Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Helen: Nature is, if I can immodestly say, one of the world’s leading science journals. And that means that we publish peer reviewed research from scientists. So we try and publish some of the most significant and fundamental advances in all areas of research, from quantum physics to climate change to molecular biology.
And then Nature is also quite unusual in that we’re also a news magazine for scientists. So we have the peer reviewed research, but we also have what we sometimes call the front half of the journal, which is effectively like an Economist for scientists, in that we have news, and opinion, and editorials, and all that type of material, aiming to inform working scientists and the scientific world about what’s happening in science.
The core audience is very much working scientists, so when I’m commissioning pieces, that’s who I’m thinking about. But we find today online that we attract a much bigger audience than that, a halo audience of people who are just interested in science, so we want to be the authoritative word on anything to do with science.
I was a reporter for a while, I actually had the opportunity to go to New York, I was there for eight years for Nature, which was really great in terms of learning about different science policy in the landscape, and in a different country is really important because we are an international journal. That’s really important to us.
And then I progressed to become an editor, so I ran the features team for Nature for a while, really grew to love more long form writing, the combination of the sort of ‘deep nerd’ if I can say that!
Chris: I’m sure the writers wont mind!
Actually we’re proud of it. Sometimes we say we’re sort of boldly nerdy and proudly geeky, because that’s who we’re writing for, that is who we all are. We love science. And so we revel in that.
This must be one of the few roles – science journalist – must be one of the few roles that is still very specialised and isn’t a generalist news writer that you see across a lot of the newspapers.
Yeah, science journalism positions across a lot of publications, the ones that have been cut over the last decade or so, as there have been cuts across the media industry. And so we were incredibly fortunate at Nature to have, still, an entire team. I mean, I’ve got about 15 journalists around the world who are all focused on reporting about science. So we’re very, very fortunate to have that, and to be so specialised.
Our reporters are so specialised that they’re going to be focused on climate change or something even within that, but you need that if you’re going to write authoritatively about these very complex fields.
I think we’ve effectively answered one of the questions I sent across, which is, what are the core values of Nature, they’ve remained the same. And it seems that that inquiring spirit and a lot of the authority that you want to put into your reporting is still there. But we also touched upon the fact that the focus has gone from print to digital. So has there been a sea change in how you actually present that authoritative journalism online?
Yeah, that’s really good question. I suppose where I’m sitting, have we fundamentally changed what we do, and how we approach authority, in digital versus print? I mean, not when you’re talking about a story, because ultimately, if you’ve got a piece of journalism it has to be right, and it has to be accurate and fact checked, and all of those things, whether you’re putting it into print or digital. So at least if you’re talking about written content, the text is the same.
We’re fortunate to have this kind of Nature brand, which comes with a certain amount of respect and authority, at least within the scientific communities. And that’s very important to us. I suppose it’s more that now we’re sort of swimming through a different sea, right?
So the question more is, how do we ensure that that actually reaches people who might need to know it, or we think they need to know it, amongst a sort of growing tidal wave of information, and now misinformation and disinformation. So that is a challenge and I can’t pretend that we have the answers to all of that, apart from we are going to continue to get it right.
Well recently talking about changes, there was that redesign of Nature branding and this fascinating essay that we’ll share in the newsletter about how the branding and how Nature presents itself has changed. So going more digital, how are print and digital working together, and how are you ensuring that there’s continuity of that brand recognition, but also that there’s enough agility within both sides to make it work?
Nowadays, compared to what I was talking about earlier, print and digital in my team absolutely works hand in hand. I mean, there’s no different teams, we’re all just one team and and my challenge has just been to change…we still have to produce this printed magazine.
Some subscribers really love it. So we have to spend some effort on that, but what we’re trying to do is spend less effort on the print product and just ensure that all of our efforts are going into digital, and we just flow stuff smoothly into print, because we know we reach so many more people in digital than we do in print. So it’s trying to balance the workload and effort with where we know our readers are.
And so the redesign that we just did, which was the first time we’ve redesigned our print issue in 10 years, was actually really an exciting opportunity not just to update how we look, but also to address some of these practical problems with allowing that flow from digital to print to happen.
So a really small example, I’ve got a copy in front of me, is allowing some of the stories…I mean, this must be common amongst so many magazines, but having to get things to fit on the page, right, carefully cutting lines and making sure it all looks perfect, and then in some of our new spreads after the redesign, we just said, we don’t have to make things fit. When you’ve got selection of little articles, you just let them run ragged at the end. Which again, just eases that whole flow of the entire team of just running stuff through to print in that way.
You also had asked me before about whether we have digital-only products. So yes, I mean, not all of our stuff goes into print anymore. So it’s much more about just publishing the best we can in digital, and certainly in our news, we’re definitely just now selecting the pieces that we think would make a nice package in print, and sort of flowing those in.
So how much back and forth is there with the audience in terms of finding out what they would like, what they would like to see more of in editorial, even new editorial product?
Yeah, lots. I mean, of course we want to hear about that. And before we did this most recent redesign, we did some quite extensive market research to find out what the pain points for people were, and how we could improve that.
