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NEO.LIFE is the creation of Jane Metcalfe, the co-founder and former president of Wired, the legendary media company that wrote the first draft of the history of the Digital Revolution.

Brian Bergstein is one of those journalists who has covered tech journalism for several publishers, most recently for the MIT Tech review.

She is now on the path of drafting the Neobiological revolution, taking Brian along on the journey.

In this episode, we cover Brian’s path to monetization so far at Neo.Life.

 

Podcast Transcription

Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing podcast. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication and community providing resources, perspective, collaboration, and news for digital media and publication professionals in new media and technology. Our aim is to help industry professionals get more time back to work on what really matters: monetizing content and growing reader relationships.
Vahe Arabian: In Episode 11 of the podcast series, I speak with Brian Bergstein, former MIT Technology Review editor-at-large and currently editor of Neo.Life. He speaks about his startup journey and about Neo science bio publishing.
Vahe Arabian: Hi, Brian, how are you?
Brian Bergstein: I’m good, Vahe, thank you. How are you?
Vahe Arabian: I’m good, thanks. Thanks for asking. How’s everything in Neo Life these days?
Brian Bergstein: Oh, it’s interesting. It’s fun to be part of a startup that’s kind of figuring things out. We’re experimenting and it’s a fun thing to be part of.
Vahe Arabian: I believe you used to work for MIT before, sorry, the business review before, now you’ve started here, so just for those people who don’t know much about you and about Neo Life, if you could just give an introduction.
Brian Bergstein: Yeah, by all means. I’m a longtime journalist, I came up as a general assignment reporter working at newspapers and at the Associated Press, the wire service in the U.S. This goes way back, now actually to the ’90s. But I became a technology journalist pretty much full time in 2000. I was the Silicon Valley correspondent for the AP and then I was a national tech correspondent for the AP, based in New York. I covered telecom, I covered the computing industry, I’ve covered just about everything that counts under the umbrella of technology.
Brian Bergstein: I was the technology editor for the AP, and then yes, I was at MIT Technology Review for seven years. That’s a magazine that’s owned by MIT but published independently. The office is off-campus and it covers everything in the world of technology. It covers the social, political, economic impacts of technology. It doesn’t just write about things happening at MIT, though the mission of MIT, to help people use technology to make a better world, that’s very much part of the point of view of the magazine, as well. So anyway, I did that for a few years, and then I was editor-at-large, and for the last year, I’ve been helping to start this publication called Neo Life which is focused on the intersection of technology and biology. And it was founded by Jane Metcalfe, who was one of the founders of Wired Magazine.
Brian Bergstein: And yeah. We are at Neo.Life and we’re also on Medium, that’s where we’re publishing our stories, at Medium.com/Neo — N-E-O-D-O-T-L-I-F-E.
Vahe Arabian: Cool. And how’s the concept looking like now, and how did you meet Jane?
Brian Bergstein: I was introduced to Jane by a mutual acquaintance who told me that she was thinking about starting a new publication. I thought that sounded cool and we started talking. And her idea was to start the publication with one marquee feature and she arranged all that, and this was before I came aboard. And that was a look at a world champion free diver, named William Trubridge. Free divers are these guys who go down hundreds of feet without any scuba equipment. They just hold their breath for three, four, five minutes. And her idea was to get him to sequence his genome, to see if it could teach him anything about how he has this amazing skill and how he might better optimize his training and in the process, tell a story about peak athletic performance enhancement, and also what we really are learning from sequencing our genomes, because that’s actually a very much, an open question.
Brian Bergstein: So, we did a three-part series to kick off the publication and we’ve just been keeping it going ever since. We’ve been trying to cover developments in the brain and food and genetics and synthetic biology. Sex, drugs, all these things that are at the forefront of a new way of thinking about what it means to be a human. How are we using insights from science and new technologies, essentially, to try to live better, happier, healthier, longer lives?
