The Future of Content Episode 8: Content Is in Our DNA

GenomeWeb created the market for covering genomics: the science and industry behind genome sequencing and molecular biology. Since 2000, their CEO Bernadette Toner has been shaping the coverage for this niche, highly specialized audience within the biotech industry.

“The researchers want to know what’s happening with the companies that are developing the technology they use. And then the people on the commercial side, they want to know how their technology is being applied in research. And then they also want to know what opportunities there may be for them in terms of new technology that’s emerging from academia. So really, our coverage appeals to both sides of our field, our market.”

Bernadette Toner, CEO, GenomeWeb

In 2012, GenomeWeb went fully digital. Their focus on a hybrid business model—a 50/50 revenue split between subscriptions and advertising revenue—has proven successful in a changing publishing landscape. Bernadette credits the company’s willingness to ask its readers to pay for content that they value as a major factor in its success. Their email newsletter has been particularly successful—in fact, their newsletter is their number one source of traffic.

“The [digital] subscription business has been very, very steady and has been very, very reliable for us. So we can really rely on that and rely on those renewals to protect us against the vagaries of the advertising business. And that’s where I think most publishers are really struggling. Especially ones that are still working on moving from print to online.”

Bernadette Toner, CEO, GenomeWeb

Bernadette Toner

Bernadette Toner is the CEO of GenomeWeb, a business unit of Crain Communications.

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Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!

[Voiceover] Welcome to The Future of Content, a podcast exploring how we create, manage and distribute content. Brought to you by Four Kitchens: We make BIG websites.

[Todd] Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. Every episode, we invite a guest to explore an aspect of content and to make predictions about the future of that content. If you create, manage, or publish content, welcome. This podcast is for you. Today, we’re talking about the content of science and research. Our guest is Bernadette Toner, CEO of GenomeWeb, an independent online news organization that covers genome sequencing and molecular biology. Welcome to The Future of Content, Bernadette.

[Bernadette] Thank you.

[Todd] So to set the stage here, GenomeWeb is a digital news organization that’s focused on genomic tools and technologies for research and clinical use. Is that correct?

[Bernadette] That is correct. Yes.

[Todd] Wonderful. So for those of us who aren’t part of this industry, what is genomics?

[Bernadette] Sure, that is a good place to start. So genomics, quite broadly, is really just the study of the entirety of an organism’s DNA. And usually, when people refer to genomics, they mean sequencing an organism’s genome. And that is assessing the exact order of every single nucleotide. Those are the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that you’ve probably seen that make up the chromosomes. And in the human genome, there are about three billion pairs of these nucleotides. That’s three billion with a B. So it was a monumental task to sequence the first human genome. And this project took place in the ’90s, ended in the early 2000s. So it took more than a decade to do. It cost billions of dollars. And it required the efforts of hundreds of researchers across the world who were all working in parallel to get this done. Fast-forward to today and the human genome now can be sequenced in days for under $1,000 by a single researcher. So this rapid advance in the technology has really spurred an entire ecosystem and community of research and commercial activity. And this ranges from environmental studies— Researchers are sequencing entire ecosystems to understand which microorganisms they contain. This spans plant and agricultural research. And then, of course, human health.

[Todd] So when you say you can now sequence a human genome in a matter of days, right? Is this like 23andMe? Is that what’s happening when you submit a sample to a service like that?

[Bernadette] Actually, no. Services like 23andMe and Ancestry and most of the direct-to-consumer offerings do not do sequencing. They do genotyping. And that’s, really— They take a subset of variants within the genome where there’s a lot of information known. And they are very, very quickly able to determine what version of those variants you have. So that’s sort of a shortcut to sequencing. That is not the entire genome. But things are moving in that direction. As the technology gets faster and cheaper, the thinking is that services like that and others will be actually providing the full human genome sequence.

[Todd] So when you talk about genomics as an area that you focus on with GenomeWeb, the online news organization, would that include things like DNA testing or 23andMe and Ancestry.com? Or is it something much more like a subset, a smaller focus that’s more scientific and industrial?

