Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Nearly three weeks ago The Boston Globe said goodbye to about 40 full- and part-time staff members as the paper’s executives struggle to keep up with declining revenues and a shrinking ad market.
Today a sister project, Stat, makes its bright and shiny debut. The site covers medicine, health and life sciences with a staff of nearly 40 journalists recruited from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post as well as smaller news organizations. There are another 10 or so employees on the business side.
The two developments shouldn’t be linked except for the timing, according to Stat’s editors. The Globe isn’t being cut in order to fund Stat. Rather, Globe owner John Henry’s decision to launch an ambitious new project shows that he’s willing to experiment with new models of journalism even as the newspaper business contracts. (Henry explains his reasoning in a letter to readers.)
“I see great potential in what we’re doing for the Globe,” says Stat executive editor Rick Berke, a former top editor with The New York Times and, more recently, Politico. “If we can have a sustainable business model here and pull in revenues, that could ultimately help the whole Globe Media organization across the board.”
Adds Gideon Gil, a longtime Globe editor who is now Stat’s managing editor for enterprise and partnerships: “I’m sad about people losing their jobs in the Globe newsroom. Some are longtime colleagues of mine. I feel fortunate that I’m working at Stat, because we have great ambition and a vision to really cover this area. I understand why you and others try to make a connection between them, but we’re separate businesses. We each have our own business plans and have to succeed on our own.”
Stat’s website formally debuted at midnight today, though since August the staff has been producing stories that have run in the Globe. On Tuesday afternoon, the atmosphere in Stat’s interconnected newsrooms on the third floor of the Globe’s Dorchester headquarters was busy but surprisingly non-chaotic given that the launch was less than 10 hours away.
Berke, Gil and Stephanie Simon, another former Politico editor who is the site’s managing editor for news, checked out a promotional video that was near completion. Afterward, the four of us gathered in Berke’s office, dominated by a large, heavily used whiteboard. A bottle of champagne stood unopened on his desk; a gray Stat fleece hung from a hook on his door.
The business model is clearly the most important question facing Stat. If you look at other, smaller verticals the Globe has launched — Crux, which covers the Catholic Church, and BetaBoston, which follows the local innovation economy — you find quality journalism but just a smattering of ads. Indeed, free, advertiser-supported websites are currently out of favor in some circles, since it is thought that you need scale on the order of megasites like The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed to make money.
Gil, though, offers some intriguing ideas. For one thing, he says, Stat is being launched as a free website in part so that its audience can become familiar with the content and so that the staff can collect data on what’s working and what isn’t. Later, he says, Stat will start charging for some of the site’s more specialized content. In addition, a print component — perhaps a monthly or every-other-month magazine — is being considered as a way of reaching a different audience and appealing to print advertisers. (Stat’s chief revenue officer, Angus Macaulay, expands on those ideas in this article by Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab.)
As for who comprises Stat’s potential audience, Simon has an optimistic answer: pretty much everyone. “We’re looking for ordinary readers who are interested in anything related to health or medicine,” she says. “And we’re for professionals, too. It’s not at all a trade publication or a niche publication. It’s really meant to appeal to a broad audience.”
The lead article in Stat right now — as well as the top story in today’s Globe — is an investigation by Ike Swetlitz into a dubious vitamin company promoted by Donald Trump that later failed. Another feature, by Bob Tedeschi, focuses on the emotional toll for cancer patients who are repeatedly brought back from the brink of death through the use of cutting-edge targeted therapies. Coverage ranges from local to national; Stat has three reporters in Washington and one each in New York and San Francisco, and there are plans for international outposts as well. There’s a daily 6 a.m. email newsletter by Megan Thielking called “Morning Rounds” and a number of other regular features, the full panoply of which is described in this press release.
The site itself is mobile-first, which Gil says is a necessity given that people increasingly do most of their reading on their phones. “People spend so much time focused on what their home page looks like on a desktop,” he says. “And fewer and fewer people actually go to the home page.” As a result, Stat is attractive but a bit random on a desktop computer or a phone. And reading it horizontally on my iPad, which is how I consume a lot of news, is a fairly miserable experience, as tiny rows of type stretch from one margin to the other.
There’s also a lot of video, the better to share on social media — indeed, the editors say about a quarter of the staff consists of multimedia producers.
Unlike Crux or BetaBoston (but like Boston.com), Stat is a separate entity within Boston Globe Media Partners and is more or less independent from the Globe, though the Globe is free to run Stat stories and vice-versa. There are also joint meetings and shared story budgets. In his letter to readers, John Henry writes that he and other Globe executives believe that “a news organization can be most nimble when it is built organically for the digital age.”
At its heart, Stat isn’t really an experiment in providing quality journalism. A large, talented, experienced staff shouldn’t have any trouble doing that. Rather, it’s an experiment in finding a way out of the crisis facing professional news organizations — a crisis defined by the technology-fueled collapse of revenue sources.
“My dream,” says Berke, “is not only to deliver head-turning journalism that you can’t find anywhere else but to find a sustainable business model. And my dream would be to prove that people will pay for important, vital, ambitious journalism.”