Rick Berke, Co-founder and Executive Editor of STAT
Join us as we explore the success of STAT – the fast-growing media company that uncovers and delivers trusted news on health, medicine, and the life sciences.
Rick Berke, STAT’s co-founder and executive editor, got his start as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, before spending the majority of his career at The New York Times where he served in various roles – from Chief Political Correspondent to Washington Editor to National Editor. When John Henry came calling in 2015 with the idea of a dedicated health and science digital media company, Rick put on his hat and gloves and moved to Boston to start STAT.
After being the first to break the COVID-19 story in January 2020, STAT became a go-to source for information during the pandemic with over 26 million visitors in March 2020 alone. In this conversation, Rick reveals where things have gone right (and wrong) since the company’s founding and we gain perspective on Rick’s ambitions for STAT as it expands to cover the science and politics driving healthcare systems all over the world.
Listen to full episode:
More from this episode:
- The coronavirus questions that scientists are racing to answer by Helen Branswell and Andrew Joseph, STAT, January 28, 2020
- Here’s why we’re not prepared for the next wave of biotech innovation by Matthew Herper, STAT, November 3, 2022
- On the campaign trail, Republicans ramp up anti-science, anti-Covid, often anti-Fauci messaging by Sarah Owermohle, October 25, 2022
- Medical Publisher Stat Tops 30,000 Subscribers and Nears $20 Million in Revenue, ADWEEK, September 2, 2022
- STAT urges Kentucky appeals court to uphold order unsealing OxyContin records, STAT, November 9, 2016
- In 1976, two Black & White reporters (Student News of Walt Whitman HS, Bethesda, MD) exposed a Soviet radiation scandal. Forty-four years later, we’re looking back, Black & White, May 1, 2020
David Stiepleman: Hello and welcome to ‘It's Not Magic’, a podcast from Sixth Street about business building that strips away the pretense and gets right to the useful stuff. I'm your host, David Stiepleman. We use this show to talk to founders and industry leaders to get them to explain in plain English what they set out to do and specifically how they do it. In this episode, we're speaking with the co-founder of a fast-growing media business that's leading the global conversation on health and science.
Rick Berke: In March of 2020, we went to 26 million readers in that month, like the dials were coming off. So, it was enormous validation of what we were doing, that people wanted to come to a trusted source and trusted our coverage. And so, people who'd never heard of STAT started reading us religiously, and there's been no turning back since then.
David Stiepleman: That's Rick Berke, the executive editor of STAT, the media company that delivers trusted news about health, medicine and life sciences and makes it accessible, interesting and urgent. Rick co-founded STAT in 2015 with the investor and philanthropist John Henry and the Boston Globe. STAT broke the COVID-19 story at least a month before everyone else. From its early warnings in January 2020, to its up to the minute reporting on the development of vaccines and treatments, to its ongoing review of how business, government, and the medical community performed during the crisis, STAT rose to the occasion. They grew their audience to over 30 million visitors in 2020. We discussed with Rick how STAT was built to anticipate and cover this kind of event and how they responded to that unbelievable demand spike for their reporting. We talked about the state of the public conversation around science, how Rick's background as a national politics reporter and editor at the New York Times shapes the science-focused media company. And we get into the business of media, what Rick and his team did right, and the mistakes they've made. We also hear how Rick dug up highly classified information and got an international scoop for his high school newspaper. STAT’s success may seem like an overnight sensation, but it's not magic. Let's jump in.
David Stiepleman: Rick Berke, thank you so much for being with us. It's great to have you. Can you take me back to the beginning of STAT, when John Henry calls you with this idea: all the great stories over the next however many years are going to be out of life sciences, and we should start a media company around that. And did you just say, ‘oh my God, I was thinking about the same thing?’ Or did you have to be persuaded *laugh*?
Rick Berke: Well, David, first off, it's great to be here. Thanks for inviting me. So the origin story of STAT is I was between jobs and I was approached by John Henry. He had just bought the Boston Globe a couple years earlier, and his pitch was: Boston is the epicenter of science and medicine, but it's not covered in a global way. And he had owned the Globe, but he thought it was a bigger story than a regional newspaper. So, he had the idea of a digital news company that was based in Boston but had a worldwide reach, and my first reaction was, ‘I don't want to move to Boston.’ I was living in DC at the time, it's cold in Boston, and I don't know anything about life sciences and I've never done a startup. So, all those things were working against my doing this. But from the first moment I talked to him, I was intrigued and interested and it didn't take much to convince me. So, after the outreach from John Henry, I was talking to other suitors about jobs from everything from established media companies to nonprofits to smaller operations. And I went to Kendall Square where the biotech is based, and I talked to people and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there's so many great stories here that are not being told.’ So, I was sold on the journalistic potential and I loved the idea that I could build something from scratch.
