August 27, 2015

The oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, Scientific American, is marking its 170th birthday this week — cause for a promotional celebration at its New York offices Wednesday night and also an occasion to look at the title’s secrets to longevity.

To get a little Darwinian, the publication had a strong, sustaining concept from the start, stuck with that idea for the long haul, but also adapted with variations as times changed.

Mariette DiChristina

Mariette DiChristina

The first issue in 1845, editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina reminded me in a phone interview, carried as a subtitle, “The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise, and Journal of Mechanical and Other Improvements.”

The current media kit claims that Scientific American’s eclectic mix of readers, “all have one thing in common – a thirst for visionary, optimistic and science-based solutions in a world filled with complexities and fluff.”  Same point as in 1845 but with a 21st Century spin.

That puts the magazine in the same elite family as The Economist, The Atlantic and National Geographic but with the extra sharp focus on science and accessible writing honed through the years.

Not that it’s all been a smooth ride for Scientific American:

  • The magazine, born as the industrial age was taking root, was sold after just 10 months, providentially to an entrepreneur who also made it a clearinghouse for patent applications through the rest of the 19th Century.
  • When the magazine was faltering just after World War II, Gerard Piel and two collaborators were planning to launch a new science magazine.  They bought Scientific American instead and invented its current format.
  • While print audience has held steady the last six years and digital uniques quadrupled, print advertising has cratered. The August issue weighs in at a svelte 92 pages with 14 pages of what appear to be paid ads and another 4 of house ads.

Also in trying to build an even wider audience for Scientific American, DiChristina sees public perception as problematic. Non-readers may think the articles are high-quality stuff but pitched to those who aced Advanced Placement chemistry. “Actually, I think we are the opposite of arcane. I would call (the content) vital.”

As anecdotal evidence, DiChristina offers that readership of Scientific American’s main online site “is nearly 50-50 male/female. That suggests that the articles people care about and come to us for have wide appeal, especially if you take away the barrier of (it’s being) ‘science.’”

Besides looking for stories that bear on “science as an underpinning” for solutions to “things the world cares most about” like climate change and health, DiChristina maintains a tradition of Piel’s that roughly half the articles are written by scientists rather than science journalists.

Einstein wrote for Scientific American in 1950. A charming note with his submission read, “The article is somewhat long and not quite easy to grasp. I should, therefore, not be astonished if you find it unsuited for publication in your magazine.”

Max Planck did a piece about Einstein’s theories in 1910, well in advance of their general acceptance. The magazine also sponsored a $5,000 essay contest in 1920 for the most lucid explanation of the theory of relativity to a lay audience. Crowdsourcing before its time, DiChristina said.

These nuggets all appear in her introductory essay to a September single-topic special issue on Einstein and his theories.

As for editing scientists, DiChristina offered these thoughts: “Scientists are people too. Some write well, some not so well. Articles typically used to be an overview of a field, which was OK.. Now we encourage them to be more like a tour guide to an area you may not know. It can be like a detective story – ‘I had this burning question and here’s what I did (to solve it).’”

“And we do have to help with structure,” DiChristina added, since scientists are accustomed to academic journal style with an abstract at the beginning and other conventions unfriendly to engaging storytelling.

The magazine’s analysis of its audience finds only 3.6 percent are themselves research scientists (more if you count engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists). Much larger groups are C-suite executives (19 percent) and professionals and managers (45 percent). The subscriber base also includes a sprinkling of philanthropist/activists — from Bill Gates to Mia Farrow — looking for big causes to fund.

Scientific American was sold to German publisher Holltzbrinck in 1986 and merged in 2009 into the Nature Publishing Group (otherwise made up of academic journals and books). It claims roughly 450,000 paid subscribers, 3.5 million print and tablet readers and 5.5 million monthly unique visitors to its digital editions. An introductory print sub is $25 for a year, renewals $40.  And $99 buys full digital access including free roaming of the archives.

Sampling the August edition, the editorial mission comes through clearly — big but straightforward topics like how California got so dry, engaging leads, clean writing and strong use of photos and info-graphics.

The solutions emphasis is evident in a pair of articles on better science testing and standards under the umbrella headline “Building the 21st Century Learner.”  One of the articles notes, almost parenthetically “a political climate of distrust and cynicism toward some areas of science,” in Congress but then returns to a proposal to get kids “doing more science,” rather than arguing the point.

That same piece has a representative Scientific America inviting lead:

Suppose you wanted to teach children to play baseball or softball. How would you go about doing it? One approach might be to sit them down and start having them memorize the rules of the game, the dimensions of the field, the names and statistics of past players, and a host of other facts. You would stop teaching them periodically to review the material in preparation for multiple-choice assessment tests. The students who showed a great aptitude for memorizing large numbers of facts could go into honors classes where they would memorize even larger numbers of facts. At the end of the process, without ever leaving the classroom, how well do you think the children would be able to play baseball or softball? More important, how many would even want to?

Why have we thought that this process would work with teaching science to children?

Getting the magazine right is the relatively easy part, DiChristina reflected.  “When I came here 14 years ago,…it was good enough to have one answer on one platform.” But digital iterations, which she accelerated when she became editor-in-chief in 2009, change the game to ensuring “one brand is speaking to different people in different places.”

The 170th anniversary blast offers a reason to compile a sort of greatest hits collection, highlighting articles like one on the Wright brothers’ aviation experiments Scientific American ran two years before Kitty Hawk.

There is no reason to think the well of intriguing, cutting-edge scientific questions will dry up.  The magazine’s challenge going forward will be to continue to pick well and explain clearly — and to navigate the business model maze that even the best established publications face.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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