Never forget that humility is the mark of greatness

Luke Timmerman, Founder and Editor of Timmerman Report

Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.

Luke Timmerman is an award-winning journalist who has focused on biotechnology for more than a decade. He is the founder and editor of Timmerman Report, a biotech newsletter. Prior to this, he covered biotechnology at The Seattle Times, Xconomy, and Bloomberg News. He was also named one of the 100 most influential people in biotech in 2015 by Scientific American. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m focused on writing two to three articles a week for Timmerman Report, my subscription newsletter for biotech executives and investors. But I’m also still actively spreading the word and giving talks about my book, “Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age” which came out last fall. My newest venture is a new podcast called “The Long Run,” a production of Timmerman Report. This show will consist of in-depth, thought-provoking conversations with biotech newsmakers. It should be ready to debut this fall.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?

Doing journalism on the Internet is extremely challenging. We’re about 10-15 years into a period of true upheaval in the printed-word media business. Schumpeter famously called it “creative destruction.” It continues every day. I’m fortunate to have carved out a niche with readers who recognise the value of my reporting, and are willing and able to pay for it. I hit my goal of getting 1,000 annual paying subscribers in the first year of Timmerman Report (2015) and haven’t looked back. More than 50 corporate groups have obtained group licenses to Timmerman Report content, which I’m very proud of. But no question, I’m going against the grain of consumer expectations. Many readers dislike the prevailing advertising-based media business models on the web, and want to get rid of ads. But for a variety of reasons, getting people to switch to subscription models is tough. It’s a non-starter for most readers. At least in 2017 it still is.

Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months. 

A growing acceptance of low-priced subscription models among consumers, who recognise this as a sustainable path for quality journalism.

What are you most proud of in your career? 

Mustering up the personal savings, the confidence, and the persistence to start Timmerman Report in February 2015. Once that was on a strong footing, the next year, it was time to publish “Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age.” This is my best work to date. It’s a human story that resonates with scientists close to the action, is easy to read for non-scientists who are curious to learn more about genomics, and is an inspiring tale for young people.  

Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?

Barbara McClintock would be fascinating to meet, because of her pioneering work in biology and the obstacles she surely had to face as a woman in science. Neil de Grasse Tyson would be fun to talk with, especially about how to bring science in all its messy glories to a mass audience that’s often intimidated by the subject material, or swayed by misinformation. Siddhartha Mukherjee would be another lively guest, as someone who seemingly can do it all as a physician-scientist-author. George Church is doing all kinds of interesting things at the moment. He’s very much a scientific entrepreneur in the mold of a Lee Hood.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

When I was starting out in journalism 20 years ago, popular media outlets didn’t tend to encourage reporters to specialise. You’d immerse yourself in a subject for a few years – courts, the statehouse, science, business – and then move on to some new challenge. There were good reasons for this. Editors didn’t want to see writers get stuck in a rut, or get too close to their sources to report with a strong independent spirit. There are advantages as a journalist in remaining a generally curious person, an intellectual omnivore of sorts who reads about a variety of topics, keeps tabs on popular culture, etc. That can help to stay in touch with lay readers. But I think in today’s crowded information commons, it’s important to have a specialty in order to stand out. I’d encourage young reporters today to try to find a subject area they can imagine sinking their teeth into for many years, and developing some domain expertise along with a strong source network. Then continue to read widely so as not to develop tunnel vision, and to keep writing in an accessible way to the lay reader. Science, and many other fields, depend on having knowledgeable and trustworthy journalists who can keep us informed in our increasingly complicated, networked world.

Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution


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