Going Digital: Inside New Science Journalism Outlets

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While many traditional print publications struggle to stay afloat, new all-digital science magazines are launching, and some online outlets are expanding their health and science desks. These outlets are bringing stories about science to new audiences and broadening markets for freelancers and for journalists looking for staff jobs. In a packed session at the World Conference of Science Journalists in October 2017, several panelists discussed the challenges of attracting an audience and securing funding for digital magazines.

How have other new projects fared amid these obstacles? In a recent roundtable discussion conducted via email, I talked with the editors and publishers of five new digital science publications or desks—all of which have launched since 2015—about their inner workings, growing pains, and some helpful tips they’ve learned along the way. This conversation has been edited for length.

The people who participated in this discussion are:

Deborah Blum, publisher of Undark

Gideon Gil, managing editor at STAT

Virginia Hughes, science editor at BuzzFeed News

Jude Isabella, editor-in-chief at Hakai Magazine

Alison Snyder, science editor at Axios


Rachel: What led to the launch of your outlet or science desk, and what is new or different about it?

Gideon: STAT was launched two years ago by John Henry, the owner of The Boston Globe, as an experiment in how to make high-quality journalism financially sustainable. We’ve so far nailed the former but are still working on the latter. What’s different about our approach is, first, our scale—we have an editorial team of about three dozen people. We also place a big emphasis on multimedia in our storytelling, because we believe science stories are often best told with visuals including photos but also motion graphics, video, and data visualizations. Visual storytelling is also crucial to attracting an audience in a world dominated by social media. Finally, we’re trying to appeal to a dual audience of science and medicine professionals and a general consumer audience, by producing stories that are both authoritative and deep but also engaging and accessible.

Virginia: When I was interviewing for this job in late 2014, our editor-in-chief told me that the Ebola outbreak had reminded him how much a newsroom needs a science desk. Because my team was and is small, with two reporters at the start and six now, we’ve tried to fill what I see as a gap in the science-communication world: watchdog reporting. We do stories on the not-so-wondrous side of science, whether predatory professors, science misconduct, shoddy medical treatments, or lawmakers who reject the scientific consensus on climate change. We tend to avoid reporting on embargoed studies, partly because single studies are so often wrong, and partly because we want to zig where our competitors zag. We have a lot of data-driven features, like our series on hidden government spy planes. And we also try to experiment with format and tone, even doing a quiz once in a while. It is BuzzFeed, after all.

Alison: Axios launched in January of 2017, and Axios Science a few months later. Across the publication, we have a distinctive style—our pieces tend to be shorter and are structured around “axioms” we use to convey information in a sharp way. We use that format and tone to cover individual studies, trends, and issues affecting scientists and their research—and most importantly, why they matter—to the efficient reader. The challenge of this non-narrative approach can be capturing the human side of science, but that is something we are trying to think creatively about. Like Virginia and Gideon, we also have a visual team and do some reporting that is led by the graphic.

Deborah: Undark has a different kind of beginning story. It really started as an experiment. When I took the job as director of the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) Program in 2015, I was thinking about ways that KSJ might better support science journalism in general, beyond the fellowship program. With Tom Zeller, Undark editor-in-chief, I started kicking around the idea of a digital magazine, one that would provide another home for good journalism but, maybe, fill a distinctive niche. We see the magazine having a very sharp focus on the intersection of science and society, with all the complicated ethical terrain that implies. That’s how we picked the name. “Undark” was the name for luminous paint in the 1920s, which glowed because it contained radium, and which despite all the hype and scientific enthusiasm which surrounded it, eventually proved to be deadly. We wanted the magazine to embody a sense of science in both light and dark, and we’ve really stuck to that idea.