Brian Bergstein: So, it comes from a point of view that technology is making a lot of things possible. Which ones are really going to be the best or the most interesting or most important? What are the implications of them? How can people be smarter and more optimistic users of technology for their own bodies? So, we’re leaving aside anything happening in computer privacy, that’s a separate publication, not part of what we’re doing. But-
Vahe Arabian: You hear about growth hacking all the time, and how people are trying to hack themselves, as well. It makes sense that there’s a growing interest in that area.
Brian Bergstein: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: But you come, mostly, from a technology background and did that help you transition into science and biology? How were you able to come across to Neo Life?
Brian Bergstein: This is my bias, of course, because it’s my background, but I think that there’s a lot that is gained when someone comes to writing about science, technology, biology, whatever, from a classic journalistic perspective, rather than saying that they’re a science writer or a science communicator.
Brian Bergstein: So, one thing I often notice, there’s a lot of people who are trained as science writers first and foremost, and their mission seems to be to explain science. Somehow communicate science. And I think that in that case, the danger is that you’re not fully an advocate for the reader. You’re not really coming at it from the point of view of what the reader is going to be skeptical about, should want to know. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think if you say, “I’m working on a story, I’m trying to understand how the science works, I’m trying to understand what’s been proven, what hasn’t been proven”, that’s different from saying, “Okay, I really want to get across this scientific idea”. It’s just a shift in focus. So, I always believe that a focus on coming at it as an advocate for the reader rather than an advocate for the science that’s trying to be communicated.
Brian Bergstein: Someone put it well to me one time that says, it’s not like people have the science deficit in their life that needs to be filled. I mean, that is in some sense, true, but people don’t look at it that way. And it would be a mistake to try going around the world to fill up peoples’ science deficits. You have to approach a story about science with the same kind of rigor or approach, the same kind of questioning and the same storytelling techniques that you would bring to a story about any other complicated subject, whether it’s the law or politics or anything like that.
Brian Bergstein: So, I gave you a really long-winded answer, but I think that having to be self-taught about the science and making sure that I’m thinking independently as an advocate for the reader, I think it’s served me well. It brings my particular perspective, or at least it balances what I can bring when I work with people who are themselves scientists or have a scientific background, so on.
Vahe Arabian: What about the lack of knowledge, expertise, and credibility because you know, coming from a science background, has that been of interest to you and general theme so far?
Brian Bergstein: I mean, I think what we want to do is meet readers where they are. So, we assume our readers are really smart and well-versed in many of these fields but we don’t want to only speak to them so the sweet spot is to have a story that’s smart enough and nuanced enough to have something new for people who really follow these fields, but is just accessible, really readable, by anybody who might just be curious about a subject. That would be the sweet spot.
Vahe Arabian: So, what have you identified your audience to be? What’s the overlap to be so that you can meet the scientists, the professionals and the people who are interested in the field?
Brian Bergstein: One thing, actually, this was common at MIT Technology Review, and I think, from what we know about the readers we have at Neo Life, is there is a lot of people who are really, really smart or expert in one field. They live one field, they work one field, but they might be less attuned to what’s going on something that’s adjacent. And what we offer them is the opportunity to see something interesting happening at the intersection of multiple fields. So to be interdisciplinary. So, to have a story about something happening in genetics, that you may not be a geneticist, but let’s say you have an interest in neuroscience or you are a neuroscientist, we can show all readers that there’s something happening. Make a connection that they might not have otherwise seen.
Brian Bergstein: So, we’re not ever going to do a story that is fully satisfying for the expert, whose going to see it as information dense as a new research article. But hopefully, it is somehow useful to them in another way and that it inspires maybe a connection, a research partnership, a new source of funding. The way that, say computing and neurobiology are intersecting, or genetics and nutrition are intersecting. That’s requiring people to have to get out of being specialists in their fields anyway. So, we think that’s some of the value we can add is that we are interdisciplinary and we’re looking broadly.