[Bernadette] Yeah. So this is a rapidly evolving field. So our scoop of coverage tends to evolve as the field develops. But really, we see it as our editorial mission to cover this entire ecosystem that has grown out of that initial sequencing of the human genome. So that really spans everything from basic research to single organisms, all the way through to how genomics is being used in clinical use today, as well as some of the direct-to-consumer offerings. We tend to cover the angle of these stories from a practitioner’s standpoint. So when we cover 23andMe, for example, we’ll cover aspects of their business that would be of interest to, say, their competitors or to their partners rather than their customers. In the case of other types of companies that are selling into the research community, we’ll cover both aspects of the market there, kind of the customer perspective as a scientist, if that makes sense.

[Todd] Sure. So it sounds like GenomeWeb, it’s not a research publication. Meaning it’s not a peer-edited, peer-reviewed research journal. It’s more of a trade publication or an industrial publication that probably includes a lot of research but also focuses on the applications of that research, the practical applications, and the business, the corporations that are involved in this, and where they’re getting funding, and what they’re doing with that money, and all of that.

[Bernadette] Yeah. That’s a very good characterization. We are a news organization first and foremost. And we would categorize ourselves as a trade publication in a lot of ways, in the sense that our readers are specialists in a particular field. But one thing that sets us a little bit apart from other trade publications, different from what you might see from IDG or a publisher like that, is that the field that we cover really comprises both the academic research component as well as commercial activity. So if we call it an industry publication, that’s really incorrect because it’s not just industry that we’re interested in. So like most trade publications, we do cover businesses in the market. We cover their financials. We cover their R&D strategies, new products they’re developing and launching, M&A activity. But we also cover research that’s being published in the field. So that means that our reporters really need to be able to have a comfort level with the scientific literature, be able to scan that, determine what’s news-worthy there, and report on that as well. So then on the reader’s side, on the audience side, both of these types of news are really of interest to all of our readers, whether they’re from academia or from industry. Because the researchers want to know what’s happening with the companies that are developing the technology they use. And then the people on the commercial side, they want to know how their technology is being applied in research. And then they also want to know what opportunities there may be for them in terms of new technology that’s emerging from academia. So really, our coverage appeals to both sides of our field, our market.

[Todd] Is this scope of coverage unusual for a publication? Meaning the most publications tend to fall on, “Well, we’re a research journal,” or, “We are an industrial journal,” or, “We just focus on healthcare and occasionally some of these issues creep in.” You kind of do all of the above. It’s the science. It’s the research. It’s the application. It’s the business. It’s the funding. Is that unique to GenomeWeb or are there other publications that have that kind of scope around an industry?

[Bernadette] I believe it’s unique. I may be wrong there. But from what I’ve seen— Again, most times it’s sort of a strict division. There’s trade publications that cover an industry or a market. And most times, every aspect of that market is commercial. And then there’s the peer-reviewed scientific literature that covers what’s going on in research. So because of the way our field is structured, that it’s such a research-focused field but there’s a very heavy commercial component to it, I think that is really what has made our coverage unique, where we’re trying to bridge these two worlds. And really, what we see is sort of a life cycle in that ecosystem, where new technologies are developed in academia. New sequencing technologies, they all started in a lab somewhere. Then they eventually make their way to commercial entities. They’re acquired. Their IP is licensed. Within the commercial world, they are developed. They’re refined. They’re productized. They’re marketed. And then, eventually, they’re sold basically back into academia where they’re used, where they’re applied. And then the findings from that research sort of are used as fodder to develop new technologies. And the cycle sort of repeats. So we see our mission to cover every single step in that process to get that sort of comprehensive coverage of really where new technologies are coming from, how they’re being applied, and what knowledge is being gained.

[Todd] So you have a fairly broad— Well, is it fair to say that you have a broad audience? Or are people in the genomics industry generally interested in and involved in every step of the process, from research to application?

[Bernadette] Yeah. That’s a good question. Genomics is a very, very small market in the context of the broader biotech world. So we are a niche of a niche [laughter] really when it comes to our scope of coverage. But within there, our coverage is very deep. And likewise, on the reader’s side, people are very specialized. So there are people who are on the commercial side who only look at the business side of their companies and how their companies are performing in the market. There’s others that are only focused on R&D, even within a single organization. So people have very defined roles. So from our perspective, not every story is going to appeal to every reader. But we do want to make sure that, within our broad scope of coverage, there is something to appeal to every type of reader within the market.