Jude: I was working on my book Salmon: A Scientific Memoir from late 2009 to early 2014, and I kept crossing paths with the founders of the Tula Foundation. In 2009 they decided to launch a scientific institute off British Columbia’s remote Central Coast, where I was following scientists in the field for my book. The Hakai Institute focuses on long-term ecological research, particularly as it pertains to climate change on the coastal margin—from the glaciers to the sea floor. The founders, Eric Peterson and Christina Munck, are also interested in quality journalism, and we routinely lamented the few options, in Canada at least, to tell stories about coastlines, where people predominantly live. Eric turned to me one day and said, “We should start our own rag.”

Our beat is specific yet broad. Storytelling is important to us: Each week we publish one long-form article. Yes, we’re digital only, but great writing takes precedence. We also see ourselves as the place coastal citizens should turn to when they need solid information about their ecosystem, so we publish three or four news stories a week. Being digital also gives us the opportunity to regularly bring great video into the mix, as stand-alone mini-docs or as embedded features in a longform piece. We like good-news, solution-oriented journalism but we don’t shy away from the bad news or controversy. Many coastal citizens—especially here in our region, from Southeast Alaska to Northern California—are Indigenous, therefore we also try hard to respectfully share their stories with the world.

Rachel: What were some of the challenges you encountered with launching a new digital outlet or science desk, and how did you address them?

Virginia: Our challenge at the beginning was getting sources to understand that yes, BuzzFeed does news and yes, BuzzFeed News does critical science coverage. That’s perhaps a hard sell for people who are scared off by a home page that includes stories about butts and cats and Kardashians (however excellent those stories may be) next to breaking news stories. We didn’t do anything in particular to address this, and tried to just let our reporting speak for itself. I think the issue has dissipated a lot in the last three years, as our newsroom has gotten more kudos—and notoriety—for scoops and investigations.

Deborah: The [challenge] we worried about the most was that of visibility and influence. That is, in a digital age it’s easy to launch a magazine and much harder to be seen and make a difference. And making a difference was at the top of our list. Yet we were inventing a magazine out of nothing—how would we get people to pay attention? We decided in the fall of 2015 to put together a star-power kind of advisory board, one that would send a message that we were taking this seriously. We’ve continued to put an emphasis on visibility—our ability to drive a conversation, basically—and so hired a marketing director last year.

Finally, a lot of the challenge in launching a magazine in uncertain times is financial. We’re sheltered from that because Undark is funded through the KSJ endowment. We don’t have to make a profit; we don’t take ads. The good thing about that is that our basic business model is to just try to be good at what we do and to draw attention to issues that we think matter. The limiting thing is that we have a budget that is set at a size the endowment can handle, so it’s unlikely that we’ll get any bigger. But we appreciate the financial stability, and we’ve learned to be creative with what we have.

Jude: Like Undark, we don’t have to make a profit, nor do we need to sell advertising. We focus on excellence and issues that matter to the coasts. We have an annual budget that gives us stability and maintains a certain editorial staff size, which helps us manage our own expectations. The biggest problem is growing an audience. It’s a slow process. As a Canada-based publication, this is maybe a bit more challenging. To state the obvious, Canada is big yet its population is around the same size as California’s population, and our geographic spread is pretty vast. And, put the word “science” in a publication’s tagline, and it seems the general public assumes it’s a niche publication, though we’re not. We keep a general audience in mind for every story and video.

Alison: Axios Science’s launch challenges were less financial and more related to awareness of our coverage as part of Axios. There was a lot of buzz around Axios‘s launch that we were able to ride, and one of our founders, Mike Allen, features our science coverage in his newsletters, which gives us more visibility. But while people know Axios, they are still discovering the science section. Like Deborah mentioned, we have a dedicated marketing and audience-engagement team that helps to build our readership and newsletter subscribers as well as a communications team that worked to get Axios Science in the press early on. We’ve grown our readership but, of course, want to do more. To that end, we also use platform partnerships—for example, with Flipboard.

Gideon: We were lucky to have a benefactor who put up a significant sum to launch STAT, which surmounted the biggest obstacle for most startups—initial financing. We still have to develop a business model that will make us profitable, however, and that isn’t any easier than for others at a time when online advertising dollars are being sucked up by Facebook and Google. And because we’re a for-profit enterprise, we don’t qualify for most foundation grants that much of the digital-journalism-startup ecosystem has been depending on in recent years.