Vahe Arabian: Understood. We’ll go to the business model and everything else later, but one thing that maybe for people who aren’t well-versed in this field, same for me as well, to be honest, when I was in my research as well, there’s quite a bit of overlap between definition of neurology, neurobiology, neuroscience, like, why isn’t there one term for all this? What’s the difference between them, if you can elaborate the definition?
Brian Bergstein: Oh, neurology, neurobiology and neuroscience, there’s a lot of overlap and I think when people say they’re talking about neurology, so all these are ways of looking at the nervous system, so the brain, and the spine, and everything. But neurology probably has a little bit more focus on the nerves. Neurobiology would be specifically the biology of the nervous system, and neuroscience would probably be used more specifically about the brain and actually the behavior of neurons and brain cells but there’s a lot of overlap. In fact, you don’t only have, neurons don’t only exist in the brain. Neurobiology is probably a subset of neuroscience and neurology is just a little bit maybe to the side in the Venn diagram.
Vahe Arabian: Does that mean that scientists or professionals reading your publication or reading your magazine, have they usually qualified in both areas, or are only qualified in one of them?
Brian Bergstein: That’s a good question. I don’t know. But we don’t really, our readers can be anybody so I’m not too, they shouldn’t have to have a qualification in those fields.
Vahe Arabian: So, your audience isn’t defined based on profession title?
Brian Bergstein: No. I mean, again, I think we want anybody who is interested in, inspired by, working on ways to make technologies or use technologies that the human body perform better, perform differently or shape the future of our species, right? So, we’re also looking at developments in food, which is an extension of us and goes in our bodies so it’s part of what we’re talking about. Our readers, it might help if I say that we, still being experimental, still figuring out what the business model is going to be, we are basically nurturing at this point an email newsletter that has curated links around the web, it has some original stories, and it guides people to events that they might want to attend.
Brian Bergstein: But our original stories, we’re producing anywhere from one to three at this point, original stories a week. We’re aiming for some deeply reported features or some smaller items that offer some really specific original insight. And it’s journalism, it’s storytelling. No one has to have a qualification to be able to read it. We publish on Medium, which is meant as a general purpose site for anyone to come and read, and I think our best stories have been the kinds of stories you could have read in a variety of publications, in terms of accessibility and conversational approach.
Vahe Arabian: And why did you guys decide to go ahead with publishing on Medium?
Brian Bergstein: Because it offered a relatively easy CMS and access to a network of readers. I mean, there are just readers inherently on Medium. It certainly has its downsides, and our long-term plan is to move off Medium onto our own site. It doesn’t mean that we would not publish anything on Medium, but it would mean that we would not be solely dependent on it as our site.
Brian Bergstein: So, moving to our own site is something that I hope will happen this year. But Medium has a pool of readers who may not always realize that they’re landing on an expertly produced publication and a highly polished and fact-checked research publication, but that said, there are readers there. So, it’s kind of a head start on finding an audience.
Vahe Arabian: How has it helped you with validating the topics that you publish so far, and has it helped you with your newsletter subscriber growth?
Brian Bergstein: Yes. If we publish a story on Medium tagged health, there’re a lot of people, thousands of people who read health stories on Medium and might come across our story. Whether that validates us or not is a good question. There’s a lot of stuff on Medium that isn’t super high quality, to be honest, and maybe it’s too easy to be mistaken for just another one man’s opinion kind of blog post. But I think between the art that we generate and the rigor of our research process, hopefully, what we’re doing stands out as something different.
Brian Bergstein: In terms of subscriber growth, we put a link to our newsletter, or two, in every story, and we get a fair amount of signups that way. Not as many as one might hope, but it is again a good way, if someone comes in cold at the story level, to one of our stories, that’s the first time they’ve ever heard of us and right away, we’re asking them to subscribe to the newsletter. So that is, I mean, that is certainly a useful tool, it’s one of many ways we have to get subscribers. But I think we’re having a little bit more luck gaining subscribers from, I guess, organic outreach, people that we meet and talk about the site, and then talk about what we’re doing every week in the newsletter.