David Stiepleman: I'm super interested by the idea that you're a longtime politics reporter, White House correspondent, New York Times guy. Not a science person. How did you get smart talking to people? But how did you, for a generalist politics reporter, how do you conceptualize yourself as a leader of a science, healthcare, life sciences, biotech organization?
Rick Berke: Well, first off, I'm known more as a political reporter over the years. That's what I did. I was political editor for a long time, but for many years I had sort of an inside job at the Times where I was assistant managing editor, running the day-to-day news operation and running the day-to-day features operation for many years. And so, I did much more than politics over the years, but you wouldn't know it because it was kind of an inside role. I'd like to think I had a little more general experience editing stories of a broader nature, but by and large, you're right. I had no background in science or health, and what I did know how to do is hire the best people. It was a little daunting that I wasn't conversant in many of the subjects we're covering right now.
And I would argue I still am not, that's not really my role. My role is to build something where you have people that have years of experience and knowledge in covering these beats. And I think in some ways, my lack of knowledge may have helped because I could bring a fresh eye to building STAT and I could just ask general questions: ‘Who is the best reporter covering science and health? Who are they? What do they do?’ And I just put names down and educated myself, not so much on the subject matter as much as who the best people were to hire. And so, I hired people from the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters, Canadian Press, really top-notch people who knew what they were doing. I also hired some of the best people I could find coming out of college, some of the best younger journalists.
And I felt very strongly that science coverage to me was often boring and didn't grab me. And I thought there needed to be more news energy and more provocative, interesting coverage. But also I was aware that our credibility would be on the line and these are sensitive subjects that you can't always write so quickly in the way you might be able to turn around a political story. So, it was really important to me that we had people who did not make mistakes and knew what they were doing so I could push them to be more aggressive and ambitious, but never losing that credibility.
David Stiepleman: Right. Who was your first hire or who were your first couple hires that you remember thinking, ‘Gee, if I can get them…?’
Rick Berke: We had many great hires. One was Ed Silverman, who had come from The Wall Street Journal, who was a pharmalot columnist who had covered pharma for many years, so he had an instant audience that came with him. Probably one of the best hires I made was the late Sharon Bagley, who was one of the best journalists I've ever worked with in my life and was just an amazing hire. And she moved to Boston. She brought a lot of this authority and credibility. There's another hire that really has made a difference in the history of STAT who I almost didn't hire and that's Helen Braswell from Canadian Press.
David Stiepleman: She broke the COVID story. She's the one
Rick Berke: She’s the one who broke the COVID story, and I talked to her the first day I was at STAT. I was talking of calling various people, and I thought to myself, ‘Do we need an infectious disease reporter?’ I knew we needed biotech, I knew we needed to cover life sciences, hospitals, but infectious disease, again, I was trying to learn these different fields and also trying to figure out what's our audience and coming at it with no knowledge, no deep knowledge base. So I made poor Helen write three memos. I make everyone write memos about why they want the job, what they would bring to it. I spent months debating, ‘Do I want Helen, do we need this?’ And finally, I talked to some people who said, ‘She is the best at what she does. There's no one better at infectious disease reporting.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I want my bar here is I want all the best people in their fields in what they cover.’
David Stiepleman: What is that skill that Helen has? Is it she's incredibly well sourced? It must be also that she's able to take complicated stuff and boil it down so that someone like myself could understand it. What's the nub of that skill?
Rick Berke: What Helen brings to the beat is this is complicated stuff and she's covered disease outbreaks for many years. And she's on top of everything that happens. Every paper that comes out, she knows who to call and who's bogus and who really knows what they're talking about. So, when COVID happened, she was on top of it before anyone else, raising questions about COVID and writing dozens and dozens of stories in early 2020. In fact, one of the things that always stands out in my mind in early 2020, she was moderating a panel with Anthony Fauci, Ron Klain (who's now the White House Chief of Staff) and a couple other people. And Fauci said something like, ‘I'm not worried about COVID coming from China,’ – I don't know if it was called COVID then, or whatever it was.
He wasn't worried. And she stopped everyone and looked at the panel and said, ‘why are you not worried about this?’ She quizzed these federal officials because she had knowledge and she's covered this. I'm not saying Anthony Fauci isn't a brilliant guy, but all I'm saying is you need independent journalists who are raising these questions and have a deep base in covering these stories. And so, what we did is we had this deck of really skilled journalists. So, when COVID happened, they knew how to cover vaccines, they knew how to cover drug development, all these things that weren't front and center in the world before COVID. So we were ready to go. We didn't have to think, ‘Should we cover COVID or not.’ We just kept going. And again, it's a lesson for me, I'm glad I hired Helen because she single-handedly drove the coverage.