Another major challenge as we came out of the gate was to be able to attract talented writers and editors to join a new national publication. That was made easier by the abundance of first-rate science journalists on the job market because of buyouts and layoffs at legacy media. And once we signed up a handful of well-known science writers, among them Sharon Begley and Carl Zimmer, the résumés began flooding in.

Rachel: Several of you have mentioned financial challenges. Tell me more about your financial support, how you maintain editorial independence, and whether you’ve faced any criticism about your funding sources.

Jude: We are supported by the Tula Foundation, a Canadian nonprofit. We are upfront about our funding and how we fit into the Tula family. It’s the second paragraph in the “About Us” section. When a Hakai Magazine story features a Hakai Institute scientist, we let readers know that we too are part of the Tula Foundation. No one has ever raised concerns about conflicts of interest. In fact, we’ve been scooped—big time. The researchers were from Hakai and a few days before the Society of American Archaeology meeting in Vancouver of this year, a reporter from the Vancouver Province was trolling through the poster presentation in the program, was intrigued by this one poster, and called the researcher. Bang. He had a story, quickly followed up by CBC. I was pretty upset. My take was: If anyone had any doubts about our editorial independence this should convince them we’re operating like any other media outlet.

Virginia: BuzzFeed News has complete editorial independence, so I don’t know all that much detail about the financial side of things. The company makes money from a great ad business, plus e-commerce, our franchises like Tasty, and shows, including our new morning show AM to DM. We try to be as transparent as possible with our readers, and our “Standards and Ethics Guide is public.

Deborah: Undark has complete editorial independence also. The magazine is funded through the KSJ endowment, which is managed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and which was established by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. That foundation was created by two newspaper barons, so we’ve always had a very journalistic mission for the whole program. Although Undark launched less than two years ago, the KSJ program is 34 years old and there is a long history of editorial independence for the whole operation.

Alison: Axios raised $10 million in investment before our launch. (More on that here.) Our business model is based on revenue from advertising, events, and subscriptions (the last of which we are still developing). We run only one type of ad: mobile-friendly sponsored content, clearly marked, open to all advertisers. Some people take issue with certain advertisers, but we think it’s dangerous and wrong to discriminate as long as they stick to our decency guidelines. (Our founders recently discussed this on Reddit.) People also have inquired about the relationship between advertisers and the newsroom. The answer: We have complete editorial independence. For example, I don’t know who is sponsoring the newsletter I write until it is delivered to my inbox.

Gideon: STAT has both free content and a subscription portion of the site, focused on coverage of biotech and pharma. We take advertising on our website—as well as in our suite of emailed newsletters—which is primarily sponsored content but some more conventional ads, though not the annoying popups and banner ads. Ads are clearly labeled to distinguish from editorial content. There have been a few isolated critics who seem to feel that any news organization that takes advertising dollars from industries it covers is somehow corrupted. Our response is that we aggressively cover companies in the life sciences world and that our editorial team is independent of the business team. We don’t shade coverage. We have gone to court to take on Purdue Pharma, we’ve investigated business practices of Google’s life sciences spinoff Verily, of the biotech unicorn Moderna, and of genetic testing companies from Myriad to Proove Biosciences; the latter was raided by the FBI and went out of business after our stories.

After Health News Review brought to our attention a possibly ghostwritten piece, we investigated the origins of the piece and pulled it from our site, with an explanation posted in its place, as soon as we verified that the author misled us. We then examined every op-ed we’d published since our launch—more than 600 pieces—to verify authorship. We found no other instances of ghostwriting. To prevent anything similar in the future, we amended the disclosure form we send to authors, asking them to disclose in more detail any potential conflicts of interest, whether anybody other than the named author contributed to the piece, and to sign the form.

