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COSMOS: A Case Study of Flourishing Media

ABC Radio National | 29 June 2012

COSMOS iPad edition

Wilson da Silva appears on ABC Radio National's The Media Report talking about a new COSMOS iPad app, and explain why he’s so chirpy about the future of media.

Richard Aedy: I want to finish with a bit more optimism from perhaps an unexpected direction. Cosmos Media is a small company. It puts out COSMOS Magazine, which is about science, and its editor-in-chief is Wilson da Silva who is disconcertingly positive about the future.

Wilson da Silva: Yes because there is a disruptive change going through the media industry, the kind of disruption that we’ve seen in other industries and it’s now finally affecting content. And for a long time we were stumbling around thinking what is it we’re going to do? Because we were wedded to the print model and we wanted to do things online — we’ve got the highest rating science news website in the country — so we’ve been doing okay online but never really had a strategy for how to go beyond, you know, the next five, ten years. And about nine months ago we started rethinking the whole business and thought okay we’re going to become the number one science place for you to do everything science – buy DVDs, buy magazines, readers … basically a COSMOS experience. And we started thinking of print, not as the central core of the business but as just one of the platforms we have.

Richard Aedy: So a lot of the, say, iPad apps of publications, certainly some of the earlier ones give you the paper on your tablet but there are obviously limitations with doing that.

Wilson da Silva: There were. The first magazines were what’s now called replicas of the print edition. Basically people were thinking – and you can see how it happens in a magazine production house, you go, 'I’ve got to do the print issue, oh we’ve got to do the iPad issue, you know, what are we going to do? Oh let’s just give a kind of pdf replica and then, oh let’s add some you know hyperlinks here and there'. We’ve gone through — and it’s not so much us but some other publishers: Hearst with Popular Mechanics in the U.S. – have tried really hard to think, okay what is special about the iPad? What is the functionality it has? And what extra things can we do? So we’ve spent nine months at reimagining the magazine from the ground up. It’s kind of hard to describe, it’s not just adding video and audio; it’s little things like, for example, if you have a trivia section, why not tap the question and it flips around and the answer appears? And maybe it has an image associated with it. Or if you have a competition in a magazine, why can’t you just email your answer from that page? If you have an opening story, say, glaciers disappearing around the world: instead of having a double-page spread which we have in the print edition of the story, you can open with that image and then pan ever so slowly – it’s almost like you’re standing at the top of this mountain looking across all the glaciers. And you pan as you introduce the story and have the standfirst and the first paragraph appear. It’s just a different way of thinking of magazines. And I don’t think enough publishers are allowing their editorial people to play, to experience and play with the technology and just try crazy stuff. And we’ve been trying crazy stuff for months.

Richard Aedy: So your future…what it’s now tied to the iPad? What about other tablets? Are you going to be platform agnostic?

Wilson da Silva: We are going to be platform agnostic eventually, so we’ve made a massive investment to double staff and we’ve…

Richard Aedy: That takes you to …put that in context, you’re now what, nine or 10?

Wilson da Silva: We’ve expanded to 17 people including commercial people. So we originally had 4.5 people, we now have 10 in editorial. And we’ve expanded other sides of the business too. But basically we’re going to triple the amount of content we produce, irrespective of platform. And it’s not going to be necessarily advertiser-driven. I think one of the problems of the media industry today is everyone’s trying to think, how do we make advertising pay? I don’t think the game is advertising anymore. I think for too long publishers – particularly in the magazine world – have been thinking way too much about what can we give the advertiser. Because I guess science is a niche, so you really have to be interested in science to get in, so it’s never been a big advertising revenue generator for us. We have strong advertising but never the kind of big stuff, 60% of the book that you have in the mainstream titles. So we’ve always relied a lot more on reader revenue: subscriptions, retail and online.

Richard Aedy: Right. So get it right for the readers and then …

Wilson da Silva: Everything else happens.

Richard Aedy: Maybe the advertisers come as well. But if they don’t, you think you’re going to be alright?

Wilson da Silva: Exactly. This is the model we’re aiming for, and what’s becoming clear to me is that in this world of no borders, there are only going to be two general types of magazines; there’s going to be the hyper-global and the hyper-local. We’re a niche, we’re a science magazine. But that niche is global.

Richard Aedy: I was going to say, it actually means that you can try and be a global publisher.

Wilson da Silva: True, but it also means that, for example, you can be a woodworking magazine or a bicycling magazine and you can be global. Now luckily COSMOS, since its beginning seven years ago, has always been global because science is global. We don’t bang on about how a story is Australian. We just do science wherever it is. We also have a really good reputation: 15% of our subscribers — even though it’s extraordinarily expensive to subscribe from the U.S. or other places— 15% of them have been international, and we’ve won a number of international awards. So we’ve got respect, but the problem has always been the cost of shipping.

The architects of the COSMOS iPad edition: Publisher Kylie Ahern, managing editor Heather Catchpole and editor-in-chief Wilson da Silva

Richard Aedy: So that is clearly what you see as your future. You’ll keep doing print for as long as people want and as long as it makes some kind of economic sense.

Wilson da Silva: Exactly.

Richard Aedy: But you are able to do this and you’ve been able to go as well as you have and – actually, before I go on, are you profitable now? Because you are sustained, you have been sustained by some deep pockets.

Wilson da Silva: Yes we have. Thank heavens that we had a benefactor in Alan Finkel, who’s the chancellor of Monash University and made his fortune in biotechnology — he’s a scientist himself. He believes deeply in the product. He and Elizabeth Finkel have invested in COSMOS and, without their help, certainly in the first five years …

Richard Aedy: Probably would never have started.

Wilson da Silva: It probably would never have have started, but certainly wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has and maintained the level of quality. Because one of the things that Alan and Lizzie really believe in is quality, quality, quality. I cannot tell you (laughs) the emails I get breaking down his analysis of each issue: what we got right, what we could do better and what we need to improve on. He is a meticulous reader, he loves science and he loves magazines. And he is our biggest fan.

Richard Aedy: Are you now generating an operating profit?

Wilson da Silva: Yes we are.

Richard Aedy: Right, so you’re now a sustainable business. Your concern is though, is with what happens next.

Wilson da Silva: That’s right. We’ve got to think, not what the market is now but what the market will be in five years’ time. So what we’re doing now is making a large investment in staff and resources and in technologies to make sure that in five years’ time we’re not only here, but we’re actually thriving. We have an internal plan to be the number one science magazine in the world in five years’ time. Watch this space.

Richard Aedy: The irrepressible Wilson da Silva from COSMOS. I’m Richard Aedy.



Visit The Media Report webpage of this interview here.


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