Why STAT is the media startup to envy

Chemical & Engineering News, Flickr (Treatment by CJR)

Nearly four months after its launch, it’s more apparent than ever that STAT is the media startup to envy. The new national publication dedicated to covering health, medicine, and science has the structural support of a traditional outlet—in this case, the Boston Globe—and a large staff that, collectively, has at least a century of journalism experience behind it. At the same time, STAT has a distinctly entrepreneurial agility and energy, and the freedom to carve out a unique voice for itself.

Headquartered in the Boston Globe building, in the former publisher’s suite on the third floor, STAT also has reporters in Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. As CJR wrote before, STAT is the third standalone site Boston Globe Media has launched since John Henry bought the company in 2013. BetaBoston and Crux are the others, focusing respectively on the city’s tech scene and the Catholic Church. But STAT is a far more ambitious undertaking than its counterparts. At a time when several new national ventures are trying to fill the yawning gap in science and health media, STAT is making a big bet on original content reported by a sizable team of experienced journalists, and it is aiming for a worldwide audience.

It has about 45 staff members, at least half of whom are in content positions, and the outlet also works with a number of regular freelancers. The new publication’s personality is evident in its early successes, including Megan Thielking’s Morning Rounds newsletter, which is emailed to subscribers around the world at 6am every day and has an open rate of 48 or 49 percent, according to Executive Editor Rick Berke. Senior Writer Sharon Begley’s profile of 34-year-old biologist Feng Zhang is its best-read piece to date; it got about 100,000 page views, and found a secondary readership when it was translated into Mandarin for an international outlet. STAT has also ventured into watchdog journalism with Charles Piller’s exploration of how top research institutions routinely circumvent public reporting requirements for clinical trials. The reporting got a fair share of reverberation in the media and science worlds, and recently, Sen. Charles Grassley cited the investigation when he urged the NIH do a better job about reporting on human experiments.

But perhaps most amazingly for a young outlet, STAT also has resources—enough to send reporter Andrew Joseph to Colombia for 10 days, for example, where he reported a series of stories on the Zika virus. STAT also sent journalists to cover the presidential campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. “I don’t think many health science publications did that,” Berke says.

All this comes at a curious moment of transformation for a classic beat. While outlets like The New York Times and the New Yorker still invest in science journalism that appeals to a broad audience—the recent gorgeous coverage of gravitational waves is a standout example—they are the rare general-interest publications that continue to do so. As CJR has detailed before, the science beat was among the first to be eliminated from daily papers: In 1989, there were 95 weekly science or health sections in major American newspapers; that dropped to 34 in 2005, and to only 19 in 2013. Most of the science coverage these days has been considerably softened and moved from the news pages to the “lifestyle” section. CNN slashed its entire science team in 2008. The same year, Columbia University cited “weakness in the job market” when it suspended its environmental journalism program. Johns Hopkins ended its full-time science writing program in 2013.*

Science-centric publications aren’t immune from the tectonic shifts in the media industry, either. Science Magazine went through a painful transition to a digital-first publication. Earlier this year, the lively Knight Science Tracker blog hung up its hat. In September, National Geographic gave up the nonprofit identity that had been its signature since 1888. It’s now owned by a partnership led by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, which bought the company for $725 million.

But, somewhat surprisingly, a wave of new outlets has emerged on various media platforms to fill the void. WNYC launched a new health desk in 2014. The same year, an Australian-based outlet called The Conversation, where editors work with academics to publish science and health news for a broad readership, launched its US edition. Following the success of his “Cosmos” revival in 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson began hosting the weekly “StarTalk” show on the National Geographic Channel, a spin-off of his successful podcast. Its second season launched last October with former President Bill Clinton as its first guest. A number of science-based podcasts and radio programs have also found widespread popularity, including “Invisibilia,” which two NPR veterans launched in January 2015.

If I were at The New York Times in the old days, they’d all be front-page stories. There are so many stories about people and personalities and conflicts (in science and health) that no one is covering, no one anywhere.

And then there is three-month old STAT. “John Henry … from the very beginning wanted to commit the resources to make this stand out,” says Berke. He declines sharing budget information, but notes that, “obviously, it’s many millions of dollars a year.” He also said that STAT plans to be financially self-supporting and eventually make a profit through ad revenue, sponsorships, and partnerships with outlets that run their content, such as MSN, Business Insider, and PBS NewsHour. Managing Editor Stephanie Simon says events are also on the table. But, Berke says, “we’re not on a tight timeframe. John Henry knows we need time to build our reputation.”  

Berke spent his career at The New York Times and Politico. Making the leap last year to a wholly new publication, which he was responsible for building from scratch, was “very daunting.” But, he says, “if I didn’t do it, I’d be filled with regret. As I thought over it and ruminated, I kind of knew that for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

About a year ago, when he was first considering the job, he spent time talking with scientists in Kendall Square, Boston’s biotech nexus. “I came away from one meeting with three pages of scribbled story ideas no one had done,” he says. “If I were at The New York Times in the old days, they’d all be front-page stories. There are so many stories about people and personalities and conflicts (in science and health) that no one is covering, no one anywhere.” That’s why he is unfazed by the number of other innovative ventures in science media that have sprouted up lately: There are plenty of rich and urgent stories for everyone.