[Todd] In producing content, what are your primary channels or media that you work within? Text, audio, video, print, website? What’s your primary output?

[Bernadette] Yeah. Our output is very text-heavy. We had experimented in the past with video. Our readers like to read [laughter], we have found. And we’re online only. So there’s no print component, either. We primarily deliver our news via email newsletters. Our readers really rely on those as their source of information. And that is our number one source of traffic. Though, we do know a large number of our readers have our site bookmarked and come directly to it a couple times a day to see what’s new.

[Todd] And when you say that the newsletters are the number one source of traffic— Well, I should say email, that email is the number one source of traffic— Is that click-throughs from the email to the website or are you counting email opens and engagement and subscriber count?

[Bernadette] Right. We do track all of those metrics. But we always want people to click through and come to the website if possible. But we do also know that many of our readers view the newsletter as its own product. And they scan the headlines. And they never click through. We still will consider them to be a subscriber and a reader. If they’re getting value from it and they’re opening it every day, then we’re serving our role in keeping them informed.

[Todd] So what’s your revenue model?

[Bernadette] So our revenue model is a hybrid. We have about a 50/50 split between advertising revenue and then our subscription revenue for our premium content.

[Todd] What does the premium content offering look like? Is it gated content on the site? Is it access to a separate email newsletter stream? A combination of both?

[Bernadette] Yeah. So basically, we have— This is something that I have found is a little bit different from the way some other publishers provide their premium content. So we post on our site free content and premium content. But the free content is only available to registered users. So we’re basically asking people to register even what we consider to be free content. We do that because we want to make sure that we’re bringing in readers who will come back, readers who are really interested in what we’re covering, and frankly, readers who are of interest to support our advertising business. So we kind of need to capture their demographics right out of the gate in order to at least inform our advertisers on what type of people are reading our content. Once somebody is registered and reading our free content, they will come across our premium content. It’s all together in the same site. It’s very clearly marked. But at some point, as a reader, you’re going to click on a premium story. And you’re going to want to know what [laughter] it says, hopefully, if our editors are doing their jobs properly. And then you’re prompted to buy a premium subscription.

[Todd] And for a niche publication like GenomeWeb and the kind of industry that you’re covering and the kind of audiences that you’re serving, what is the value of premium content to them? Meaning if I were to sign up, what kind of cost am I looking at?

[Bernadette] Well, for our subscriptions, a single-user, full-year license is $985. We do really encourage companies to buy site licenses, which are based on the number of users. So the price per user reduces the more readers that you have on the license. We’ve found this seems like a high price point. But because we are the only news organization providing this information and we are reporting on news that really people can’t get anywhere else, it’s been a good price for us. And we have a very high renewal rate. Our readers do come back again and again. So it’s a value to them, from what we can tell.

[Todd] So there’s a lot of concern about publishing business models in general right now for obvious reasons. And this has been going on for years and years. As a trade publication that’s offering a very premium product at a high price but clearly delivers a lot of value to its audience, how are you weathering the winds of the change of publishing these days?

[Bernadette] Yeah. It’s been interesting. I mean, I’ve been with the company since 2000. So there has been a lot of ups and downs and convolutions [laughter] in our business model over the years. Since I’ve been CEO, we’ve made a number of changes. I mean, we, for example, did have a print publication which we had to close in 2012. We made the decision to move to online only at that time. And we also made the decision at that time to really concentrate on our subscription model and not be afraid to promote it and to ask people to pay for content that we knew was of value. One thing that has helped us is that we do have that hybrid model. So the subscription business has been very, very steady and has been very, very reliable for us. So we can really rely on that and rely on those renewals to protect us against the vagaries of the advertising business. And that’s where I think most publishers are really struggling. Especially ones that are still working on moving from print to online. Because for many, many years, print advertising was the only source of revenue for publishers. And it was a consistent source of revenue. And that’s really where the challenge has been, I think. But it’s not that much easier for online advertising [laughter], to be honest.

