“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 sentences 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’s 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 spin-off 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.”