is supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation. And Quanta, an “editorially independent division” of the Simons foundation, enlists top-tier journalists and has syndication partnerships with ScientificAmerican.com and Wired.com.
“[Science news pieces] always has this tendency to see things as massive breakthroughs or great, gigantic health scares—and they rarely come with very much context,” says Henderson. “There’s never much discussion of where does this sit within the realm of research, what did it take to get to this stage, who are the people, what did it take to achieve this? When you do have the greater space of a longform piece, in the hands of a skillful writer, I think you can tell stories better and you can help people to put that discovery in its proper context.”