Rachel: New digital outlets and science desks provide potential new markets for freelance science journalists. How much do you work with freelancers, and what advice do you have for them about pitching to your publication?

Deborah: Undark is almost entirely freelance-written. Our staffers are editors who occasionally write for the magazine, and we have some contributing writers. But pretty much everything else is written by freelancers and that was our intent from the beginning. The idea being that if KSJ’s mission is to improve science journalism, we would provide a new place for science journalists to publish their work.

As to pitching to Undark, my recommendation is the standard one: Know the publication. We’re focused on that push-and-pull between science and society, so if someone pitches a story on the beauty of the oak leaf or the wonders of geologic strata, we’re going to suggest that they take it elsewhere. I don’t think that a strong pitch varies that much by fundamentals, be it print or digital. All of us look for a good story, an original idea, a strong writer. Photos are ever a plus; video can be, but we hold that to a very high quality standard. With digital, we can use more interactive graphics/multimedia, so that can be a plus. But it’s not as important as the good story. We pay either by the word or a flat rate. We have a submissions page that allows writers to contact us directly with ideas.

Gideon: STAT primarily uses staff writers and multimedia journalists, but we do use some freelance. As to what we look for, I don’t think I can say it any better than Deb: a good story, an original idea, a strong writer. We’re not looking to freelancers to cover studies or meetings or other run-of-the-mill science news. We’re looking for enterprise stories, usually told from places where we don’t have bureaus or access, that have a strong sense of place but also tell a story that’s of broader interest: Examples that come to mind are a story about Alzheimer’s in rural North Dakota, or a patient who died during a CAR-T therapy clinical trial, or the emotional struggles of firefighters six months after the Oakland Ghost Ship fire.

We’re a news site, so we’re not interested in timeless features. When freelancers pitch us, they should send a brief description of the idea, what else has been written about this topic, what makes the story distinct and timely, how they would report it, and why it matters to readers nationally. Our rates are on a sliding scale based roughly on word count, but we also take into account if the story will require an unusual amount of work, so we agree to an amount in advance with writers. To pitch stories, contact me or Lisa Raffensperger.

Jude: We rely mostly on freelancers. Our staff researcher/writer may write one news story a week, and the other three are written by freelancers. For features, we like strong narratives with universal appeal. We get a lot of pitches for wildlife/ecosystem/endangered ways of life that are worthy of attention, but there’s nothing that resonates story-wise, other than: We’re losing this thing. (Yes, like everyone else, we did a feature on the vaquita, but because it was in the hands of a real wordsmith, we were confident the story would have a unique arc. And it did.) For news, we shy away from embargoed news, for the most part. We like local coastal stories that need a bigger audience (for example, a story from South Africa about poverty and the dangers of abalone poaching to make ends meet). We like process stories, especially if they’re about solutions (for example, a story about how West Coast fishermen changed their fishing behavior and are saving more albatross.)

We hire writers from around the world, predominantly Canadians and Americans though, and we pay in Canadian dollars. When we first launched, our dollar was fairly strong against the U.S. currency, but after about a year it took a dive. That makes it tougher on our American writers and our budget. We negotiate flat fees for long features (and experience matters). We think: What is a good wage for the amount of work this feature will take? And that’s what we offer, with a “more or less” word count. As for news, it’s a range, again depending on the complexity of a piece. It’s best to contact our editor’s inbox.

Virginia: We rarely use freelancers. In the last three years, out of about 1,000 total science stories, I’ve published five written by freelancers (plus two stories that were co-bylined with one staffer and one freelancer). That’s partly because we as a news organization tend to invest more heavily in staff reporters than freelance, and partly because the investigative stories we do usually take a lot of time, multiple rounds of reporting, intense editing, and legal resources, all of which is more challenging with a freelancer than a staffer. That doesn’t mean it never works! To give one example, I loved working with Brooke Borel on her piece about Kevin Folta’s podcast alter ego. The one place where BuzzFeed News does rely on outside contributors is our new(ish) opinion section, edited by Tom Gara. We welcome all types of op-ed pitches, including from scientists, academics, and science journalists.