Vahe Arabian: Definitely, that helps in terms of association, building credible to the brand, getting awareness out there, I think in any studies of any publication, that’s going to be the most important factor, because until you get your own organic growth, you need to leverage and piggyback on others a bit, initially. So, that totally makes sense. I wanted to take a step back, a bit. More philosophically, Jane, she did a TEDx talk, end of last year, September. And she talked about how she did her presentation around welcome to the neobiological revolution. Is that the main mission and driver behind why Neo Life was started? For those who haven’t watched it, could you explain a bit about that presentation?
Brian Bergstein: Yeah. So, the idea is that there are more tools than ever for us to take aspects of our own health into our hands and that is empowering people in new ways. At the same time, there’re new technologies and synthetic biology to actually engineer life, engineer crops, engineer the soil. Take what nature has given us and make it better.
Brian Bergstein: This has been a somewhat controversial subject, of course, but the fact is, if we do it smartly and do it right, it can be this amazing enabler of innovation, of new opportunity. So, the tools for doing this, to use the maybe overused term of Silicon Valley, they’re being democratized. So, it no longer takes a huge, mega-corporation to bring about, to tinker with biology in a laboratory. That’s not something that only big chemical companies or only big pharmaceutical companies can do. There are people biohacking. They’re just playing around to see what they can do. So, that is often useless, it’s often scary, but it’s also inspiring. And potentially interesting. And people are going to invent all kinds of things and it’s akin to the explosion of interest that happened in computing in the 1990s.
Brian Bergstein: 1990s, when Jane and Luis Rossetto started Wired, computing was an old industry. Companies had been around for decades. But it was only when it started to become affordable and the tools for having a computer in every home and having access to the communication that it provided, reached just about everybody that it kind of took off.
Brian Bergstein: So, you could argue that something similar is happening in biology. That’s this idea of the neobiological revolution, kind of akin to the digital revolution, the idea that now the tools to better understand life, to tinker with it, to have much more fine-grained knowledge and control over how things work at the molecular level. So, it touches on old bioethical questions, it’s scary, it’s exciting, and it just feels like fertile ground to write about.
Vahe Arabian: I think it is a big open space of what you can write about. There’re a lot of things that are happening at the moment. What are some of your thoughts, in terms of, how do you guys go about now, with your current team in terms of determining what topics you need to focus on and do the best journalism, going into the in-depth articles? How do you currently go about that?
Brian Bergstein: I think all good stories, this is true in any field, start with an unanswered question. And so we have unanswered questions, like, huh, how does that work? Or wow, what could that mean? Or who is this guy? We look for questions that want an answer. Somebody says something. You don’t need to take an ADHD drug, you can just play this computer game and we’ll rewire your brain for you. You know? That’s the claim made by a company called Akili. A-K-I-L-I. It was in one of the stories we did. It’s a fascinating idea, so that’s a bunch of unanswered questions, right there. Is that true? How does this game work? If digital therapeutics are a real thing, what else could be treated with apps and software?
Brian Bergstein: So, we start with things that we just find curious and that prompt in us, a wow, how does that work? And what would the implications be? And if you follow those threads, you can bring the reader along with you on a pretty interesting journey. So, we’re looking for things that are new, that maybe challenge peoples’ expectations that give them a reason to be inspired, optimistic about the future. We don’t want to be handwavy or pollyannish, but we’re skeptical optimists, maybe. Where it’s like, well, let’s see. It’s going to have to prove it, but if it works, cool. You know? That kind of thing.
Brian Bergstein: New technologies often, they mess as much stuff as they improve. And there’ll be still more technologies to fix the problems created by those technologies. But that process of fixing and repairing and you know, that is this great churn of technology. So, we look for things that are kind of really kind of driving that forward. What’s cool? What’s solving a problem? And again, if it’s going to create a new problem, let’s talk about those. What are the ethical issues raised by these new technologies and so on?
