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April 13, 2022, 10:07 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A new magazine delves into the ways that people consume wrong information

OpenMind Magazine launched just a month ago, with a goal of “tackling science controversies and deceptions.”

There’s a new magazine in town, one dedicated to pieces about misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other ways that people consume wrong information.

OpenMind Magazine (whose tagline is “tackling science controversies and deceptions”) was officially launched in mid-March and was really the result of old friends wanting to launch a magazine together.

Pamela Weintraub and Corey S. Powell, the magazine’s two co-editors-in-chief, have been friends and colleagues for decades. As veteran magazine journalists — at Discover Magazine, Aeon, Omni Magazine, American Scientist and others — Weintraub and Powell knew they always wanted to launch a magazine together. But their initial idea was quite a bit different than what they did end up launching.

“We had an idea for another magazine — we still do — called Proxima and it was with some of our friends in the science fiction community. And it was going to be looking at the future of science,” said Weintraub.

Which is why, when Brian Cohen, the first investor in Pinterest and a friend of Weintraub’s from graduate school, reached out for help launching a new foundation and expressed interest in funding a science publication, Powell and Weintraub were hopeful.

That organization ended up being the Science Literacy Foundation, which was launched a year ago with a mission “to investigate, create, and fund scalable initiatives and programs, providing new paths to science literacy.”

But when it came to Proxima, Cohen wasn’t interested, Weintraub said. But in the process of helping get the Science Literacy Foundation off the ground, Weintraub and the other founders of the Science Literacy Foundation also wrote a white paper that looked at possible paths to improving science literacy. It was during the process of working on this white paper that the idea for OpenMind emerged. “We realized that there was so much under the surface that could be covered here about misinformation and disinformation that might be able to move the needle on this,” Weintraub said.

Now, more than six months after that white paper was published, OpenMind is officially up and running. The skeleton crew behind the magazine haven’t even had a chance to meet up in person yet, but did meet online early on the day the website went live. “That first day, we looked at each other [on Zoom] and said ‘Holy shit! Is this for real? What did we just do?’,” Powell said. “We had these very lofty goals and these very high minded aspirations for a long time. And now we have to do it.”

So what is an OpenMind story? “An open mind story is fundamentally about ways that people misperceive or don’t perceive important science issues in the world,” said Powell. “Our canvas is things that are misreported or misunderstood in popular culture, on science issues that matter. This is the magazine that sets things straight.” At the same time, Powell was quick to say, “It’s definitely not a fact checking magazine.”

Thus far, since its official launch during the week of March 15, the magazine has published seven pieces, from an essay on the portrayal of psychopaths on TV to a reported piece on how people can avoid the burnout that comes with the 24-hour news cycle. All the content on OpenMind can be republished by other outlets under a Creative Commons license.

Although the Science Literacy Foundation has provided $200,000 of seed funding (and all the co-founders of the SLF, with the exception of Cohen, are also staff members at OpenMind), the foundation is not really involved, Weintraub says.

“The magazine is a separate, independent thing and the foundation has given us seed funding, but we still need to go out and get other funding to continue the effort,” she says.

OpenMind is a slim operation: Weintraub and Powell are co-editors in chief, while Jillian Mock is a managing editor. Douglas Starr, a professor emeritus of Boston University’s science journalism graduate program serves as consulting editor ((Disclosure: Douglas Starr is my former professor.). None of these people works for OpenMind full time and a contracted team of copyeditors and fact-checkers provides those services to the magazine, which relies entirely on freelance pieces.

The publishing schedule is also limited: Currently the magazine is publishing two stories per week, but the plan is to go to one story per week over the summer. Eventually, the goal would be to raise the number of weekly stories published, but with the small staff and limited funding, that may have to be a goal for year three or later.

For now, sustaining this twice weekly publishing schedule is a primary goal. And because the magazine is committed to only assigning stories that it knows there’s money for, the magazine is also actively seeking donations. The goal: $500,000. There is a donate button on the website and the people behind the magazine are actively seeking other funders as well.

“For the past 20 years in my career in journalism, the first goal has always been to survive to the next year,” Powell said. The magazine is being run as a nonprofit (although they haven’t officially achieved nonprofit status, according to Weintraub). In order to be sustainable, “It’s gonna have to run on some mix of membership, individual donations, and foundation support,” Powell said, who also said he was optimistic that there are foundations and individual philanthropists who would likely support the magazine.

He continued, “This can’t be a for-profit magazine. We’re never going to have a paywall. We’re never going to hide a story. We’re never going to bombard you with ads. It depends on people perceiving that we’re doing some social good, and I believe in the mission,” he said. “OpenMind is a labor of love and a time consuming one — if we can secure the kind of funding that we can, it can be a loving labor rather than a labor of love,” Powell said.

Beyond standard metrics for gauging the success of a story — such as newsletter sign-ups, donations and social media statistics — Powell says how a story does on other sites — and which stories pique the interest of other outlets — will also help determine how successful they are.

But ultimately, some of the success of the magazine may be fundamentally unmeasurable. But given that the magazine will delve into ever-important topics such as misinformation, disinformation, vaccine hesitancy and solutions to climate change, measuring impact may be a tall order.

“To some extent, all of us as journalists, the best we can do is believe that when you’re making a connection, that there’s some action or some psychological change that comes with that,” he said. “The big thing you want to do is have some large scale social impact.”

Image of OpenMind Magazine’s logo by Kristen Male was provided by OpenMind Magazine.

POSTED     April 13, 2022, 10:07 a.m.
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