[Todd] What are some other trends that you’re seeing in the world of—and I’ll broaden this because there’s so many different areas that GenomeWeb fits into— What trends are you seeing in the world of trade publishing, research publishing, science publishing?

[Bernadette] Sure. I mean, I would definitely split that out. Trade publishing has different trends right now than research publishing. In trade, as I mentioned, there’s definitely been a struggle there for publishers to move to online. A lot of them are really very print-centric. But I think, in recent years, there’s been sort of a resurgence in sort of trade or B2B publishing with some new online publishers. And I think they’re doing a really good job. And I think they’re doing it with scale. So for example, Industry Dive and Breaking Media are a couple of brands that have launched, where their goal is to provide industry news for many, many, many different verticals. So they have a model. And once they get it to work, they move to a new vertical. And that’s worked well. And they’re also not very reliant on banner advertising. But they’ve done a very good job of producing sponsored content that is, I would say, not obnoxious for readers. Which is nice to see because it’s working for them [laughter] and it’s working for readers. So I think those guys on the trade side are doing a really good job. Also in the trade side, publishers like the information that is subscription only. Also, I’m happy to see that because we’ve seen it’s worked for us. And for them, I mean, it’s a much more competitive market. They’re covering all of IT and doing an excellent job of it. And again, they’re proving that, for people who are in the field, as long as you are producing content that is helping people do their jobs, they’re willing to pay for it. So that’s been great to see, I think. On the research side, the big issue there is open access. I think that’s been going on for well over a decade. And I think it’s a valid argument that research—

[Todd] What do you mean by open access? What does that concept entail?

[Bernadette] So the philosophy, I guess, behind the push to open access in scientific publishing is the fundamental idea that most research is funded by taxpayers. And it should be available to the public for free. But historically, scientific publishers put it behind a paywall that is prohibitively expensive. And if you’re at a university, you tend to have access to these journals through library licenses. But, I mean, for a typical university, those are hundreds of thousands of dollars. So universities—

[Todd] And these are services like— I’m trying to remember from my college days. Is EBSCO one of them?

[Bernadette] EBSCO is kind of a middleman that sells publisher subscriptions to libraries.

[Todd] Okay. They, like, bundle it or something.

[Bernadette] Exactly. Yeah. They try to find discounts and deals for libraries and other subscribers. But the big scientific publishers—Elsevier, Cell Press, Nature—have really come under fire in recent years for these pricing models that a lot of universities are having a hard time paying. And not even universities—for an individual citizen, for example. Say you want to read up on the latest developments in cancer. If you’re a cancer patient, you can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars to see what Nature’s publishing and what Elsevier’s publishing and what Science is publishing. I mean, it’s just too much money. And again, the argument is that if this research is being funded by public funds, then it should be publicly available. So there’s been a very, very ugly debate over that [laughter] for more than a decade or so. And what’s happened is— To counter this, there have been open-access publishers that have emerged. And some of them are great. So, Public Library of Science was one of the first there. And they have committed to making sure that all of their papers are open, publicly available to anybody who wants to read them. But what that means then is, in order to support their operations, the researcher publishing the paper needs to pay. And what’s happened from that is there’s what they call “predatory journals” that have emerged that are open access. Because they see this as a revenue source, they reach out to researchers, say, “Hey. We’ll publish your paper. It’s $1,000. It’s whatever amount.” And they’re not reputable journals. And they’ll publish literally anything. I mean, people have pranked them basically by submitting papers that were just literally gibberish. And they have published them because they got paid for it.

[Todd] So this is sort of like a vanity press but for research.

[Bernadette] Yeah. Well, I mean, the reputable journals in that area, they’re still peer-reviewed. Which is a key part of the process. That’s what ensures the quality of the work that’s being published. But the journals that are not reputable are not doing that [laughter]. They’re just taking the money. Yeah.

[Todd] Of course. Right. Oh, my goodness. Well, that’s fascinating. Let’s take a quick break. And when we come back, we will take a little bit about— Explore the trends in research publishing as well as acquisitions.