Brian Bergstein: There’re really infinite things to write about, if you look at developments happening in the brain, and genetics, this is supposedly the genomic era, but we’re finding out that there’s just as much as we don’t know as now that we don’t know. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. There’s an infinite cycle of new questions to ask and just cool new ideas to talk about.
Vahe Arabian: That’s the point, Brian. It’s infinite. How are you prioritizing that? Even on a day-to-day basis? You guys are a startup, you need to get, you want to really work hard to mix work and bring traction towards, how are you really prioritizing what you’re going to be focusing on?
Brian Bergstein: It’s really hard. This is a big problem. And this is the source of probably my greatest dismay. Because no matter what we cover, we’re going to miss a lot of stories. We’re a very small team. It’s Jane and me and an art director and a marketing person. And we have somebody who works on our curated links package, and we have a few other contractors that we’re working with on some various technical projects, but then after that, it’s all freelance writers. We are somewhat bound by the rigors of making sure we get out at least one good story every week, that it’s appropriately researched and fact-checked and vetted, so we’re going to leave a lot on the table. That’s just always going to be true. How to prioritize, I mean I want to make sure, Jane and I talk about we want to make sure we have an appropriate mix of subjects. So, we don’t want to write about the brain every single week. If we haven’t written about the brain in a little while, it feels kind of time to do another good brain story.
Brian Bergstein: But I like to be led by the pitches I get from freelancers. Someone has a great story, I don’t want to overthink it too much and say, “Well, we did a story on genetics”. It’s like, you know what, most of the readers who read that story aren’t going to say, “Wait, you just did a genetics story”. They just want a good story.
Brian Bergstein: So, I try not to overthink it and I try to be forgiving when someone else inevitably has a story that I wish we had done.
Vahe Arabian: So, just to recap, it’s a balance of some of the topics you know people are mostly reading about at the moment, and then you’re balancing that with the difference that you had and looking at the topics they’re pitching to you and seeing whether you can balance it out?
Brian Bergstein: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: When you’re producing publishing content. And do you know, for example, what that’s going to give your site online in terms of new advertising or new subscribers? What hypothesis do you have at the moment that’s helping guide you through your path to growth?
Brian Bergstein: That’s a really good question. I mean, there’s always the danger when you write about a lot of subjects that a reader who comes in and really likes a story that you do on one subject will be disappointed to find that you don’t always write about that subject. We’re going to represent a certain kind of worldview and a certain kind of point of view. And that’s our sweet spot. So, I think that’s an advertising opportunity because we’re representing a psychographic more than a specific job title.
Brian Bergstein: I think there’re a lot of advertisers who don’t even necessarily have to be in the sciences that want to reach that certain kind of worldview. People with that certain kind of worldview, people with that sort of psychographic, right? I don’t think too much about that, the selling the ads is Jane’s point of view, I’m laser-focused on editorial. But I’ll put it this way: our most highly trafficked story so far has been about … The top five. One is about whether your cell phone can keep you from getting depressed, and ways that the cell phone can actually offer interventions against depression. The second is a story about the genetics of IQ. The third is about sobriety and drug use among millennials. Then there’s a story about technologies that would let same-sex couples reproduce, a technology that’s developing in labs, known as the artificial gametes. And there’s the package I mentioned about the free diver and his genetics.
Brian Bergstein: So you can see, in those top five, we’ve hit home runs with stories on such a variety of subjects that it’s teaching me that there is an appetite for a publication that reflects a point of view across a lot of technologies, rather than just having always to be about one technology or one scientific field.