Alison: So far, we haven’t used freelancers for our science coverage. We do, however, have a feature called Expert Voices that includes pieces from scientists, journalists, and others. These are less op-eds and more contributors providing analysis or context that relates to their own expertise. Sometimes we pose a question of broad interest and ask people to write responses. Other times we run standalone pieces, such as this one by Peter Hotez in the days after Hurricane Harvey. These are unpaid. I hope we will be able to work with freelance journalists in the future. So, if anyone out there is interested in writing about science in the Axios style, they should get in touch.

Rachel: What are some tips you’ve learned along the way that you consider essential as an editor or publisher of a digital publication?

Gideon: It’s hard to condense all the tips I could give into a short email, but here are a few that I’ve learned: Hire a brilliant multimedia team. The most fun I’ve had is working with our dazzlingly creative visual journalists. This may not be applicable to nonprofits, but when you’re running a journalism business, the folks who sell ads and subscriptions, run events, build your audience, write the code, and design your site are every bit as essential as the journalists. Don’t skimp on those people. You need more of them than you think.

Newsletters are crucial. We have a dozen of them, including five that go out daily. Some are staff-written, designed to be enjoyable and quick reads. Others are automated with MailChimp. Why so many? It allows us to target specific audiences within our readership, and that’s good for getting people to click on stories. These narrow audiences are also attractive to advertisers.

We all spend a lot of time sweating and worrying about our home page, but they matter less and less. People come to our articles primarily through our newsletters, social media, and search.

Deborah: I’ll add, speaking of newsletters, that STAT has some of the best in the business. Smart, well-written, often containing news that I’d missed and am delighted to find. So for me, it’s not just a busywork kind of newsletter that makes a difference but one that I’m glad to see in my inbox. Having said that, we do a MailChimp newsletter put together by our marketing director, and it’s gotten pretty sharp too.

Agreed also with Gideon about the home page. We’ve worked hard to make ours beautiful, and I love looking at it. But mostly people find us through articles rather than the home page. And more than that, they read them on their phones. So my other piece of advice to editors in this regard is to think equally hard about, and work with your web designer on, how your magazine looks on a phone and how easy it is to navigate there.

Jude: Marketing is a great investment, but if it comes at the expense of quality, choose quality. You can hire marketers later. Earlier this year we revamped our newsletter and threw more resources into it, anticipating it would pay off. And it did. People respond to well-crafted newsletters.

Alison: Our newsletter has been an important way to reach our audience and has helped us raise awareness of our coverage, and I completely agree about getting to know designers, developers, event producers, and others in the company. One other thing that comes to mind: Axios Science consists of me and reporter Erin Ross. Even though it is a small team and we communicate a lot, we set aside time every month to talk about personal career goals and larger goals for our coverage.

Rachel: What is a story that you are particularly proud of or that generated a lot of traffic to your site or attention on social media? And what about this story made it particularly engaging or attracting to readers?

Jude: The story “No Wool, No Vikings,” an in-house idea, did very well at the outset, and has had a very long tail. We sent a writer who has written extensively about archaeology, Claire Eamer, to Viking school in Norway. Even Vogue Knitting picked up the 3,500-word piece. Why did it do well? It was surprising, it was well-written, it was a human story—it was, in essence, a good yarn. (Pun intended!)

Human stories do very well, especially when they involve anthropology/archaeology. I often write about animals and under-appreciated ecosystems—my preference—but when we published a 6,300-word piece I wrote about Japan’s Indigenous people, the Ainu, [in October 2017], within two weeks it shot to number six of all time. People prefer to read stories about people.

Gideon: The stories I’m particularly proud of aren’t necessarily the same ones that have gone viral, which, frankly, seems to happen randomly. We posted a video on Facebook about a Brazilian clinical trial testing tilapia skin to aid healing of burns and to our surprise, it took off: It has been viewed more than 80 million times so far.

