Science magazines struggle, strive, and evolve

Written by Steven T. Corneliussen

The Financial Times highlighted one dimension of science journalism’s ceaseless churn by reporting in April that RELX, formerly Reed Elsevier, had sold the magazine New Scientist to “investment vehicle” Kingston Acquisitions. The half-century-old publication claims a weekly global audience above 3 million.

Across the science magazine business, a wider recent sampling shows multiple dimensions of the churn, seen in innovation, adaptation, transformation, and high hopes.

Some of the churn progresses without extensive relevance to physics. Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, which calls itself “an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age,” reported last year that when Boston Globe owner John Henry launched the health and life sciences news and newsletter site STAT, the publication began with a staff of more than 50. Weeks before April’s March for Science, STAT’s article about it attracted attention sciencewide by warning that turmoil, infighting, tensions, resignations, and message splintering plagued organizers’ preparations.

Some of the churn involves social media like Snapchat, which was originally designed to encourage spontaneity, fun, and informality in the exchange of images and multimedia by making content evanescent, thereby deleting worries about content’s permanent retention. The application reportedly has 166 million daily active users. Two years ago Snapchat added Snapchat Discover, described as “a designated area within the app focused on ad-supported short-form content from major publishers.” Nieman Lab notes that at the New York Times, staffers “insist” that the paper “won’t pander to its Discover audience.” Snapchat Discover publishers include National Geographic and, as of this month, the technoscientific magazine Wired. “Every Thursday,” enthuses Wired, “you’ll find a new edition … packed with everything you expect—breaking news, stunning design, smart analysis, conceptual breakthroughs, engaging videos—as well as plenty of new surprises, just for our Snapchat subscribers.”

An article at min, which calls itself a 70-year-old “one-stop resource for the mass-consumer magazine media industry,” reported that Mallory Johns, engagement editor at Popular Science, sees the power that short video clips have. The piece noted, “As an established brand with over 26,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 5 million followers across social media, PopSci is positioned for Johns to take full advantage of the platform.” It quoted Johns: “We’ve seen a lot of success with bite-sized videos that highlight cool people, places, and things—past and present—happening in the worlds of science and tech.”

Reportedly, social media figure centrally in the prospects for an affiliated magazine, Popular Science Arabia. An 18 May article in an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with circulation in Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, contained this passage about an initiative to encourage Arab scientists and “to spread Arabic-language scientific content”:

An address to the Arab youth by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has garnered the attention of more than 30 million people on social media.

The open letter to the Arab youth, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Popular Science Arabia magazine in April, has since registered massive interaction with audiences across the Arab World. It scored more than 32 million views on Facebook, over 17 million views on Twitter and was published by more than 30 renowned media channels and publications in the region.

The Nieman Lab recently examined other dimensions of change at Popular Science. It has had four editors in five years, with a circulation decline from 1.3 million in 2014 to 1 million in 2016. It has gone from monthly to bimonthly. Over the course of a year, reduced its daily online story count from roughly 25 to about 7, yet online visitation rose from 1.9 million unique visitors to 2.5 million. The new editor, Joe Brown, served formerly as Wired’s executive editor and as editor in chief at Gizmodo. Under a new editorial approach, the magazine is offering single-topic issues, for example on big machines, water, and exploration. Brown has resolved to use “a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy to take on science skeptics.” Nieman quotes him expressing his hope to “make the most inclusive science and technology publication, period.” Nieman emphasized “the idea that appealing to readers’ curiosity can be a more effective way to change their minds than just trying to convince them that they are wrong.”

Last year, Nieman looked at another relatively new science magazine that focuses on single-topic editions. The analysis opened this way:

Nautilus might be the only science publication that pays philosophers to sit in on its pitch meetings.

That idea speaks to the mission of the site, which is designed to bridge the gap between the sciences and related topics in theology, art, and culture. By roping in philosophers to chime in on how science topics intersect with big questions in philosophy, the magazine aims to connect the dots between disciplines that have lost their association with each other, particularly in science media.

Nieman described Nautilus pieces as sometimes taking six months from conception to publication, making the magazine seem “like a throwback.” The magazine also favors commissioned artwork over photography, with production on high-quality paper in the spirit of collectible publications like National Geographic. Funding has come from the Templeton Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In another dimension of science-magazine churn, nevertheless, the new science magazine Undark reports that despite Nautilus’s record-setting online visitation, important awards, and prospects for an alliance with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the magazine is struggling financially.

Undark reports that its own underwriting comes from MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program “through a generous endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.” It calls itself a “non-profit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society.” Nieman characterizes it as ardently avoiding “‘gee-whiz’ science writing.” Undark declares itself interested not in “science communication” but in “true journalistic coverage of the sciences.” It chose its name for historical reasons, hoping to signal readers that the magazine will explore science “as a frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling byproduct of human culture.”

Read more at Physics Today

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