Brian Bergstein: So yeah, I think that rules out a certain amount of advertisers who maybe just want to sell lab equipment. But I presume that opens us up to, I would think, some higher value, more mainstream or even consumer product advertisers.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. And I guess that’s probably where, what do you think in terms of where medical publishings leading to? Because when you think about it, when someone who hasn’t read some of the more nuanced articles, they also think about it as medical journals that scientists put together and publish and get recommended by peers, and that’s what people usually read it. So, what are your thoughts about what the current state of publishing media is, now in science and where do you see medical journals play a role in that current state?
Brian Bergstein: Medical journals are, they’re not doing journalism, more storytelling, they’re essentially presenting data and they’re very expensive, a lot of them. What you’re asking points to a challenge I think we’ll have, which is around how do we — and this is what we’re starting to work through now — which is how do we smartly build a subscription business? We want to have advertising, we want to have events, and we want to have subscription services for readers. What will readers pay us for?
Brian Bergstein: And I think the medical journal market is not the model for us. Those are expensive and they’re things that people have to read for their work. And I’m sure they expense their institutions, buy the subscriptions to nature and science and all the various Journal of the American Medical Association and so on. The challenge for us will be to do this kind of non-specific, or I guess rather, non-limited, non-niche kind of storytelling but make it just as valuable to people, in their jobs and in their life, that they would want to pay for it.
Brian Bergstein: So, there’re a few ways to do that, you can charge for going deeper on a certain subject. You can be very broad at the top of the funnel but actually only charge for going deeper on a certain subject. You could stay broad and have a meter. And I think that’s something we’re still working out, and that’s part of what we’re still learning from being in this beta phase, where we’re publishing just a couple stories a week because you might get different readers at all. There’re different readers who will come in and read a lot of stories for free, and there are a lot of advertisers who might want to reach them. There’s a lot of readers who might come to an event and not read much of our stories. There’re readers who would pay, gladly pay, to go deeper on something. What’s unclear to me is how much any one reader is in multiple camps.
Brian Bergstein: Anyway, I know that’s something you think a lot about. What’s your advice on that?
Vahe Arabian: My advice is I guess you need to know if you’re going to go deep or you’re going to go broad. Because if you’re going to go deep, then you can go into the subscription game and just focus on building up your subscription audience. But if you’re going to go broad, then you need to focus on a scale and build up mass. So and I’ll speak to other people as well, I have another podcast around free publishing that I spoke with someone else on, and what they’re saying is that they still want to go scale, they want to scale, but the reason they want to scale and do subscription is because they have an underserving community.
Vahe Arabian: So that, I think, also plays a factor as well. If you know, there’s a rule on underserving community, there’s no quality in terms of the articles being produced, and you can try to hit the sweet spot between scale and growing subscription, advertising and subscription together, but again, it just comes down to your capabilities, what’re you up to in the business and stuff like that, as well.
Brian Bergstein: Sometimes I think it might, ideally, I don’t know if this will happen at Neo Life, but certain publications I know this happens, it really almost might require separate staffs. There are people who focus all day long on subscription materials for readers and people who focus all day long on the more general stuff that’s going to be outside the paywall. But again, I think it depends whether it’s a hard paywall or a meter or what.
Vahe Arabian: Well, there are different parts of the acquisition following anyways, so the metering makes sense to me. You need to separate that out, otherwise, it’s going to be a balancing act. What other examples have you seen in the current, in the industry now, in terms of journalism now you want to copy, but maybe what are the common competitors out there now, who are doing something in a similar space? And what are they doing?
Brian Bergstein: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t see anybody doing anything journalistically that we’re doing. Some have identified this basket of technologies and this, they’re not articulating the opportunity for the world that we’re saying these technologies present.
Brian Bergstein: But, of course, stories that we are interested in do appear in places like The Atlantic, Wired, New York Times. But to your point about the business of publishing, has anyone really successfully built up a, I think there’re some interesting examples, like Backchannel, did something similar. In fact, even already starting on, Backchannel also started on Medium. They focused with a little bit bigger staff than we had, on a certain kind of technology reporting. A certain kind of in-depth analysis called Second Day Stories, helping people make sense of technology trends and technology news and people driving tech companies.
