2020 was transformative in violent and destructive ways – the pandemic has taken a huge social, medical, cultural, and financial toll on us collectively as a species. As of the writing of this note, COVID-19 has caused the deaths of 1.62 million people, including over 300,000 Americans. Our pandemic coverage has attempted to make simple the complexity of this moment, crystalizing expertise from bioethicists, biochemists, immunologists, virologists, bioengineers, epidemiologists, geneticists, healthcare practitioners, and global health specialists.
That said, we did not abandon our bread-and-butter scientific reporting. Ninety percent of our published stories were about research and stories across the sciences and engineering — and that paid off in terms of traffic. We had about 2.7M pageviews in 2020, up 65 percent from 1.6M in 2019. COVID-19 coverage overwhelmed many readers in 2020, and we found our non-pandemic articles were welcomed by readers awash in hot-takes by writers without scientific expertise.
Unlike many other science news outlets that saw outsized growth driven entirely by pandemic coverage, our growth has been organic across all of our topics and channels — around 11 percent of our pageviews in 2020 came from COVID-19 coverage. This growth bodes well for us in a shifting science news landscape in the coming years, as climate change drives more of the big news cycles.
We’ve done our best to stay value-aligned, creating equitable structures for our team and our community of scientist writers. We also make our values transparent to our audiences. The values we stated as the national uprising for Black liberation erupted in the summer of 2020 are still values we fight for in our work as a news media organization. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities is stark and brutal and we will continue to highlight the violence that research can perpetuate when carelessly designed, implemented, and funded.
In addition to leading Massive Science, I started working at the media organization Science Friday in February of 2020, and shortly after my co-founder Allan Lasser began working at the content management system (CMS) company TakeShape. Massive runs on the TakeShape CMS, and Science Friday’s audio products and radio program are mission-aligned with the work that Massive does. We’ve found that working within these organizations has been helpful in pushing Massive to grow in new directions.
We hope in the next two years to find a home for Massive that is more permanent. The options for Massive are infinite, and it will be our goal to find a safe and equitable place for Massive to continue to grow as an editorial science community and platform.
Just a few of our accomplishments in 2020…
- We continued in our second year of financial sustainability. We grew our revenue 225 percent from 2019 to 2020, while our expenses grew 20 percent. This is an amazing feat for our small team!
- On Jan 1 2020 we had 1860 scientists in our community of science communicators, and we jumped to 2520 by Dec 2020.
- We had a 20 percent annual increase in our newsletter subscribers from 19k to 22k.
- We published 543 articles and notes, syndicated 34 stories, and built and strengthened our syndication partnerships with Slate, Salon, Smithsonian Magazine, Inverse, The Wire, ASBMB Today, The Biota Project, Truthout, High Country News, and more.
- We shipped 194 packages to our shop customers. We have customers in over 36 states and 6 countries.
- We completed a video co-production with the US National Human Genome Research Institute on the human pangenome.
- MIT Press and Penguin Random House started selling our new edition of the Women of Science Tarot Deck.
- Our collaboration with EEP around the graphic novel The Curie Society is coming to fruition and will be available in print soon from MIT Press. We’re working on further social and community partnerships around the book.
- We finished our second successful year of partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, putting out a second issue of the printed magazine. As of this email, we shipped out 558 magazines and scaled up our operation. We now have magazines stored in a warehouse in Texas! We also launched a digital version of Grow by Ginkgo. We publish digitally with exceptional talents like Dean Kissick, Hannah Black, Arabelle Sicardi, and cartoonist Liana Finck. We look forward to a third year of innovative work on the digital and print publication next year.
- We created and sold advertising, sponsored content, and giveaways with folks like The Salk Institute, BIOMILQ, New Harvest, and Meatable. These sales allow us to maintain an independent editorial team and vision.
- We co-produced a series of articles complimenting a Science Friday series called Breakthrough.
- We co-produced a collection of interviews covering artist/scientist collaborations through the Goethe Institut.
- We hired a new social media editor, Olivia Bernard, and made some great changes to our social strategy that have been paying off in impressions and overall engagement from our audiences.
Editorial in 2020
Communicating science during the pandemic has been an interesting challenge for scientists, news media outlets, and journalists. Thankfully, we had spent three years preparing for this moment. One of our first editors, Dr. Ashely Juavinett, summed the challenge up nicely:
Massive broke its previous monthly traffic record in May 2020. We haven’t been able to consistently clear 300,000 monthly pageviews yet, but in comparison to 2019, monthly traffic has remained higher and more constant.
2020 easily broke our yearly traffic record set in 2019. The higher traffic also came with a 12 percent increase in the average time readers spend on a page, from 3:03 in 2019 to 3:25 in 2020, with long-form article time-on-page clocking in at 4:11. We’re happy with the increase — two minutes is considered the start of the “good” time-on-page range, so increasing at a healthy rate here is wonderful.
Massive’s bread-and-butter is always basic science, but 2020 was the year we started doing more explainer articles, specifically focused on trending science news. For instance, in July, months ahead of most outlets, we published a piece explaining what exactly an mRNA vaccine is, and what its pros and cons are. In preparation for the winter holidays, we published a series of explainers on evolution and climate change (a two–parter), that we figured would be fodder for family arguments.
In the past, we’ve experimented with theme weeks, but we tried a theme month this year and had a lot more success. In the second half of 2020, we started publishing many more interviews than we have in the past. These include one-offs (like this interview with neuroscientist Yewande Pearse about life extension) and series of interviews, like our collaboration with Science Friday on conversations with prominent women scientists. Massive also kept up with the evolving intersection of politics and science. This includes publishing anonymously-written articles from Black scientists as well as immigrant scientists facing deportation.
The most popular articles were, predictably, articles that explained rumors about COVID or put the pandemic in a different light. Five of the 10 most popular articles of the year were about COVID — one explained how the virus initially spread, one debunked a conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins, and the #1 most popular article put social distancing behavior in a new light.
None of what we do at Massive would have been possible without the support of the community of scientists who work with us and write with us. None of it would have been possible without the support of our partners, supporters and collaborators. And none of it would happen without the dedication of our community, editorial, and infrastructure teams! They are amazing people and I am so proud of what we’ve done.
I hope this has given you a sense of what Massive is all about, and how we dealt with the ups and downs of 2020. We’re really excited about 2021 and hope you’ll stick with us. If you ever have questions or feedback about Massive, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Onwards to 2021 with the lessons of 2020 close at hand…