And so in print one thing we learned, I mean, interestingly, in print, we know that the demographic is very different than it is online. So something like, I think it might be as much as over half of our readers in print are now over 55. And then online, it’s completely the other way around, so the vast majority are in the younger age groups.
One feedback we had was that actually the text we were printing, it was just too small for older people to read. So one of the really exciting things we did in our redesign was we’ve now got a custom font that we commissioned called Harding, which is basically tooled to be very easy to read both in digital and also in print.
We’ve actually had feedback from people saying, ‘I couldn’t read the print copy for eight years and now I can read it again,’ which of course is very rewarding.
Yeah, absolutely. Something that the Telegraph should probably look into as well! The younger demographic that’s in digital, what sort of editorial products are they looking for, are they looking to see more video, are they looking for more audio content?
All of those. I mean, it’s a big thing. I don’t have all the answers, of course, I wish I did! It’s something I think about a lot because I think it’s very, very important for Nature in particular, which has this particular reputation and can potentially sound a little bit elitist, that we are absolutely reaching younger readers and the scientists of the future.
We try to publish pieces which also speak to their career stage. So, we know for example that anything we write about people doing PhDs is very popular, the challenges that people are facing around mental health and postgraduate studies, unfortunate things around harassment and the struggles which people have in those early stages of scientific careers, is often quite popular with our audience. Does it also build value beyond that? Definitely.
Because of the success of Nature, the company was able to launch an entire range of what we call Nature branded journals, there’s about 50 of them now. So we have Nature Medicine, and Nature Biotechnology, and Nature Immunology, and on and on and on. It’s only really because of what Nature has been able to achieve, and the reputation that we establish, helps us to also encourage people to read these other products as well.
Even beyond that, the bigger company we’re part of, which is Springer Nature publishes over 3,000 journals.
So everything which we do – and we’re effectively seen as the flagship product – all helps to build the reputation, which will hopefully encourage people to also read beyond Nature itself.
It’s a real ‘rising tide floats all boats’ situation then, across the portfolio?
Yes, we like to argue that! We’re looking for resources to do new exciting things.
Well, you did mention that before, the idea that with a legacy company does come some slight drag, particularly if you want to launch new products. Is that something you’ve had to grapple with?
Sometimes, yes. That’s common across any large organisation, if you want to do something new, you’ve got to argue for resources, and show what impact it will have, that’s just the way that businesses operate.
But one completely digital-only product we’ve launched, again, like many organisations, we wanted to launch a newsletter, which we did about three or four years ago, but that’s become a really big focus for us. So we have a thing called Nature Briefing, which is a curated selection, not just of what we’re publishing, but what’s going on across science news. So we’ll draw in pieces from all different types of outlets into a daily digest, the idea being you read this email and you know everything you need to know about science today.
We’ve really, really pushed that. And that’s been very, very popular. And it’s growing quickly.
So that’s a very specific way that we’re trying to reach people who may never see a copy of Nature but nevertheless want to establish this personal relationship with readers. It has a slightly more informal tone to it as well than we would have in Nature itself.
It’s very similar to what a lot of other publications are doing across the B2B, B2C news spectrum. Do you think it’s almost a parallel evolution, and that’s what audiences expect now? And it’s not necessarily that newspapers will do newsletters better, it’s that audiences want that digest edition of whichever content they’re consuming?
Well certainly feedback we get from our readers, especially academics is that sense of information overwhelm. That really reflects as well, science itself, that the science enterprise is huge.
There are so many more journals than there were even 10 years ago or 20 years ago. So in my view anyway, everybody’s looking for ways to find authoritative sources which will synthesise that information for you and help you to deal with that. So I think we’re thinking about that a lot.
That was kind of how we got to Nature Briefing. I’m thinking about that a lot going forward. We think about how do we innovate? Well, we can’t just throw more content at people, we’ve got to help them with the problems that they have.
And if they haven’t got time, how can I produce something new, which would help them with that problem, right?
Yeah, certainly in fact to that point, the Guardian, which is just down the road, has just recently stopped publishing quite so many articles because they found that people getting overwhelmed even when they were going to the desktop site.
Yeah, everybody does. For academics, they have to keep up with their fields in order to to pursue their work successfully. So, that’s something that we want to help them with.
We touched upon the careers articles that you publish, particularly in the front half of the journal and magazine. Is that in terms of building a community, or is that something that has always existed within Nature?
I mean, specifically, we’ve had career articles for a long, long time. And we are very focused on serving the scientific community, I would say, because ultimately, a lot of what Nature publishes, what we’re known for is actually publishing the work of scientists. We are just providing a service for them to be able to publish their work. So we think about the community all the time.
And we also find that when we’re doing news for example, that actually, the more we get inside the community and talk about what the community cares about, of course, those are the stories which are popular, whether it’s around…I mean, sometimes it’s not so good, it’s around scientific misconduct. But it might be about the community wrestling with problems of reproducibility, which is challenges around ensuring that a piece of research can be reproduced by another lab.
The more we go inside the community, then the more we find that the community responds and wants to read about that, which I’m sure it’s the same in any industry really.