David Stiepleman: You had unbelievable demand shock, I would've thought. You went from however many subscribers a year to 30 million subscribers a year – something like a five or sevenfold increase for you guys. Were you ready for that?
Rick Berke: It was actually more than that. We had become profitable. We were doing well. We had a good business model, and our business model wasn't built on scale. We were comfortable with one and a half million uniques a month or something. In March of 2020, we went to 26 million readers in that month. The dials were coming off. So, it was enormous validation of what we were doing, that people wanted to come to a trusted source and trusted our coverage. And so, people who'd never heard of STAT started reading us religiously and there's been no turning back since then.
David Stiepleman: I was going to ask you that. Now, you're on this horse and it's running really fast or whatever the metaphor is. And, how'd you stay on it? Were you ready for that?
Rick Berke: Well, we did a couple things. I was worried at the beginning because we had built this events business and we had events planned for 2020 around the country. And I thought, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do? We, we can't do in-person events.’ But we quickly rethought our events business and kept going with the events and it turned out there was still this great demand (in fact, if anything, an increased demand) for discussions of health and medicine. So, what we ended up doing, to tell you the truth, is brought in more revenue because we didn't have to pay to stage the events, but virtually, the sponsors stayed with us. So, it surprisingly ended up doing well for us. And I also did something very quickly where I said, ‘There's so much attention to STAT –let's tell people that they could donate money for our COVID coverage.
So that opened up a whole line of revenue. And something we also did right at the beginning, I think it was before anyone else as far as I know, is we decided to make this coverage free – in front of our paywall - because we thought this is a public service. We just couldn't bring ourselves to charging people for it. And I think it was the right call because we never would've gotten that 26 million in readers. And what that did was it raised everything we do, it raised our profile, it led to helping our subscription business, our advertising business. And it wasn't a smart, intentional strategy. It was born out of, “The world's in this crisis and we can help.”
David Stiepleman: Let's rewind a little bit because you said at the beginning, not only did you never learn or you had to immerse yourself on a new subject matter, but you were a startup founder, and you hadn't done that before. So, what was that like? How did you get smart on that? Or what surprised you or what mistakes did you make in those first couple years?
Rick Berke: Well, first of all, I had to pinch myself because I thought, ‘this guy's telling me I can spend all this money and hire people, but can I really do this? Is anyone going to stop me?’ I think we are very lucky that John Henry had this vision for this media operation that was fully digital, and he believed in it. And I was a little nervous, ‘Will people really want to move to Boston and do this?’ And, and he kept saying, ‘They will do it. They will come.’ And his whole philosophy, which I've championed over these last seven years, is, if you produce great journalism, they will come. And if they don't, God help us all. So, it was founded in this view of really ambitious journalism. So my goal at the beginning was to start something that no one else was doing journalistically.
And we saw a vacuum because the way I studied the market, there were lots of trade publications in various areas of life sciences. There were academic publications, there were consumer publications like WebMD, and then there were the high-end journalistic publications like The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The New Yorker. But it's not their mission to cover health and science every day. So, I saw us having an opening for daily, great, ambitious journalism. So, when I edit a story for STAT, my expectations are no different than when I was editing a story at the New York Times. I see us playing with the big boys in terms of my expectations for the kind of journalism we do.
David Stiepleman: Can I ask you about that actually? When I read the New York Times, if I think a story is a great story (and I'm an amateur consumer, I'm just a regular person), but when I read a story, I think it's a great story, it's because I feel like I can trust the reporter, but also they leave me enough breadcrumbs on their work so that I can make my own decisions and do my own thinking about, “I understand what's being said and what's being unsaid here. I can evaluate the evidence for myself.” That's what I think. Tell me if that's a bad definition of good reporting. But to me that feels pretty good. You're saying it's kind of similar here, but I would've thought it's a little harder because I really can't weigh the evidence here because it's specialized. Do you think about that? Or is that the wrong question?
Rick Berke: I guess your question – is it too sort of technical or scientific that it's hard to give all sides?
David Stiepleman: I'll read a story in STAT, and I'll think, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ But I’m going to take a lot of things on faith that I might not take on faith if I’m reading a general news story in the Times.
