If a Pharmaceutical Company Publishes a Magazine, Is it Journalism?

Last summer, the German marketing firm TLGG approached Kira Peikoff, a freelance journalist, with an unusual request: Would she be interested in starting a magazine? The publication would cover the ethical and social implications of new biotechnologies. Peikoff would have total editorial control.

The Science Press Under the Microscope.

She would also have a powerful client footing the bill. Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and agricultural science conglomerate, would be rebranding an initiative that invests in high-risk, high-return projects, including in controversial areas like gene editing and stem cell research. As part of its communications strategy, the initiative — now called Leaps by Bayer — wanted to launch a digital magazine.

Peikoff has covered science for The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and other national publications, and she has a master’s degree in bioethics from Columbia University — a résumé that seemed to make her a natural fit for the role. She also writes thriller novels, including one that features a scientist whose groundbreaking stem cell research is choked by excessive government regulation.

Peikoff took the job, and LeapsMag launched quietly last fall, with stories about Alzheimer’s diagnostics and gene therapy, and an essay defending the use of CRISPR to edit embryos’ DNA. Since then, it has published a mix of reported features, interviews, and opinion pieces. Its roster of contributors includes scientists, ethicists, and veteran science journalists.

This may be the first time a biotech company has launched a media venture. And while LeapsMag is still small, it raises some big questions. What happens, after all, when a pharmaceutical company starts a magazine? And perhaps more pointedly for science journalists: Is editorial independence even possible when a multinational company is funding the entire operation?

I first learned about LeapsMag earlier this year, when Peikoff emailed to see if I was interested in accepting a freelance assignment. The rate she offered — $2.00 per word — was much higher than the industry standard. After learning about the Bayer connection, I chose not to accept the assignment, concerned that taking money from Bayer, even indirectly, would compromise my ability to report on the company. But a few weeks later, still curious about the magazine’s model, I arranged a conversation with Peikoff.

Peikoff says that she hesitated when TLGG approached her last year. “I’ve always been an independent journalist, and I’m not interested in corporate publicity,” she said. Bayer assured her that she would have full editorial independence — and, she says, they have so far kept that promise.

“I have total control over the content,” Peikoff told me. “I created the sections, I’ve come up with all the article ideas, they don’t look at anything in advance, they don’t ask me what I’m going to do, they have no veto power.”

Still, in an email to Undark, a freelance science journalist who was a finalist for the LeapsMag role that ultimately went to Peikoff reported feeling “uneasy” about the project as it was described in meetings with Bayer. “It was clear that, yes, they did want an independent publication, as long as it didn’t criticize ethical issues that touched on Bayer, such as the big Bayer-Monsanto merger which is under review right now,” wrote the freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid the appearance of publicly criticizing other contract writers who may decide to work with Leaps. The Monsanto merger, this person added, “was specifically off the table.”

In a brief follow-up phone call, the freelancer stressed that the company never gave any signal that it would aggressively dictate coverage. “It wasn’t a directive,” this person said. “It was more, they were paying your checks.

So what’s in it for Bayer? I asked André Guillaume, the Head of Identity Management for Leaps by Bayer, why the initiative wanted to start a magazine about bioethics. He pointed out that companies in the industry usually enter these kinds of thorny conversations only under duress — and then they push a particular position. “We said, okay, we want to communicate differently. We don’t want to impose opinions on people or just tell the world what we think and that they should think the same,” Guillaume said. “We really rather want to present a broad bandwidth of opinions out there.”

“We have zero influence on the content,” he added.

Both Guillaume and Peikoff are aware that readers may have concerns. Before the magazine launched, Peikoff told me, someone advised her to put a statement on the magazine’s website explaining why she took the job, and how she thinks about editorial independence. She wrote up a few paragraphs that now appear on the LeapsMag site.

But first, she sent her independence statement — which asserts that she is not beholden to Bayer — to Bayer. “I was worried that it might ruffle some feathers,” Peikoff told me.

To her delight, they liked it.

Editorial independence is a slippery concept, and it refers to more than specific decisions over specific pieces of content. “The only people who have editorial independence are the people who have the money,” wrote Paul Raeburn, a longtime science journalist and media critic (and a onetime Undark columnist), in an email message. “Any editor — whether employed by a pharmaceutical company, a newspaper, or a news website — is subject to dismissal or demotion. That can severely limit editorial independence. And editors are dismissed for all kinds of reasons all the time…They serve at the desire of their publishers.”

That dynamic poses challenges for traditional publications, too — just witness the conversations around Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post — but it points to distinctive pitfalls in a case like LeapsMag, in which a company funds a magazine that reports on issues directly relevant to that company’s bottom line.

Among those pitfalls: If the magazine’s content is too critical of emerging technologies, will Bayer simply cut off funding? And can LeapsMag actually report on Bayer, one of the world’s largest players in the biotech field?

Guillaume insisted that Peikoff could run pieces critical of Bayer and the kinds of research in which it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars. And he expressed a hope that other funding sources or partnerships — including, possibly, with other biotech companies — could one day help LeapsMag grow independently of Leaps by Bayer.

The magazine’s articles have indeed offered some critical perspectives on certain life science innovations, although the balance of pieces so far have focused on the bright promise of biotechnology. Some of those pieces, like one titled “A Drug Straight Out of Science Fiction Has Arrived,” highlight the work of Bayer’s competitors. One story, headlined “Why Aren’t Gene Editing Treatments Available Yet For People With Genetic Disorders?,” discusses the work of CRISPR Therapeutics and Casebia Therapeutics — a Leaps by Bayer partner company, and a Leaps by Bayer spinoff company, respectively — without disclosing the connection.

LeapsMag is launching at a time when the lines between journalism and sponsored content can sometimes seem to be blurring. While the magazine’s creators insist that they want to publish journalism, they may not be able to avoid occupying a gray zone, somewhere on the borders between journalism and native advertising.

“For this to have any credibility with readers, it really has to be this neutral thing,” said Peikoff. “And I think all of us knew going into this that our biggest challenge was how to present this case, and how to really showcase this for readers so that we could gain credibility. And that’s something I’m still working on.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include input from a freelance science journalist who was also courted for the editor in chief position at LeapsMag. We’ve reached out again to Bayer for a response to the freelancer’s concerns, and will update the story again as needed.

Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer covering science, religion, technology, and ethics. His work has been published by Pacific Standard magazine, Aeon, New York magazine, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, and he writes the Matters of Fact and Tracker columns for Undark.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.