It’s interesting, though, that a lot of publications now are turning more towards what people are calling solutions journalism, which is actually focusing on the problems of the community and attempting to fix them. Which it sounds like Nature was doing that already. It sounds like that was just something that you were doing, because of your audience.
Yeah, it’s always really been part of our mission to not just be…we’re not we’re not just a passive conduit for science. It’s very important to us that we think about the ethical issues, and safety issues, and impact on society that science has.
So we’ve always been a champion for science, and also holding science to account, and also trying to think about those impacts and discuss those impacts. And I think that that’s actually more important than ever before, as we see so many scientific results having impacts in in society.
Yeah, certainly. I suppose that the question then for our audience is, are there any lessons from Nature – which is a very specialised publication with a very intelligent and educated audience – are there any lessons about serving a community that are applicable across the entire publishing spectrum?
Well, I think many of the issues that we wrestle with at Nature are no different really than any other publication. One is around diversity. So if you look back at the original copies of Nature in 1869 and the authors, effectively, we were publishing mostly the work of upper class Victorian men, because that’s the way it was. And often, it would just be one person writing these pieces as well.
And then you look at what we’re publishing today, and it’s obviously very different. In fact even in our mission statement, back at the beginning, we spoke of men of science, that’s how people were referred to, which we’ve now changed and it says scientists. So how we better include underrepresented communities in science, and the issues they face, and also who we feature in our pages is really important. That conversation is happening across all types of industries and across different outlets.
I suppose it comes back to what I was saying is that, I think we do the best when we just speak directly to our community and what they care about. So it’s almost like the more ‘deep nerd’ we go, the better it is, actually. Rather than just focusing just on growing the audience, it’s actually writing about what we think really matters, I guess that’s what it comes down to, for the scientific community that we find brings in other other readers.
So I guess it’s just being true, isn’t it, to your editorial values and what you stand for. And also standing up for accuracy. I mean, I like to think that we’re the antithesis of fake news. I talked about how we have to get it right, but we have to get it right. We’re going to keep on getting it right.
It’s expensive to make sure you get it right because you have editors, subeditors, everybody checking this stuff, but if we don’t continue to do that, then why are we here? It’s being true to accuracy and evidence, which is ultimately what we publish.
When you were talking about the change there from being men of science, and how 150 years ago was completely different, just in my head trying to create this through line of continuity between what Nature must have been then and what it is now. It’s just a completely different world! The fact that it’s lasted 150 years through all these changes is phenomenal. So how are you marking that editorially, how you celebrating these 150 years?
Yeah, enormous changes, but also some of it is still exactly the same. Back then we were championing science and publishing amazing discoveries, and we’re still doing that. So some things are actually exactly the same. But yeah, how are we marking that celebration?
Well, one thing we did is we’ve literally just spent a year working on this special anniversary issue, which came out yesterday, which we’re very, very excited about. It’s been a joy for some of us to actually look back at this incredible archive of papers and discoveries we have, you know, the seminal discoveries. We published the structure of DNA in 1953, the double helix has becoming an icon of science.
We pulled out a few from our archive that we’re really proud of; the first identification of the ozone hole above the Antarctic was another that we identified. So that’s been just really important to recognise the significant discoveries that were published, and how they had an impact on the world, which is something to be really proud of.
We also thought about what we want to do in the future. We’ve got an amazing graphic on our cover where we asked some data scientists to basically take…well what they did in the end was they basically did a data analysis of our entire archive, so what we represented in the end was this massive web of 88,000 Nature papers, and there’s this incredible interactive online where you can literally zoom in on one paper and see all the other papers which basically either were referenced in that paper, or have later papers which have gone on to cite that target paper.
And effectively that shows you all the different disciplines which one publication drew on, and all the future publications that it went on to influence, so it’s just this amazing way of viewing the interconnected nature of science, which we’re quite excited about!
That’s an amazing testament to how influential the journal’s been.
So the colour is basically the way we’ve represented it, all the different disciplines, and it just shows how incredibly interdisciplinary science is. It’s not like the biology happens in one sphere and the physics happens in another. These things are completely connected now which is so amazing. I mean, it’s still as I said, because of our business model, it’s still making sure that we are offering these institutional subscribers what they want.
A massive challenge for us at the moment is something which is taking place in the academic publishing sphere, which is the move and the push to publish more research open access. So that’s been a really big movement, it’s a very important one, it’s understandable. And that’s a challenge for Nature, because we are currently a subscription product.
And so we’ve got to work out how to meet the demands of scientists and the broader society who wants to see those results made open access, while still allowing us to support our organisation, because Nature basically argues that we add incredible value in the editorial process; we have a big team of expert editors who will be involved in peer reviewing many, many more papers than we eventually publish. So we add a lot of value in that.
So how do we allow ourselves to continue that, and to add that quality and value, if actually a lot of what you’re publishing at the end, it has to be free?
So that’s a massive conversation that that is happening. We take it very seriously. We need to work out how to potentially put Nature on a road to open access. So that’s a very big challenge that we’re facing, we’ve got to face up to and I think we will.