Rick Berke: I want STAT’s stories to be accessible to a broader audience, especially our big projects and investigative stories. So, if you’re someone off the street who’s pretty smart and interested, you’ll understand and you’ll be pulled into the story. But I also want someone in the industry to feel like they’re learning something too. So I think what we offer is stories that are accessible to everyone, but if you’re in that world, you can learn something because we have the trusted sources and the knowledge. And when I was at the Times during a world crisis like 9/11, you could throw people on the story and it’s pretty clear cut. But with COVID, you can’t throw people on suddenly explaining how a vaccine works or drug development or who to trust. Or there were people coming at us who wanted to be quoted as experts because they had doctor before their name. And you have to know how to sort that out. You can’t throw an innocent reporter who doesn’t have years of experience onto some of these subjects. I’m not saying you can’t learn or grow, but I think our readers have trusted that we’ve had this deep knowledge from our reporters.
David Stiepleman: I assume your reporters become science reporters in part cause they’re enthusiasts, maybe they have an undergraduate degree in science, and do you have to counteract that as like a more generalist editor person?
Rick Berke: No, I think they know to ask harder questions. I do think I push them because I used to push this at the Times. I like tension and personalities and provocative stories because I think they tell the stories. You can convey a story often best through profiles or the personalities involved. So, I think we do more stories than a lot of science or health publications about the important scientists and the inside tension. When we wrote about Biogen, which had the most controversial drug approval in decades last year, we wrote about the almost collusion between the company and the FDA and the inside players – what was going on. That's the kind of story that I push for that a lot of publications who don't think big and pull back might not have approached it that way. So, I encourage our reporters to think ambitiously and make it interesting and pull the reader in. And don't be afraid of the drama in these stories. These are stories that touch everyone, people's health, and they matter to everyone.
David Stiepleman: A massive part of our economy, a massive part of what's important to people. Are you seeing that you're prompting a re-evaluation of how we think about, for example, drug approvals, like you were just saying, or how we fund innovation, how people become doctors? I think you guys had a story on that a couple years ago. There's some kind of “received wisdom” things about how we do stuff in healthcare that when you pull back are kind of messed up. Are you prompting a discussion on that do you think?
Rick Berke: Oh, I think we are. I think one of our senior science writers, Matt Herper, wrote a big piece like a month or so ago about, this is biology century, but here's all the trouble we're facing *laugh*. And it's been what this talked about story that we've been trying to get him to do that he's been talking about for a couple years.
David Stiepleman: We should link to it. It's a good story. It's the ‘We have all this wonderful innovation, we're building Ferrari, but our roads are still mud – we can't deliver stuff in the right way.’ It was a good story.
Rick Berke: So, I do think STAT is pushing the conversation and getting people to rethink how we view science. I mean, we celebrate great science. We have programs called the Wonder Kings and STAT Madness that identify the young talent around the country and breakthroughs in science, but we're also the first to write about bad players and the hype and all that. So, I think we do both. One of the first things we did when we launched was we sued Purdue Pharma and it was a suit that our lawyer said, ‘you'll probably lose and it'll cost tens of thousands of dollars and you'll probably lose.’ And I asked John Henry,’ should we do this?’ And he said, ‘go for it.’ And we won. Years later we won and resulted in all kinds of marketing documents.
David Stiepleman: You sued them under some freedom of information kind of thing?
Rick Berke: Yeah, in Kentucky. And it really contributed to a lot of the publicity out there about Purdue being bad players in marketing Oxycontin. And so, we have not shied away from controversy. So I do think we've started a real dialogue. Our platform called First Opinion, where people write opinion pieces, we've published thousands and thousands of opinion pieces from CEOs to patients, to people off the street, that really have led to a lot of discussions and perspectives about health and medicine. We get three or four times more submissions than we have room to publish, and we're very careful about the motives of people that we're publishing and the conflicts. And same with all our events. We just had a STAT summit in Boston with some of the leading minds in health and medicine where we discussed many of these issues on stage. But we don't do any kind of pay-for-play things that some other companies do where people pay to be on panels. Our journalism is rigorous. We don't take money from people that we don't trust or we think have an agenda.
David Stiepleman: I want to go back to the business model for a second because you're alluding to it. You were saying, ‘God help us if people don't want to pay for great journalism,’ turns out STAT is proving that people do want to pay for great journalism. Isn't there another element of it? And you said this too, it's kind of like, no one else was doing this in this space. And so I guess my question is, is this business model replicable more broadly for journalism or is it only going to work in niche spaces? And, has anyone else done what you guys have done? What John Henry and Globe Media or whatever it's called and STAT have done? And then let's talk about some other models. There's all this non-profit journalism stuff. We've had Evan Smith from the Texas Tribune on the show. You started your career in Baltimore where the Baltimore Banner is a new thing. I don't know if you follow that. What’s the right model? Can you replicate what you guys have been doing?