Brian Bergstein: So, Backchannel which was then acquired by Wired, which is part of Condé Nast, I think that’s an interesting model to me, of how to succeed journalistically at covering something that a lot of people are ostensibly covering but doing it in a way that feels fresh and has a clear point of view and perspective. I think that was successful. I don’t know whether it made sense as a business, whether what they sold it for, how it compared to what they put in and all that.
Brian Bergstein: But anyone has really shown a great model for doing what we’re doing. There’s some really interesting, if you look at a company like Axios, they’re growing fast. But it’s all around the news model, rather than analysis and point of view and perspective. And I don’t see us becoming a news site. I think it would be too easy then to lose track of what value we bring if we’re covering news.
Vahe Arabian: There’s also self-help sites and more psychology sites that also gets murky, and there’re other sites where they want to speak about tech, talk about science a bit as well, so what are your thoughts around that? Do you think that there’s an overlap there, or that there’re indirect competitors in that space?
Brian Bergstein: Yeah. There is a lot of competition from that. Because for a lot of readers, it just all comes at them kind of flat. Who’s to say what we’re writing has any more merit than what they can read on some self-help site or some kind of dodgy, quackery new age site? All I can do is try our best to be grounded in the science and link to the research and to vet our stuff and hope that over time, people will see us as an accurate and reasonable source. But you’re right, it is competition. Anything that people can do with their time other than reading us is competition. So, it is really tricky. How to stand out is the only way I know, I don’t have a great answer, the only way I know is to keep going after truly original and fresh and surprising stories that really delight the readers, that feel, wow, this story is memorable, I’m glad I came across it.
Vahe Arabian: Was that based on your experience from MIT? How you saw that success in doing that as well? Is that something that Jane has done that way, that makes you think will help in Neo Life?
Brian Bergstein: I would like to think that if you just go after great stories and tell them honestly and compellingly, the rest will take care of itself. I know the media business is tricky enough that that’s not necessarily true. So, I think what I’m describing is necessary for success, but not sufficient. We’ll have to make it as a business. Find revenue streams in crowded markets. Advertising and events are hardly things that we would have all to ourselves. But I think that if at the very least we’re just putting original, compelling stories out there into the world, then we’ll have been successful on some level. And hopefully, we can make the business side fall into place.
Brian Bergstein: I will say, that I think this is a really exciting time in media. Everybody talks about media being such a mess and obviously, it is, but the bright side of that is the half-life of a brand in media right now is really short. There’re companies that didn’t exist a year or two ago that now are widely read. So that’s the opportunity. Just a whole bunch of traditional publishers are struggling and may not exist in two years and that’s scary, but again, the flip side of that is I feel like we have as much opportunity to be widely read in a year or two as anybody else.
Vahe Arabian: Hundred percent. I think now is the best time ever to really stand out and be on the top because there isn’t that lock of, are you going to read the news, are you going to read features, you have to go to these type of sites in order to get them from there. It’s pretty much everywhere.
Brian Bergstein: And there’re also more opportunities than in the past to get people to revisit material you’ve already produced. So, if we do an in-depth feature, it’s shelf life can be really quite long.
Vahe Arabian: It’s evergreen content.
Brian Bergstein: Yeah. Hopefully, we’re writing about things that will need an update in a few years because we’re not writing about things at all 20 years into the future. But yeah, exactly. I think that’s nice, too, because if we write something and it doesn’t immediately get the engagement we want, the subject will be back in the news at some point. And it’s really gratifying to be able to say we have this story we did three months ago that helps you understand this subject better. And you can inject it into the conversation and that is, I think that’s actually really cool. It gives us more ways to be useful to people. And that’s ultimately what I want.
Vahe Arabian: I’m in the same boat as you are, especially with media technology. Brian, so have you guys got a list, a plan as to where you want to move ahead in 2018, and you said you want to focus on getting the new website, but what are some of the steps that you’re going to take in order to help you define what your moral is, what the moral is for Neo Life and the path to monetization?
