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March 29, 2021, 1:24 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How Stat survived, and thrived, during the craziest year in health reporting history

“Our Chartbeat dial went past the maximum. It went all the way around again.”

2020 was one of the grimmest years for the media business on record. As the pandemic became a reality, and society came to grips with a global quarantine and an unprecedented swoon in consumer demand, no newsroom was safe. Every day brought more bad news; furloughs transformed into permanent discharges, advertisers disappeared and didn’t return, freelance budgets dried up, and a community of workers, already on precarious grounds, found it difficult to believe that the contraction would ever reverse itself. We each looked into failsafes and backup plans, wondering aloud if 2020 would go down in history as the year the news apparatus finally broke.

And yet in the midst of the carnage, Stat is thriving. The health and life sciences publication, launched by The Boston Globe in 2015, obliterated all of its traffic records during the pandemic. As of December, the site had 50 employees, up just a bit from the end of 2019 and around the same number as when it launched, but it plans to hire around 20 new staffers by the end of this year.

Long ago, when Covid wasn’t in any of our vocabularies, Stat oriented toward a fairly niche audience: Medical professionals who had a vested interest in the ebbs and flows of pharmaceutical development and public health policy. The articles were approachably written and parsable by casual observers, but the emphasis was directed on those who would be curious about therapeutics even when there wasn’t a pandemic raging outside. Stat’s chief revenue officer, Angus Macaulay, told me the site averaged a respectable 1.5 million unique visitors per month in 2019, and it likely would’ve stayed that way, if not for the ominous virus that tore its way through China, South Korea, and Italy in that febrile winter of 2020. As headlines grew dire and Americans everywhere sought out any substantive information they could find about the novel coronavirus, many of them landed on the Stat homepage for the first time in their lives. Overnight, the website’s core clientele expanded to include the entire human population.

Last February, the site tripled its metrics to 4.7 million monthly unique visitors. By March, as it proved clear that the pandemic would be the only news story that mattered for quite some time, that number ballooned to a mind-boggling 23 million. Ad sales remained “really strong” throughout the year, said Macaulay, who goes as far to say that June was the company’s “biggest month in the history of the brand.” The days of insularity — when Stat catered primarily to people who already knew what AstraZeneca was long before the clinical trials — are extinct. It’s a media triumph, in the middle of a generation-altering event.

“Stat has changed forever after last year,” said executive editor Rick Berke, who mentioned that the website’s monthly visitors have plateaued to around seven million. “As a media company, we were on a good trajectory before the pandemic. But there’s no going back to the pre-pandemic reach that we had.”

“Our Chartbeat dial went past the maximum. It went all the way around again,” said managing editor Gideon Gil. “That’s when we realized that we were in a new world.”

I count myself as one of Stat’s new, medically illiterate loyal readers. My coronavirus panic started to spike at the end of January 2020, at a moment where there seemed to be a shocking absence of information about the burgeoning pandemic. Other news organizations, some with a massive footprint, initially relegated the pathogen to the B or C pegs. But Stat was equipped with both the sourcing bona fides and epidemiological comprehension to recognize a crisis in the making. The crisis was front-page news on the website from its inception. Like those other 23 million unique visitors, I found its Aesculapian fluency to be a balm on my brain — even when the reporting itself was dark as hell.

“This is our bread and butter focus,” says Berke. “It made sense that we’d be in that position.”

Part of that success, says Berke, is attributable to infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell (a 2011 Nieman Fellow) who’s become something of a Twitter celebrity thanks to her salty experience and deft ability to parse wonky data points into plain English. Branswell has been on the frontlines of every pandemic in living memory: SARS, H1N1, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and now Covdi-19. She first sounded the alarm on Covid on New Year’s Eve in 2019. (“Hopefully this is nothing out of the ordinary. But a @ProMED_mail posting about ‘unexplained pneumonias’ in China is giving me #SARS flashbacks.”) Berke remembers introducing people to Branswell in the office in the Before Times, where they’d joke that if a seismic pandemic ever took hold in America, Stat clearly had the woman to cover it. (In February, Branswell won the George Polk Award for Public Service Journalism for her Covid-19 coverage.)

“Never did I imagine that it would happen to this scale,” he says. “We were fortunate to have the person who knows this stuff better than any other reporter. She took it so seriously. She saw what we all lived through. She saw the potential of what could happen. And she lived with that fear and concern.”

In the early part of 2020, Berke orbited toward Branswell’s desk every day to take stock of her Twitter followers, as a tide nervous people turned to her feed for some clarity during an increasingly anxious moment. At the beginning of February, it sat at around 43,000 people. By the end of the year, Branswell touched north of 200,000. “They were jumping by the second,” says Berke. “It was surreal.” Of course, in a matter of days, both Berke and Branswell would be stuck in a year-length quarantine. Those physical check-ins were impossible, even as the numbers kept going up.

That’s the strange paradox of Stat. Everyone I spoke to at the publication is thrilled about the growth, but there is no escaping the trauma of Covid. Covering a slow-motion catastrophe, day-in and day-out, is exhausting, and watching the media sector get decimated is disorienting — no matter how impressive your own personal metrics may look. “It’s surreal to marvel at the numbers. We’re grateful for that, but there’s no joy here,” added Berke.

“When we have staff meetings where I’ve talked about how the site is doing, and the positive things we’re doing, and I try to preface it by reminding everyone how lucky we are,” he continued. “We all have friends in the media getting laid off. We’re seeing advertising tank. We’re seeing the rugs get pulled out from under live events. It’s an odd position to be in. We’re writing about the most tragic stories of our time. People are dying. Our industry has been upended. Our lives have been upended. And yet, people are coming to us for our work. I guess all I can say is, we try to never lose sight of the larger context, and never for a moment forget the toll this has taken on all of us.”

As vaccination rates increase, Stat may get a taste of normalcy soon. Managing editor Gil is finally allowing himself to think about life after the plague — where Covid-19 will no longer be an all-hands-on-deck operation for his newsroom.

On March 29, eight of Stat’s top 10 most popular stories still had to do with Covid-19. But “There’s so much more going on in science. We need to rebalance a little bit,” he says. “We won’t lessen the attention we’re giving the pandemic, but it’s important for us to get back to writing about cancer, neuroscience, and genomics.”

Stat’s management remains confident that in the years ahead, when Covid and its accumulated baggage no longer haunt us on a daily basis, the site will retain a significant portion of its new audience. When you multiply a readership by double digits, there’s no chance that all of it will atrophy away. But I don’t think any of them will be disappointed if Stat never approaches its March 2020 heights again. All of us, especially the media’s public health reporters, could use a break.

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. He previously wrote for Nieman Lab about Newsmax and OAN and Study Hall.

Hospitalman Cierrajaye Santella, assigned to Naval Hospital Bremerton and Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Bremerton, prepares to administer one of the first Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, Dec. 23, 2020. Photo by Official U.S. Navy Page used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 29, 2021, 1:24 p.m.
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