Why John Henry and Rick Berke are starting a big venture covering the life sciences
John Henry, the son of Illinois soybean farmers who is the primary owner of The Boston Globe, Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, will now manage a new asset: media coverage of life sciences.
A very successful futures trader is extending his journalism involvement by starting Boston-based STAT, which will be led on a daily basis by Rick Berke, a former superior New York Times national politics reporter, and aims to inspect "the frontiers of health, medicine and scientific discovery."
As Henry explains today in a posting on Medium, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmitt invited him to a 2014 dinner to discuss why Silicon Valley had so clearly overpowered Boston as a tech hub. The discussion turned to the significant role of life sciences in the Massachusetts economy.
"I realized that while Boston and Cambridge were indeed the epicenter of life sciences, this fascinating world was not being covered by a serious, standalone news organization committed to the kind of in-depth journalism that has been a hallmark of The Boston Globe."
"I knew brilliant people locally in biotech, in robotics, in medical education, and in some of the most important labs in America. It was evident to me that many of the most compelling stories in life sciences weren’t being covered at all – or in a very limited way."
He'd been traveling to newsrooms worldwide and mulling differing journalistic models amid the precipitous decline of older ones. The result was a decision to start "a new digital publication that could become the trusted source for life science news around the world, full of credible, important, and engaging stories that showcased discoveries, examined controversies, punctured hype, and explored innovations in health-care delivery."
He turned to Berke, who was between jobs and is best known for a his career at The Times as both a reporter and later as a masthead editor. Then he went to POLITICO as a high-ranking editor aiming to raise their game and in some cases getting them to slow down just a bit. The relationship didn't work out and he exited, only briefly suffering the throes of unemployment as Henry called. Since February he's guided the new venture, which had a soft launch and is unveiling a very solid site, www.statnews.com.
Recent days brought stories on the thrust of medical schools to add literature and dance classes to attempt to make our future doctors rather more empathetic; on how cholesterol-lowering drugs may make flu vaccines less effective; and why researchers are asking those with metastatic breast cancer to contribute their stored tumor tissue, medical records, and saliva samples to a national database.
There's "Pharmalot" by Ed Silverman, who's moved a well-read pharmaceutical industry blog from The Wall Street Journal and explores why Valeant morphed from "a Wall Street darling into a Main Street poster child for questionable behavior."
Though it is a separate operation from The Globe, there's been some early synergy. That's included the paper running on page 1 a Stat tale on the National Geographic Channel airing live a Cleveland hospital's brain surgery on a 49-year-old man with Parkinson's disease. Stat disclosed how the surgery planned to "feature equipment and devices made by companies that have financial relationships with neurosurgeons at the medical center."
I've known Rick a long time, so picked up the phone and chatted about the new venture.
Did Henry and any others have a pretty well-formed idea of what they wanted to do?
John Henry and the folks at The Globe were passionate about the journalistic mission. They feel that Boston is the indisputable leader in life sciences and there are many big stories to cover; of interest not just here but nationally and internationally. They wanted to build a new news organization. That was clear from the start. And I spent months where we discussed specifics, what this would entail and bandied about different options for the journalism and the business model. At one point I said I had so many questions for the folks in Boston. But they then turned to me and said, "That's why we want you to figure it out."
OK, what are the "life sciences?"
It's a million things. If you look up the definition, you'll see there is room for hundreds of publications about living beings. So we had to focus it a bit. What we are looking at, to simplify, are stories about health, medicine, research, discovery, business and politics; stories that touch health and medicine that aren't being covered. Interesting stories. In Boston, when I was talking to them, I went to Kendall Square to meet with people at the Kendall Square Association and came away scribbling pages and pages of story ideas. There is an international epicenter of companies doing fascinating research, and in competition with other cities. There are real estate issues that interested me as a non-science journalist. If my notebook was filled with ideas after an hour, there had to be much to write about. There is a void. There is The New York Times and The New Yorker doing high-end medical coverage. Academic journals like the New England Journal of Medicine are well-established. There's WebMD and other consumer publications. But where do you go, day to day, for interesting, provocative, compelling coverage of these issues that are accessible to a general audience but doesn't talk down to people in those worlds? The test for me will be stories that interest me. And we're not limiting it to certain types of stories. There will be features, profiles, inside stories, exposés, fact-checking, politics, and business. These stories touch pop culture, political campaigns, business. Every living person is affected by decisions made in medicine and health. We think there is an opportunity here and stories that may interest people who don't necessarily think they are interested in these subjects.