Rick Berke: I think STAT is a model. We have shown that in a relatively short amount of time, we could build a credible journalistic operation that is making a difference in people's lives. It's producing important journalism, but people are paying for it. And I think the trick here is there was a vacuum and a void here, and there was an opportunity for quality journalism. And it's all founded on quality journalism, that you can't get anywhere else that no one else was doing. And I think you could replicate that in a number of areas. And the joy of my doing this as much as the journalism is running the business. I love the fact that we are pulling in tens of millions of dollars in revenue because people want our journalism. That makes me very happy.
David Stiepleman: Tell me why you love running the business. How are you spending your days? What are you doing?
Rick Berke: We have a COO Angus McCauley who's been with us from the beginning, who's really wonderful and has built this business. I have been working with him and I toggle back and forth between editorial and business and everything. So, I'm thinking about story coverage, I'm thinking about hiring, I'm thinking about pay models and ways we can create products that generate more revenue. So it's hard to describe one day because I'm going from business meetings to journalistic editorial meetings. But I think one of the secrets to our success has been, Angus and I have a very close relationship, and in fact, our whole team works very closely together. So, he can come to me and say, ‘A sponsor's interested in doing a newsletter on X.’ And I can go back and say to my editorial people, ‘Does this fit with our editorial mission? Should we do a newsletter on X?’ And they'll say yes or no, and then we'll work together. Or we don't start anything until we have a plan or a business model. So, we have plenty of ideas for podcasts, but we don't launch a podcast until we have a sponsor or a revenue in advance. So, we do that with everything. And so we're small enough that we all work very closely together, and I think it really helps because we trust each other and it's very important to Angus that we not do anything to dilute the brand because he knows that's good business to have a brand that people trust.
David Stiepleman: How would you describe the culture of the team?
Rick Berke: We have a lot of fun. We don't hire people who are jerks. I've turned down people who are great journalists but aren't worth the effort. We are a very collaborative team. We have a lot of group activities with the entire company. I do a weekly check-in which I started during the pandemic where I interview every person who works at STAT from videographer to a marketing to managing editor, to a designer, to product person where if we talk about for a half hour or so, we talk about their lives and why they're at STAT and people show up and it helps build a sense of camaraderie and a shared mission. Let me give you an example. We have, you know, our developers could work anywhere and get a lot of money. They want to work at STAT because they believe in the mission and they believe in the people.
So, I think it helps us beyond the editorial group, we can attract high quality talent because people believe in what we're doing and they like the people. The other thing that we care a lot about is diversity and inclusion, and we've done a lot from the beginning. We got an outside diversity consultant who recommended that we form a diversity committee, and they came up with a report several years ago, that we've tried to carry out to diversify as best we can. The entire staff, both editorial and business and product. We still have a lot we want to do and need to do, but I think we've been very sensitive to the importance of diversity at STAT and in journalism and in the workplace.
David Stiepleman: I was on your website looking at your team and two-thirds of your team is women. I don't know if that's unusual for your industry. It's unusual for basically any other industry. I would've thought. So one, is that unusual? Two, it sounds like that was intentional. What's the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts of making it an inclusive workplace, of making people want to stay there? Presumably you want to be a magnet for great talent of all kinds. So what are you doing specifically? How are you doing that? What's the secret for the rest of us?
Rick Berke: First of all, to recruit talent, we go after the best people. And often we have people who want to come here, but also some of the best people have to be wooed and courted. And they're people that I've spent years trying to hire and you have to sort of make the case. And part of making the case is I tell them, talk to anyone you want and tell them what the culture is like. And we hired a former colleague of mine as our editorial director, Laura Chang earlier this year. She was at the New York Times for three decades. And she said, ‘everyone keeps telling me how great a place it is to work.’ And she started asking people, ‘What aren't you telling me *laugh*, what's going on?’ And no one had anything bad to say according to Laura and she took the leap from the New York Times.
So, I think it helped when you have people who are happy and they help with the recruiting. The other thing that I think is really important is, I want everyone to have a plan for career growth at STAT, whatever they're doing. And I feel very strongly that I don't want STAT to be a way station for the big leagues. I want us to do big league work and you'll see us compete in terms of awards. We're at the top of all these award competitions competing with much bigger news organizations. So, we don't have a huge staff, but we have huge ambitions. And I tell people not only do your best work at STAT, but I want you to grow and feel challenged. And that's not only for editorial, that's for business, product design. And as an example, we're opening, for the first time, an office in London for European coverage next year. And the person I recruited for that is a reporter named Andrew Joseph, who started with us seven years ago covering Kendall Square. He started with this neighborhood beat and now he's going to Europe and he also, by the way, was on the team that was a Pulitzer finalist for COVID coverage. But that shows in seven years his growth. And I think it's a model for everyone at STAT that you can build a career here.