[Voiceover] The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. Our team creates digital experiences that delight, scale, and deliver measurable results. Whether you need an accessibility audit, a dedicated support team, or a world-class digital experience platform, the web chefs have you covered. Four Kitchens: We make BIG websites.

[Todd] Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Bernadette Toner, CEO of GenomeWeb, an online news organization that covers the genomics industry. So when we left off, we were talking about some trends in research publishing. I’m interested in learning a bit more about how acquisitions are working within the trade research science industry because we’ve seen so many major acquisitions within the publishing and media space over many, many years, going back to, well, forever. But it seems like it really picked up steam with the Telecommunications Act in 1996 as radio stations started to get purchased by large corporations. And it just sort of picked up steam since then. And then, of course, with the internet and revenue models becoming a little bit shakier, everything’s sort of been thrown up in the air. So in the publishing world, like in the magazine world, we’ve recently seen things like Time magazine, or Time Inc. rather, being bought by Meredith. Which was impressive [laughter]. There was a lot changing hands there. And, of course, GenomeWeb itself was recently acquired by Crain Communications, which is an organization that maintains a portfolio of trade publications, I believe, focused on small but very diverse sets of industries. I’m wondering, is this acquisition trend that we see in big media— Is that something that’s also part of a trend in the trade, research, or science publishing world?

[Bernadette] Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely been more of a trend toward consolidation in the trade publishing world over the past five years or so. A lot of that is because these publishers are struggling so much to find revenue models that work. A lot of them did not move aggressively toward reader-supported revenue. A lot of them did not move aggressively online. And I think, by the time a lot of publishers kind of woke up and figured out viable business models, it was really too late for a lot of them. So there’s been quite a lot of buying and selling for the survivors. Among the survivors, I should say. Within the trade world, most of that’s driven by private equity. So if there’s really questions about the sustainability there, there’s sort of a lot of companies being tied up together, bundled, sold to somebody else where they’re bundled again, sold to somebody else. What that means for the value of the information, what it means for readers, I think, is still kind of a question. In terms of us and our experience with being acquired by Crain, we were very happy with them as a buyer. They’re a family-owned business. And they have been around for over a hundred years. And they’re very, very focused on the quality of content on news, on journalism. So it was a very good home for us. And we’ve been very happy with the acquisition so far. And I don’t want to speak for them in terms of where they see the value in acquiring GenomeWeb. But I do know, in our conversations with them—and what we’ve seen as being part of the company so far—is it was really two key reasons they were looking at us. It wasn’t necessarily genomics, which they do see as a growth area and an exciting area as a vertical. But one was the fact that we were entirely digital. Which they’re not. They do still have print as well as online. And then the other thing was that we do have that hybrid revenue model where half of our revenue now is from subscriptions. And that’s actually quite unusual in trade publishing. So I do know that those were two things that were of interest to them. And then from our perspective, one trend that’s definitely been prevalent in trade publishing over the past decade or so is sort of a move toward events as content. So if you’re a trade publication, obviously, you’re expert in a certain area. And if you can create an event on that topic, bringing in your readers, bringing in your sources as speakers, it just kind of makes sense as an extension. And it’s a successful business that has really helped a lot of publishers survive. And in many cases, some trade publishers have really pivoted to consider themselves to be more event businesses with sort of their publishing as an add-on. And Crain Communications does have a very robust events business. And GenomeWeb does not. So that’s something that we see as an opportunity for us to really explore. There’s lots of conferences already in genomics. But if there’s a way for us to expand our business into a new area like that, we’re open to it. So that’s our experience.

[Todd] I’ve seen a lot of publications— One that comes to mind just locally— I live in Austin, Texas, and so we’re just around the corner from The Texas Tribune, which covers Texas politics. And it’s a nonprofit. And one of the things that they do every year is they hold a fairly large conference. I think it’s a three-day conference where they bring in politicians and speakers and all kinds of people to talk about national politics and state politics, all kinds of things. And it’s quite a draw. And I’ve seen that a lot of publications adopt that model. In your opinion, what do you think—and I realize this is probably unique for every publication—but from what you’ve seen in genomics and maybe with what Crain is doing with events, is it primarily that events are a revenue source? Is it that they are building the readership and audience base? Is it brand awareness? Is it kind of a little bit of all of the above? What’s the attraction?