The story I’m proudest of, however, is “Dope Sick,” which won an Online Journalism Award [in 2017] in the feature category. It’s a raw narrative that tells the story of best friends since childhood who stumble into the world of opioids and unknowingly ingest potent fentanyl. This story powerfully documented how fentanyl is destroying lives, by weaving together 8,000 words with multimedia fragments of memory and evidence: 15 photos, 20 videos, including security camera footage showing one of the young men overdosing; entries from his journal full of pain and hope for recovery; and a chain of text messages he sent just before his death. More than 100,000 readers stayed with the package for well over six minutes on average—an eternity for digital media.

Virginia: Working at BuzzFeed has taught me so much about web traffic, and yet it’s often mysterious to me why certain stories do well (or do poorly). Some topics—like anything about #TheDress—are sure to get a ton of views, partly driven by BuzzFeed‘s large home page / app following. But my favorite traffic wins are the stories that take off far beyond my initial expectations. To give three examples from 2017:

The 14 Who Forgot,” a longread about the mysterious cluster of people addicted to opioids who suddenly lost their memories, got more than 600,000 views. Most of our opioid coverage gets high numbers, probably because it’s one of the biggest news stories in the country. But I think this story did particularly well partly because it had a medical mystery propelling the narrative. (It didn’t hurt that the main character, who also did a video documentary with us, was extremely compelling, too.)

Braces Wars,” a shorter feature about dentists waging a war against an online braces startup, went crazy on Facebook, driving more than 500,000 page views and a robust online discussion. This was a scoop: No one else had published on the complaints that orthodontists had filed with 36 state dental boards. And it was a good match, topic-wise, for the core BuzzFeed audience.

Our biggest hit [in 2017], “These Maps Show Where Irma’s Storm Surge May Hit Hardest,” shows the power of Apple News, an increasingly important traffic source for our science stories. The piece, which featured some very cool maps made by Peter Aldhous, got about 100,000 views on our page, and another 2.6 million on Apple News.

Alison: Erin Ross’ breakdown of science Nobel Prizes was one story that captured our style and tone, and did well overall. To me, it shows the power of one clean, simple visual to tell a story. It wasn’t news, but the timing—it published during the week of [the 2017] announcements—was right. Because of that and the smart graphic, an issue that was not necessarily well-known to a larger audience was illuminated. It was featured on Flipboard, which drove a good chunk of traffic to it on our site.

Deborah: Don’t laugh, but the first story we did that got major traffic was by me. I’m a toxicology writer who’s been following arsenic contamination of the food supply for some years. So in the spring of 2016, I wrote a piece about the FDA warning parents about arsenic in baby food. We were at that time about one month old and still just beginning to establish a presence. And our traffic just went crazy with this one. Not to dismiss my own talents, but I could not figure it out. We later discovered that a Facebook group for moms, mostly focused on breastfeeding, and with a huge following, had picked it up. Which proved that Facebook is a powerful driver of traffic.

We’ve done so many stories since that represent such amazing journalism. One of the standouts was a photo-driven series on environmental consequences of leather processing, from Bangladesh to New York, called “Wear and Tear.” We did this in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the photographer was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner named Larry Price. The series got an amazing amount of attention, was a finalist for an Online Journalism Award, and was so well-received that we’re now partnering with the Pulitzer Center on an even more ambitious project. And that’s really exciting to me because it’s a progression—one ambitious piece of journalism leading to an even more expansive project, which is exactly the right direction for journalism to go.


Rachel Zamzow
Rachel Zamzow Courtesy of Rachel Zamzow

Rachel Zamzow is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance science writer based in Waco, Texas. The brain is what makes her tick, so most of her stories have a psychology or neuroscience slant. But she’s always interested in anything new and exciting science has to offer. She’s written for a variety of publications, including the award-winning autism research news site Spectrum and The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow. She tweets @RachelZamzow.

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