David Stiepleman: I love that because I don't know if this happened frequently for you or not, but how seldom I think it usually happens that someone says to you, ‘Gee, where do you want to be in five years?’ That's a great question. You should be thinking about trajectory, but ‘How can I help you get there?’ The fact that someone has taken an interest in you like that and it builds incredible loyalty and it makes you want to be someplace because they've got your back. That's pretty good.
Rick Berke: And the thing I'm thinking about, David, all the time, is if so and so is recruited by a larger news organization and they throw money at this person, I want to make it as hard as I can for them to leave. I don't begrudge people. I want people to have great careers, and if they leave STAT they leave STAT. I understand that's life, but I want to make it hard for them. And we've had a couple people, for instance, leave for the New York Times and that's wonderful, but we've also had a handful of people turn down the New York Times who were happy at STAT and I'm very proud of that.
David Stiepleman: Yeah, I get that. When your former colleague Warren was going doing the rounds, what do you think the consistent… let me ask it this way. People are obviously consistent saying they were happy. Were they consistent on describing the mission?
Rick Berke: That's a good question. If I lined up everyone and asked them what the mission of STAT is, you might have different answers from different people depending on what their perspective is. But I would hope they would all say we have high quality, ambitious journalism that you can't find anywhere else that's important to people's lives and that's it. We had a consultant early on, and this consultant who was puzzled that our COO and I had different views of who the competition was. I was looking at like the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he was looking at more trade, smaller publications. And this consultant we had thought, ‘That's screwed up. You guys aren't on the same page.’ And it turns out that was exactly why we succeeded because we didn't have competition. I mean, we have competition, but there was not one person or one news organization that had to worry about us because it didn't exist.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. You both had to come up with analogs, someone was doing something great, someone's doing something specific, you want to be at the intersection of those things. And no one was doing that.
Rick Berke: We didn't come in saying ‘We're going to get this, you know, X company that does what we do.’ No one was doing what we do.
David Stiepleman: That's pretty cool. The Read Out Loud, your podcast, they did an episode on a story by your colleague Sarah Owermohle, is that her name?
Rick Berke: Owermohle? Yep.
David Stiepleman: Right. She did a story on anti-science rhetoric around the midterms. And I'm less interested in the specifics of that than I am in thinking about the mission. For however many years, since 2016, there have been a million stories about how just explaining things to people clearly, really doesn't do anything *laugh&. Right? And so is writing more clearly about science and the scientific method and all the great things that are going on in research, do you see it as your mission to be helpful there to try and get people back into enlightenment style thinking, or you're going to call balls and strikes and wherever it falls, it falls?
Rick Berke: Right. I think we see it as our mission to not be political, to explain the science as best we can, to call it as we see it, and hope that that will help the public discourse and that people see us as a trusted source. But we can't take on the responsibility of changing the public sentiment out there. We can hope that STAT helps raise the discussion and the level of discussion. And we can punch holes when there's bad players out there. Whether they're spreading lies about Covid, or whether they're putting out smoke and mirrors about how many people have said, ‘My company will solve cancer, you know, in X years.’ So we try to be a watchdog, but beyond that, all we can do is hope for the best and hope we will have an impact.
David Stiepleman: I'm interested by the comment that you're not trying to be political, which I assume you're not, but are you tracking that? How do you track that? I assume you have all kinds of ideal splits of younger versus older readers, U.S. versus non-U.S. Do you have Republican and Democratic readers? Can you track that or do you get a sense of where they're clicking from?
Rick Berke: We don't ask that. We have a sense of occupation and income and all that stuff, and industry, but we don't have a sense of partisanship. One of the things that I'm grateful for is journalism is really tough in the age of Trump, where everything is looked through a political lens. And you mentioned Trump or whatever, and you're attacked. And we had a little taste of the vilification when we'd write about, you couldn't ignore writing about the Trump White House and what was going on, but even the most innocent stories, we'd be attacked as partisan or whatever. And so, I'm glad though that most of what we do does not have any kind of political lens. I mean, you can't help it. And we don't shy away from that. We write about deficiencies in the Biden White House and the Trump White House and health and medicine and we don't shy away from anything. But I'm glad that most of what we do is founded in health, science, medicine, important subjects, and what's being done with cancer, where are we on various diseases and so forth.
