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Boldly nerdy, proudly geeky: how Nature became the specialist media news site of the year

International science magazine Nature was named ‘Specialist News Site of the Year’ at The Drum’s Online Media Awards 2020. Here, the team behind the site reveal the strategies used and the challenges faced to deliver Nature’s online success.

The challenge

Nature is the world’s leading international science magazine and journal, publishing high impact peer-reviewed research, original journalism and opinion for thought-leaders, policy-makers and the global scientific community. Nature publishes over 3000 items of journalism and commentary per year.

Our site is not only timely, informative and intellectually stimulating – it’s important that it exists at all. We believe that we offer the most authoritative, trusted, high-quality journalism and commentary on science – we are the antithesis of fake news and an essential antidote in a world that is increasingly, and worryingly, questioning journalism and rejecting science and expertise.

The strategy

Every day, we publish high-impact academic research, original journalism and compelling opinion for thought-leaders, policy-makers and the global scientific community. We set the agenda in science.

Nature publishes over 900 scientific papers and over 3000 items of journalism, commentary and multimedia per year, reaching an online, international audience that has grown in 2019 from over 2.5 million to 3.5 million users per month.

Our online presence stretches well beyond our website. We have a thriving social media presence, with 2.5 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; our popular daily newsletter (Nature Briefing) has a loyal following of more than quarter of million subscribers; 400,000 users subscribe to our YouTube channel, and the Nature Podcast logs over half a million listens every month.

Our team is focused fully on serving a core audience of working scientists and those in the scientific world; our journalists cover everything from breakthroughs in quantum computing, gene editing and artificial intelligence, to deeply nerdy statistical quandaries, to misconduct in the research community.

We bring in a large halo audience too: anyone who is interested in science turns to us for authoritative coverage 2019 was a major year for Nature, as it marked our 150th year (we launched in 1869).

We launched a wholesale redesign to offer readers an outstanding digital experience, including a new logo and look. We introduced a custom typeface, Harding (named after the late neurologist, Anita Harding), which was designed specifically to render clearly on digital screens. This was a unique digital design project, because we had to ensure the typeface included a raft of symbols, mathematical equations and formulae essential for academic scientific work.

The campaigns

As a centrepiece of our 150th anniversary, our editors collaborated with network scientists led by Albert Laszlo Barabasi at Northeastern University in Boston. The scientists carried out a novel analysis using data on tens of millions of scientific articles. The resulting network created a powerful representation of the history of science and revealed how disciplines have arisen and become more connected over time. Nature published this analysis as a free package of content: our 150th anniversary issue cover, a stunning video, opinion article (explaining the analysis in depth) and a data interactive, all of which inspired media stories worldwide.

We publish unique content, squarely focused on our audience and ambitious editorial goals. For example, our five-part series on China’s Belt and Road Initiative addressed the impact of this trillion-dollar project on education and research in many countries. Our team of reporters interviewed more than 100 researchers, graduate students, policymakers and government-watchdog organizations across four continents to chart both the promise and the potential problems of China’s activities.

We tackle issues that few other media outlets would, and lead thinking in research. For example, in 2019 we published an opinion piece signed by more than 800 academics arguing that researchers should ditch the measure of statistical significance because it was being widely misused in research. The article went wild online and on social: it has had over 800,000 unique page views, led to multiple follow-up media stories and quickly became the top-scoring article ever on Altmetric, a widely used system for measuring the impact of academic articles.

We work hard to engage our audience. For example, in 2019, Nature published an extraordinary discovery in which scientists revived the disembodied brains of pigs hours after the animals were slaughtered, an advance with major ethical implications for our understanding of life and death. We decided to run the papers and our accompanying news and opinion articles, with a survey asking our readers what key questions they had about the work. We then posted a follow up article responding to those questions and providing context that readers couldn’t get elsewhere. The story - and the entire package - was very popular with readers.

Science plays a huge role in society, from climate change to medicine, and it’s part of our mission to examine how science integrates with and influences the broader human story.

In 2019, our journalists won two grants from the Pulitzer Center on crisis reporting to undertake unique trips. Amy Maxmen travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to report from the front lines of the Ebola crisis to report on the challenges fighting a devastating infectious disease in a desperately poor country and conflict zone. And two of our reporters travelled to the Peruvian jungle to embed with researchers who are using drones and other technology to study uncontacted tribes. (We published an immersive feature and documentary from this trip in 2020).

In 2019, we also joined more than 300 media outlets worldwide in the Covering Climate Now collaboration. The initiative – with a combined audience of over 1 billion – committed to a week of intensive climate coverage leading up to the UN climate summit in New York on September 23rd.

Also, in 2019, we won over 300,000 EUR funding from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund to develop an impact-tracking tool, so that we’re able to record and share the real-world impact of our content, such as that above, more widely.

The results

In the last year, we saw our audience grow from 2.5 million to 3.5 million users per month, redesigned our website, won 11 news and design awards, and won a 300,000 EUR grant from the Google Digital News Innovation awards to develop a tool that shows how our journalism has an impact in the real world.

For example, the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest funders of biomedical research, drew on our coverage of poor workplace culture and harassment in academia when this year it launched a new initiative to improve research culture. Similarly, our investigation into alleged bullying by a prominent researcher prompted his university to launch an enquiry. A piece on healthy lighting prompted US regulators to review flickering lights. Our scoop on the US Environmental Protection Agency ending funding for a network of children's environmental health centres ultimately resulted in officials voting to restore funding.

  • Nature magazine’s online performance in 2019: 50 million page views, 25 million users, 41 million sessions.
  • Nature Briefing newsletter Subscribers: 265k
  • Social media Twitter: 1.9m followers
  • Facebook: 472k followers
  • YouTube: 405k subscribers
  • Podcast: 6.1m listens over 2019
  • Instagram: 7k followers (launched 2019)

This project was a winner at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. To find out more about The Drum Awards, including details of awards currently open for entries, click here.

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