Berke built out the staff by looking for people “who would really bring us instant credibility,” both folks with expertise in science journalism and “the smartest young students right out of college.” He said he was surprised that so many people believed in the project enough to leave “full-time, seemingly secure jobs” at places like The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the Sacramento Bee.

“We wanted people extremely knowledgeable about health and science because neither of us came with science background,” says Simon, referring to herself and Berke.

The Boston Globe is one of the papers that killed its science and health section, four years before John Henry bought the company. But with STAT, it is able to pull whatever stories it wishes for its own publication (and vice versa). A STAT staffer is present at the Globe’s daily morning meetings, updating the newsroom on the stories the publication is working on.

STAT exists as an independent company from the Globe, making its own editorial decisions and publishing on its own terms, but the paper benefits by effectively having an in-house laboratory for new journalism. STAT, meanwhile, can take advantage of the Globe’s well-established information technology and human resource support, which helps the startup move faster than it otherwise would. And when the Globe puts STAT’s stories on its homepage, “it also gives us a pretty good bounce,” Berke says. “It’s a partnership, like everything these days.”

After years of decline, Berke suggests that the recent rise in science media might be precipitated by the fact that the internet offers new multimedia ways of telling engaging stories, and of explaining information that might otherwise seem inaccessible or uninteresting. There’s a significant divide between the journalistic mediums of today and even 10 years ago. “It’s not an accident that our multimedia team includes animators and data visualization people,” Berke adds. 

He points out that it’s a coup for STAT to have Carl Zimmer on contract as its national correspondent. While it might have been tempting to have this celebrated science writer develop good written stories for the site, STAT instead found a new niche for him in a video series called “Science Happens!” in which Zimmer goes to labs around the country explaining to viewers what he finds, whether it’s scientists who are growing brains in labs or researchers investigating what worms have to teach us about human aging.

It’s an experiment—a journalistic one rather than a scientific one—like just about everything at the new publication. And they are not all successes. STAT has already done its share of course correction. It has a tricky balance to strike. On one hand, Berke doesn’t want to make snap judgments about features that may simply be on a slow burn before finding their audiences. On the other, he’s learning what works and what doesn’t. The big profiles on prominent scientific figures do well. “Even if they are, like, 3,000 words, readers stick with it,” he says. But STAT has had to adapt its video strategy. When it published a piece on concussions in college football players as part of its “High Impact” series, for example, it included a four-and-a-half minute video produced by Matt Orr that featured a promising Syracuse University quarterback who was medically disqualified from playing. Relatively few people watched it It wasn’t until the STAT team made a 30-second version of the video aimed at Facebook that the story took off “and got, like, a million hits,” Berke says. That’s prompted the team to integrate Facebook trailer versions of their videos in future projects. It also prompted calls to the Syracuse quarterback from coaches at other schools who were eager to recruit him, according to Simon.

Berke notes that his time at Politico taught him a good deal about what it takes to put out a must-read newsletter, which has now become a part of STAT’s marketing strategy. As the well-performing Morning Rounds continues to ramp up, STAT plans to launch several more newsletters in 2016, beginning with Ed Silverman’s Pharmalot, a regular dispatch on the pharmaceutical industry. Newsletters, which link to health and science stories produced by other media outlets more than its own, are this upstart publication’s way of integrating itself into the daily reading habits of its target audiences. Newsletters also double as a sponsorship opportunity: Over the past several days, Johnson & Johnson sponsored Morning Rounds. The text includes one item of clearly labeled sponsor content. 

On its site, STAT is still adjusting the dials, trying to find the right mix of stories under the broad umbrella of “science coverage.” Simon says there is a “readership gap” on political stories—fewer folks appear to read coverage on, say, Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot--when compared to straight health and medicine coverage. But such stories are important enough that they deserve regular focus. Even the regular polling feature is taking on a sharpened political focus. In partnership with the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, STAT will do monthly polls on science and health issues that are relevant in the US presidential campaign. Previous polls have been more general, looking into matters like gene editing for “designer babies” and e-cigarettes.

The publication is also trying to navigate ways to own stories about its hometown while maintaining a broader audience. Stories from Boston’s uncommonly large concentration of research hospitals and universities are currently featured in the “Kendall Squared” section, but Simon says STAT still needs to figure out how to approach local stories in a way that is responsive to an international audience.

If the first three months of STAT are any indication, it’s a publication with a promising future.

*This story originally stated that Johns Hopkins ended its science writing program in 2013. Johns Hopkins did, in that year, end its full-time MFA science writing program, but it has maintained its part-time program.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.