Probably the first piece we've run as a soft launch [in The Globe] was, I think, a great example of what trying to do. It was a look at a young couple, and he was on the West Coast, she was on the East Coast, and both had terrible spinal injuries and were using these experimental drugs that changed their lives. And they were using social media to talk about their treatments and their recovery and how they were doing. Their use of social media affected the stock price of the company involved. This couple also fell in love. So it's a story about scientific discovery, of two human beings benefiting from new treatments, their use of social media affecting the millions of dollars made off these treatments and affecting their personal lives in good and bad ways. They had been on the "Today" show on their romance. But nobody had written about all these issues — the business aspects, the dangers of social media — and it was to me a perfect Stat story that was accessible to everyone; that told you something that was going on. A perfect story in the age of social media.
We had already had a story, without having our own site yet, that went viral when we interviewed Martin [hedge fund manager-turned much-reviled, seemingly price-gouging CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical] about donations to Bernie Sanders. Sanders had attacked pharmaceutical companies and the Sanders campaign didn't want to take the money. It went wild on social media.
What about the shift into this type of reporting and editing?
As a longtime political reporter, I feel I can be just as involved and curious in all this. There is politics involved but great business stories and personality stories. The other thing is we have a multimedia team led by two New York Times veterans [Jeff DelViscio and Matthew Orr], really creative journalists. When you see some of our videos and interactives and animation, it's stuff you don't see anywhere. It will make our journalism come alive.
What's the initial staffing?
Almost 40. With business staff, when you add them, it's about 50-something.
The relationship with the Globe?
It's an independent company apart from the Globe. We built up a startup area about a floor above the Globe. Mostly in Boston. We have a small bureau in D.C., New York and San Francisco.
What's the competition? How many trade publications are out there, how many with whom you would be competing?
There are hundreds and hundreds of publications that cover these areas. At first I was overwhelmed by it, then realized there was an opening for journalism that is readable and compelling. A lot of what's out there is so narrow and niche. We are not trying to compete with academic journals or trade publications, but make our stories provocative and interesting. We see not a lot of competition as far as that goes. There is a huge opportunity here. It's not that much different than when I was at the Times and we wanted to write stories broadly accessible but also credible and smart. It's similar in that way. But we are consistently going to offer stories every day; a mix of quick turnarounds to projects and investigative pieces. There'll be different video features and a weekly "science puzzler." We know we have to get out there and build an audience. But we just started a morning newsletter three weeks ago and, with no marketing, already hit a big audience. Thousands have signed up and comes out at 6:45 every morning and is getting rave reviews. So there is an opening for that.
How do you characterize the basic business model?
The chief business officer has a staff of audience development people. We want to first build scale, build an audience and pull in revenue through advertising. His view is that native advertising is really the way to go for us. Clearly marked, smart, high-quality sponsored advertising. So we are building that as part of our site. We could see down the road perhaps part of the site being behind a paywall or charging for newsletter. But right now, we are looking to build an audience and get some native advertisers and sponsors, as well as talking about sponsoring events. There is tremendous interest, the sales people say, in what we're doing.
How much has Henry put into this so far?
I can't go into numbers, but the number of staff tells you this is serious and ambitious. And John Henry talks of a long and wide runway to build this.
That was the end of our chat, though I later realized I had forgotten a very important query for a new underling of John Henry. As that life sciences rarity, an American soccer nut, I suspected I knew the answer in advance but asked anyway: Did the editor of Henry's big new venture know a single member of the Liverpool F.C. starting lineup or the name of the team's famous, new German coach?
"No!!" came the email response yesterday.