[Bernadette] Well, it’s definitely all of the above. Depending who you’re talking to [laughter], maybe more one than the other. The fact that it’s a reliable business revenue model with a good margin, I think, appeals to the bean counters. But I think more strategically and in— Just higher level, one thing that’s interesting about trade publishing is you can really think of yourself as building a community as a trade publisher. And what you’re doing on a daily basis is bringing together your sources with your readers, buyers with sellers. And you become sort of a focal point for that community and for that industry. And it’s kind of a natural extension to take that sort of virtual community that’s either online or even in print, and bring those people face-to-face, and allow them to communicate and network and really share information directly, without the publisher as the intermediary. You’re bringing them to one place and allowing them to have those conversations and that share of information themselves. So I think, philosophically, that’s really why it works well and why it works for a lot of trade publishers and it seems like a very natural extension of their brands. In a lot of cases— For GenomeWeb, our challenge is—and this, again, is sort of where we’re different than a lot of other trade publishers—is because we are covering the world of science. The world of science already has a lot of conferences. And if you’re a scientist, you’re going to go to a scientific conference, not a GenomeWeb conference [laughter] where somebody’s going to try and sell something to you. So in that sense, a lot of trade publishers— Both the buyers and sellers are very aware that it’s a B2B world. And for our readership, that’s not always the case. So we have a little bit more of a challenge if we’re thinking about events. We want to make sure that we’re really providing information that, again, is of value to our attendees and is going to be something that they wouldn’t get from another conference or venue. But we do think there are some opportunities there. And we’re giving it a lot of thought.

[Todd] Well, certainly, events are content, so… 

[Bernadette] That’s true. Yep [laughter].

[Todd] Absolutely. Well, let’s close with this. I’m very interested to hear what you think about the future of genomics content. Where do you think that this industry content-wise is headed?

[Bernadette] Sure. Again, I guess maybe we could split that between sort of the trade side and the research side. On the news side, from GenomeWeb‘s perspective, what we’re doing is really trying to track where the field is going. Meaning new markets and new areas where genomics is really making an impact. So we’ve done that. We’ve actually launched two sister publications that are spin-offs of GenomeWeb in new markets that wouldn’t consider themselves to be genomics but are actually really feeling a lot of change and disruption from genomics. So in that case, for us, we launched a site that focuses on in-vitro diagnostics. Basically, blood testing. When you go to the doctor and get a blood test. Genomics and genetic data has really disrupted that entire industry. So we think there’s an opportunity to provide a news source for people in that market who are sort of struggling with adopting these new technologies, figuring out how to use them in the clinic, deciding whether they’re actually of value relative to very well-established technologies that have been used for years. So we launched that publication about three years ago. It’s called 360Dx. And it’s doing really, really well. So then we sort of said, “Okay. Well, what’s next?” [laughter] And that, from our perspective, is the area of oncology and cancer. Which is where, I think, clinically, genomics is making the most impact right now. So we launched a publication there just this past year called Precision Oncology News. And what our intention is there is to help clinicians, oncologists, people in cancer centers understand how the rise of genomics and the use of genomics is of potential value for treating cancer. This is something that’s still an emerging approach. A lot of people think there’s a lot of promise in it. It is by no means standard of care. There’s a lot of complexity to it. It’s very expensive. You need people who are very, very specialized and knowledgeable to be able to apply it correctly. So all of those challenges for us, as a news organization, represent an opportunity for coverage. So that’s a market that we think is ripe for, again, a community to be built.

[Todd] It sounds like two— Maybe I’m oversimplifying this, but it sounds like further specialization and building communities around those areas of specialty are some of the big trends that you’re seeing.

[Bernadette] Yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it.

[Todd] Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been fascinating. I really appreciate it. So until next time, everybody. Enjoy your content.

[Voiceover] You’ve been listening to The Future of Content, a podcast from the Web Chefs at Four Kitchens. Hosted by Todd Nienkerk. Produced by PJ Hagerty. Theme song is PAFRATY by DJ Listo. Find us on Twitter at FoCpodcast and get in touch by email at future@fourkitchens.com.