David Stiepleman: I've appreciated the publication's unpacking of the Inflation Reduction Act and trying to figure out what's really going to happen on these pricing mandates and talking to CEOs and trying to figure out the most credible reaction or prediction of what's going to happen. It’s been, as far as I can tell, down the middle.
Rick Berke: I feel very fortunate. It's easy for me to say we can be replicated, but you have to have a billionaire who's going to come here and finance you and have the patience to have some losses at the beginning. And I think it paid off. I think we've built a very valuable company that's profitable. And our year over year revenue is 21 to 22% over last year. And every year since we were established, our revenue is going up in all areas – advertising, events, subscriptions, everything is going up. And we're fortunate that our owners say, ‘You could put this profit back into building out the company.’ So, they're not looking for this huge EBITDA, they're looking for reinvestment. It was very important to John Henry and Linda Henry that we prove that STAT could be self-sustaining. It was just more a psychological or a business thing. We want to prove that you can do this. Once we did that, they said, ‘do what you want and reinvest. We want STAT to grow.’ And so, we're very fortunate to have owners with that perspective.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. And hopefully the model or the success that you've proved over the seven years makes it so that the enlightened billionaire isn't the only way to do this and that other people are going to put their money into it. Can I ask you a question? You always wanted to be a reporter. I've heard you say that in other contexts. Why was that? Tell me why as a kid you were like, ‘This is what I want to do.’
Rick Berke: Well, what I've realized, you know decades later is that what I've really wanted to do is what I'm doing right now. And I started a newspaper at home when I was in the third grade. It was called ‘Berke Life.’ And I took the Life Magazine logo and put Berke in it. And I brought it to the public library and made copies and so forth. And I was always interested in everything about the printing, the headlines, the story, the reporting, everything. And I saw a house ad, someone for a birthday dug out the copy of ‘Berke Life,’ and it said, there's a little house ad, and it said, ‘We have the best reporters.’ And I just did that when I was this little kid, and that's been my mantra through my career and life.
I remade our junior high paper, I remade our high school paper. I went on to the college paper. And at the New York Times, I was pushing and pushing. I love being a reporter, but as an editor, I wanted to create and build and innovate. And it's so funny, I used to say at the New York Times, ‘We have the best reporters’ and I say at STAT, ‘We have the best reporters.’ So there's something in my system that led me to this moment where I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do. And it's taken a while for me to figure that out. But it's true.
David Stiepleman: It seems kind of fun. Do you remember a big scoop that Berke Life put out there? Anything controversial?
Rick Berke: Well, I could tell you the biggest scoop of my career was when I was a senior in high school and I wrote a story with my colleague Mike Gill about Nixon being exposed to microwave radiation when he was in Moscow for the kitchen debates. And candidly, Mike's father knew the CIA guy who gave us a story, so it wasn't like a great digging, but we had this big scoop and it was right around the time that “All the President’s Men” came out. And the AP reporter did a story on us and said, ‘You guys look like the guys in the movie. I have to send a photographer,’ so they sent a photographer to take our picture. We were emblazoned on newspapers, magazine covers worldwide as high school seniors – smelled a scoop - the young Woodward and Bernstein.
David Stiepleman: And there was a science angle to it too, with the microwaves. That's amazing.
Rick Berke: Right, *laugh*. And then 10 years later, I was in my first year at the New York Times and I was sitting there with one of our reporters who said, ‘I just got this unclassified document that Nixon was exposed to microwave radiation at the kitchen debates.’ And I said to this reporter, ‘Oh, I broke that in high school, *laugh*.’ And he said, ‘You're shitting me. You didn’t.’ And I said, ‘Check the clips.’ And so he couldn't do the story because I had broken it in high school *laugh*. So, my reporting career's been downhill since then.
David Stiepleman: Yeah, it sounds like it.
Rick Berke: That story in the seventies.
David Stiepleman: That's unbelievable. All right, so seven years in, I feel like this is kind of like a biblical time period. What's the next seven years look like for STAT? Where do you want to be?
Rick Berke: We want to just keep building and growing, and I think my philosophy is ambitious, but judicious. Be careful. Don't overdo it. Be thoughtful about where you're growing. And I think one of our biggest challenges right now is, part of our success has been that we're a close-knit, collaborative operation. And now we've gone from one person, me, to over a hundred people. And as we get bigger and bigger, I don't want to lose that collaborative spirit. But we are bigger. We've gone from startup to a little media company. And so, I want to carefully grow, but I have big ambitions. I mean, this reporter that I mentioned we're putting in Europe, that to me is only the beginning of our international interests. Our readers are clamoring for European coverage. I'd love to cover in Asia. We're adding a lot of disease areas, we have a cancer reporter we're hiring this week, we just hired a reporter covering heart disease. There aren't publications that are mainstream publications that have people covering these specific areas. So, we want to be the place to go in all these disease areas. And the other thing we're doing that I'm very proud of, that's kind of a hybrid business model, is I thought it was very important that we cover racism in science.
