Scientific American, the oldest U.S. magazine, hits another milestone as the appetite for science news heats up

As climate change and the pandemic transformed the credibility of science into a political issue, an old magazine covers some hot topics.

August 31, 2020
Category: Business & Work

While the nation’s news cycle was focused last week on Hurricane Laura, the Republican National Convention and protests over another painful police shooting, the country’s oldest continuously published magazine celebrated its 175th birthday.

Not all that quietly, either. Scientific American’s special anniversary issue dropped Friday. It has two themes — articles of note from that very long lifespan woven into features on the biggest things we have learned about science and how we learned them over the last 175 years.

A digital version is available but not for free. That will cost you $6.95.

(Scientific American)

I spoke with editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth, who moved into the job from directing health and science coverage at The Washington Post five months ago. (Mariette DiChristina, editor for the previous decade, departed to become dean of Boston University’s College of Communications).

It’s a dream job, Helmuth told me, capping 20 years as a reporter and editor in the field, after having earned a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California Berkeley. “I love this magazine. It’s been around forever … and I want to make it even more influential.”

Helmuth’s educational background and even Scientific American itself may seem daunting to otherwise smart readers who struggled with high school physics. But not really. The magazine’s mission, besides producing smart journalism on a range of science topics, is to make all that intelligible to the non-specialist.

Roughly half the articles are by practitioners rather than journalists. Thus helping those scientists write clearly is a good chunk of the work. (Helmuth said her own science doctorate has rarely come into play in reporting and editing except for “cultural competency” when talking to professionals.)

Part of Scientific American’s purpose is educational, Helmuth told me, “to increase people’s curiosity and interest, to build capacity.” Read some, the hope is, and you’ll want to learn more.

Right now is a teachable moment, as the cliche goes, as lay people wrestle with the riddle of community spread or now may for the first time get the distinction between a virus and bacterial infection.

I visited the Scientific American formula five years ago in an article occasioned by the magazine’s 170th anniversary — and a special issue on one-time contributor Albert Einstein.

I wondered whether its digital site had developed into an on-the-news daily supplement like Atlantic.com or NewYorker.com.

The answer is yes. When I checked it out Thursday, the three lead stories were a look at how storm surge has been altered by climate change, a story on the crisis in COVID-19 treatment in India and another asking whether redwoods can survive the California wildfires.

The site also found room for a typical Scientific American feature on something non-obvious but worth knowing. A piece titled “Medical Education Needs Rethinking” noted that the current system of highly selective admissions and a lengthy and expensive track to medical licensure dates back to the influential Flexner Report — published in 1910.

The mix in the anniversary issue is similarly varied. One piece considers whether a hundred years of successes of drugs and vaccines bred complacency about controlling infectious diseases.

Among the greatest-hits offerings was a tale of the 19th-century Scientific American editor who designed and built a demo of an air-driven subway — only to have it scuttled for political reasons by New York City’s Boss Tweed.

Helmuth said that besides working at publications including Science, Smithsonian and National Geographic, she has sampled various kinds of science journalism. A stint at Slate was mainly devoted to opinion pieces. That is proving especially relevant in 2020 as the credibility of science is rushing to the forefront as a political issue.

Add in climate change and the pandemic, and science has become a hot topic, Helmuth said. Witness a growing roster of such strong competitors — the long-established Science News and relative newcomers like the Boston Globe’s Stat, InsideClimate News, and the digital Undark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Helmuth has identified three immediate editorial priorities:

  • Moving beyond first-order pandemic coverage to considering problems in public health more generally. International collaboration will be paramount going forward since the virus and its spread so obviously do not respect borders.
  • Even before George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, “we knew we needed to improve diversity and inclusion,” Helmuth said, meaning both a more diverse staff and more content specific to minority concerns. That will be critical too, Helmuth added, to engaging a younger audience.
  • Finally, “misinformation and the science of misinformation” will be turning up in the magazine and its site more and more often.

As for a five-year vision for Scientific American, Helmuth said that will take longer than the five months. “It’s a very stable model,” she said, and so well-established that top-notch freelancers are not hard to find.

The stability extends to business. The magazine has been profitable and will be in 2020, she said, though she and a spokesperson declined to provide more detailed financial information. It continues to publish in print every month at a time many other magazines have been cutting back on frequency.

Of course, Helmuth said, Scientific American has lost print advertising this year just like every other magazine or newspaper.

Likewise, newsstand sales, smallish in number but highly profitable compared to discounted subscriptions, have crashed. The days of buying a half-dozen magazines at the airport for a coast-to-coast or transcontinental flight were already on the wane in the digital era. Now air travel has nearly gone dead.

Circulation is holding reasonably steady at 300,000 — 240,000 print plus digital, another 22,000 digital-only, and the balance from other categories.

Scientific American has been published by Springer Nature since 2015. So it does not face retrenchment from lavish spending as, for instance, does the Condé Nast group. Nor would it appear in any danger of being part of a fire sale to individual buyers as happened to Time and its sister titles, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.

Sure things in these turbulent media times are a rarity. However, I will rashly predict that old-timer Scientific American is a pretty good bet to reach its 180th or even 185th birthday.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

Correction: Scientific American is published by Springer Nature, not Axel Springer.