Brian Bergstein: Well, I think what we want to do is we’ve actually monetized to a small extent already. We’ve had a magazine reprint one of our stories, we’ve had some advertising, we’ve done an event, so that has been encouraging and now it’s just a matter of doing more of it and having this now a richer library, a year’s worth of, library of content under our belt has, I think will make all that easier. Because again, we have some good data on the kinds of stories we do best, and the subjects that we’ve done well on and we have a good group of freelancers that we keep working too. So editorially, we have the momentum. Now, what we need to do is see if we can scale it up. Produce more stories, maybe do a newsletter more than once a week, we’re talking about starting a podcast, and I think we can slowly ramp to the point where awareness just grows and then move on to our own site as well.
Brian Bergstein: So, these are all things that, to answer your question, these are all things that I think we should be able to do in 2018.
Vahe Arabian: Two parts of this question: what’s going to be able to determine to say, okay, let’s start a podcast now, and then what’s a tipping point to then moving past to your own website?
Brian Bergstein: We’re talking to people who could do the podcast for us. We’re talking to people who have some experience doing science- or technology-related audio storytelling. So, we want to find the right voice and it doesn’t necessarily have to replicate all of our content, it could be a podcast that’s a subset of what we write about. I don’t know, I think the tipping point will be we’ll know when we’re able to put out a great product, and not until then would we do it. And as far as the tipping point for our own site, it’s a good question. I think it depends on a bunch of resource questions and whether it makes sense, just compared to all the other things we want to do to scale up.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. I think what I got from what you said was around probably going to have to do more of the advertising events and stuff, so then you can see consistency with the new, different content avenues, getting the right people who have specialty in that content medium to be able to deliver on that and align with your mission. Because you guys are a small team. Hopefully, everyone has got that message from you.
Vahe Arabian: Brian, just to wrap it up, I guess, what’s your career advice for someone who wants to start in tech and science or even working in a startup? Are there requirements to work in a startup before?
Brian Bergstein: I think a willingness to do anything is pretty crucial. In a startup, it doesn’t help to have someone say, “Oh, I don’t do that”. Everybody pitches in on everything, from thinking about how to promote stories, to thinking about what stories we should do, to thinking about the headlines. All of us on the team think about our headlines and weigh in on the subheads or decks, as we call them. All eyes are on the story because we’re such a small team. And I think more broadly, though, if someone wants to go into tech or science journalism, I would remind them that the unanswered question is what drives reporting forward and what can differentiate a story from a topic.
Brian Bergstein: So, often I’ll get pitches from writers who kind of already know what they want to say, and they’re just like, “Okay, my story is going to say X, Y, and Z”. And that worries me because if you already think you know what it is you want to say and you just want to say it, I mean, other than if you read a book and you want to write a book review, and you know what you’re going to say in this book review, I don’t think knowing what you’re going to say at the outset is a very good path. I don’t think the result is going to be all that interesting to the reader.
Brian Bergstein: I think the best stories start with an unanswered question and try to walk the reader through the journalist’s experience of answering that question. So, that would be my advice to tech and science writers, is to say what are you curious about and are you open to learning about this in the reporting? It might sound obvious but you’d be surprised how often the pitches I get don’t reflect that point of view.
Vahe Arabian: I guess that’s what helps, what at the end of the day, helps get repeat visitors, producing series of content around this specific topic if you really focus on the unanswered question. It was really good how you explained it because I definitely think about it that way as well. So, I appreciate that, thank you.
Brian Bergstein: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me on your show.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us on Episode 11 of State of Digital Publishing podcast. We’re across all podcast networks, iTunes, etc., etc., so please feel free to subscribe to our new episodes. We’re on social media, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit us on StateOfDigitalPublishing.com, where you can get latest updates and you can also subscribe to our exclusive insights and community. Until next time.

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