David Stiepleman: I was just about to bring that up. That podcast that you guys do on the differential impact of healthcare outcomes for people based on races is really good and important.
Rick Berke: And we also have one of our top reporters, I put on our mission a couple years ago, I said, ‘I want you to investigate race in science and health at companies, at institutions, whatever.’ And that's not the kind of stories so far that we can easily put behind a paywall because it's not quite, the people who buy STAT subscriptions are a little more industry oriented. But we thought it was very important, obviously, to cover. So, I went out and got grant funding for that. And we did that with the color code podcasts. What we do is areas that we're not sure we want to paywall that are for a bigger general audience, we try to be creative in looking for ways to fund them. So, we're a bit of a hybrid. We do subscriptions, we have an audience that's very much into the industry and what we do, but we also have a much broader audience of millions of people.
David Stiepleman: I think the culture thing is going to be a huge challenge as you get larger, to keep that feeling of it being a startup, of it being close knit, of there being collaboration, and how you get that to self-execute across a larger population. Do you have any kind of specific things in mind that you're going to do to get that right or you're going to just be focused on it?
Rick Berke: We hadn't been able to do this in a long time, but we had a summit, a couple weeks ago, about 50 people of our editorial people from around the country. And we just spent the day and a dinner, talking about each other. ‘What's your biggest frustration in getting a story?’ or ‘What drives you crazy about your editors?’ Let's, let's have a group discussion. It was more important for people to get to know each other in person. And then we ended it with STAT Jeopardy. We had about eight teams, the history of STAT. And it was just a way for people to get to know each other even better. And I think it's very important, particularly the new people, particularly the people who aren't at headquarters in Boston, to feel part of the team and part of what we're building.
So, we also have something that we stole from another news organization where everyone has a buddy at STAT where someone they can turn to who's been there longer, who knows the ropes, who can tell them the gossip and sort of how to survive STAT. And let me just say my philosophy at STAT is we have very high expectations. It's not like a walk in the park to work here. Our people really are productive and work really hard, but I want them to feel they're doing great work and that they're rewarded and they're having fun. And I don't think those are mutually exclusive.
David Stiepleman: It doesn't seem like it. I think I'll just wrap up by saying if our vast listenership has not yet been to see what you guys are doing, it's amazing. You learn a lot every time you click on a story or listen to one of the podcasts and it's an incredible product that's incredibly high-quality. And congratulations. It's just great.
Rick Berke: Well, thanks David. I really appreciate your interest and it's fun to talk about STAT.
David Stiepleman: That was Rick Berke. We had a great conversation on November 28th, 2022. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Here's what we learned. First, STAT’s focus on healthcare and science has been a key to its success. They're telling important stories with broad themes and implications through an important lens, and tapped the big, high-quality audience that no one else was addressing in quite the same way. Second, hiring an experienced team can jumpstart a business, but so does investing in young talent. Rick found a fine line between forming a team he could trust with both doing great work and protecting the organization's credibility while making sure that STAT has boatloads of ambition running through its veins. Third, seize the moment. STAT had the team in place during COVID from the reporting, the editorial, the operations perspectives to move quickly and with confidence across all aspects of its organization. As a growing business, you only get so many big opportunities, and they rose to the occasion as a business and provided a critical public service in the process. And finally, I loved Rick's realization that he's not just a dyed-in-the-wool reporter, but he loves all aspects of producing accessible and urgent stories and figured out that running a media business is actually doing what he always wanted to do. Figure out what you like doing minute to minute, maximize the time you spend doing that thing. The rest takes care of itself. Thanks again to Rick and the STAT team. We're going to keep reading.
You've been listening to ‘It's Not Magic’, a Sixth Street podcast. You can read more about our guests on SixthStreet.com and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed today's podcast, please share it and follow @SixthStreetNews on Twitter for more on the show and our firm. Thanks to Sixth Street’s production team, Patrick Clifford and Ritvi Shah, putting this together with Sound Engineering by Stephen Colon. Our theme song is, ‘It's Not Magic’, an original creation by Patrick Dyer Wolf. Once again, I'm David Stiepleman. Thanks for listening.
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