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Cosmos Goes Against the Grain and Builds Readership

Mediaweek | 5 December 2011

How the indie magazine grew into Australia's #2 science media outlet.

By Hansika Bhagani

INFLUENTIAL SCIENCE magazine Cosmos recently rose an impressive 27.5% in the latest Roy Morgan readership survey. Edito­rial director and co-founder of the magazine Wilson da Silva told Mediaweek, it’s all down to getting the mix right.

“We’ve been undergoing a rise in readership and advertising for the last few years. We’ve got the model right now. We know what our readers like, we know what it is that presses their buttons, and we’re better with covers, which helps at retail.”

While the readership news for much of the magazine market has been patchy, Cosmos has flourished by going against the grain, said da Silva.

“Other magazines feel that they’re competing with the web, so they’re writing shorter and shorter stories, thinking that the attention span of people is shrinking. But we’re actually writing longer stories. We overhauled the magazine in 2009 and decided a whole bunch of smaller sections were too 'bitsy', so we merged them all into one section, called Express, and then ran the feature stories longer.”

“Other magazines feel that they’re competing with the web, so they’re writing shorter and shorter stories. But we’re actually writing longer stories.”

The way Cosmos delves into features is also significant: “Our stories are constantly throwing to the future, and thinking where might this all go? We don’t do the general science magazine thing of writing the latest in Alzheimer’s research; what we’ll do is use the latest Alzheimer’s research to tell us about how memory works in the brain, and how it forms personality, for instance.

Edito­rial director Wilson da Silva in his COSMOS office

“Based on our research, our readers are mostly people who are interested in science, but ended up not doing it for a living. They might have gone into law, or into banking or medicine. We have a lot of doctors reading Cosmos, a lot of physicians and people who are interested in medical research and in questions about who we are as a species and where we’re going.”

Competition-wise, da Silva pointed out, other science magazines don’t eat into Cosmos’ audience. We don’t feel like we’re competing with any of the other science magazines that are sold here because our research shows there is very little crossover between audiences. It’s a bit of a surprise, actually, because I would have thought that science fans would be across them all. Where there is cross­over is in competition for advertising.”


The other science titles in the market are very different from Cosmos, explained da Silva. “New Scientist is a weekly, so it’s under the pressure that all weeklies face. l feel for them, because they’re a wonderful magazine. But they're trapped between a B2B world and a general public world. It’s B2B in the sense that it tries to cover all science for all people who are interested in science, and that’s sometimes a bit more technical than you might need if you’re a general reader.

“The science of climate change is not 100% certain. But if we had to stop and say, let’s not do anything until the science is 100% certain, well, guess what? It would never happen, because in science, nothing is ever 100% certain.”

“I see New Scientist as the ‘office chair read’, and us as the ‘deckchair read’, or what you read for enjoyment. Yes, we spend a lot of effort covering the latest thinking in science, but we also focus heavily on the quality of the writing.

“Australasian Science is a worthy local effort, it’s been going for many years. And then there’s licensed titles, like Popular Science and Science Illustrated, which are basically imports with a couple of local articles.”

Newspaper science coverage is more problematic for da Silva, who’s supportive of the reporting, but apprehensive about the slant taken. “l don’t think you can do much journalism without tackling science these days. Court reporting now has to deal with DNA evidence and forensics. Political reporting has to deal with climate change, which is generating a lot of stories, but a lot of those stories are trying to seek a political balance, where balance is sought by looking for an opposing view. That doesn’t work in science. Every time you write a story about the space shuttle going around the Earth, you don’t also quote the Flat Earth Society, who doubt the Earth is round.

“Sure, the science of climate change is not 100% certain all the time. But if we had to stop and say, let’s not do anything until the science is 100% certain, well, guess what? It would never happen, because in science, nothing is ever 100% certain. We don’t even know exactly how electricity works, but we know enough to use it every day. If you have something that’s 80% or 90% certain in science, you can still do many, many things. That’s the nature of science, and people don’t under­stand that.

“The kind of coverage some newspapers are taking on – The Australian is the most notable – is not about the science, it’s about the politics. They seem to have a problem with climate change – not for scientific reasons, but for political reasons. Perhaps they fear that if they accept it, it would mean a requirement for greater regulation, controls on emissions, and that would be anti-business. It seems that The Australian has taken an editorial decision to campaign against the science, as well as the politics, of climate change.”

“The amazing thing is that the second largest media outlet for science [in Australia] is Cosmos.”

The science writers themselves fare much better with da Silva. “You can have a really good writer, like Leigh Dayton at The Australian; but if management doesn’t want what she’s writing, then it doesn’t get in the paper. Whereas you can have a brilliant writer like Deborah Smith at The Sydney Morning Herald and because she has internal support, her stories get in.”

“Outside of print, the ABC does a fabu­lous job – they have something like 17 different programs or slots that are filled with science, so they are by far the number one media outlet for science.

“The amazing thing is that the second largest media outlet for science is Cosmos. That’s not just because of the magazine – we also run a daily news website, which is rated the highest in the country in science news, we have a weekly e-newsletter and we produce a whole bunch of other science products. As a result, we reach more than 400,000 people a month, and that makes us the second biggest. Which is amazing, because we’re nowhere near the size of the ABC – we’re like an ant in comparison.”

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