13 December 2001
6,630 words

Grow young or die:
Science mags redesign for better demographics
Some readers squawk but most like it

NEW YORK -- The subject of science magazines is cold logic, but like science itself, they raise passions of grand opera: love, loyalty, betrayal, the search for knowledge, family treasures handed down over generations, and deals with the Devil.

John Rennie, Editor in Chief of Scientific American , raised all those passions after the magazine's redesign in the April 2001 issue. He apologized for the pain but defended and explained his redesign. He spoke on a panel about redesign with editors from Popular Science, Discover, and IEEE Spectrum, at a meeting of Science Writers in New York , the New York affiliate of the National Association of Science Writers , on 16 October 2001 at Rockefeller University.

People in the magazine business say, "If you just put out a good magazine, everybody will read it and everything will fall into line," said Stephen Petranek, editor in chief of Discover . "That doesn't happen very often, believe me."

Readers have conflicting tastes, said Petranek. If it's too simple, they complain. If it's too hard, they skip it. If you write to attract women, you lose men. Some only want astronomy, others only biology. They don't like change. But magazines must change to survive.

Advertisers want younger readers. Why? There's no rational reason. But you can't convince them otherwise, so editors must follow suit.

Science is everywhere in the popular and professional media, and to compete for the busy reader's attention, science magazines must be clearer, shorter, flashier, more accessible and better-organized. The print publication can be a guide to the web, said one science librarian. Some magazines have full text on the Internet for subscribers, others have selected articles for the public.

Above all you must tell a story: The scientist is confronted with a question, like the structure of DNA. He designs an experiment to answer the question. He performs the experiment and gets his results. Those results change our understanding of science, said Gerard Piel. The story is the scientific method.

But the important story goes beyond that one story. These stories of science, taken together, teach the methods and values of science. These popular science magazines, and their imitators in other media, teach society how to have a rational debate. The goal of science writing, explained Piel, is the public understanding of science.

Wrenching changes

Rennie apologized for not bringing any free issues or multi-media props. "That's why I'll stand here," for a 3-D effect, said Rennie, a one-time improv comedian, lurching forward from the stage into the audience, reaching out to grab the air with his clawed fingers like the Tyrannosaurus rex on the September 1999 cover.

To some loyal readers, Rennie was the T. rex that ate Scientific American. "It makes no sense to dismantle the flagships of science literacy," said MacArthur fellow Sean Carlson , who for 6 years wrote (for $1,500 a column) "The Amateur Scientist", beloved by science teachers and librarians, dropped with the redesign.

It "was a wrenching change," acknowledged Rennie. But some things had to go.

Reader surveys, focus groups

The Amateur Scientist did badly in reader surveys and focus groups, said Rennie. Less than 60% read it, and only 19% were "very interested." That's not enough today.

It was teaching readers how to build high-precision thermometers, or grow plankton, or extract DNA from an onion using materials available in a home kitchen. But readers weren't interested, just as Popular Science's readers were no longer interested in woodworking projects.

"In focus groups, we found very few regular readers who paid much attention to the column; they knew it was in the magazine but they admitted that they didn't read it because the idea of building a project (or knowing how to do so) didn't appeal to them," Rennie amplified in an e-mail. "In surveys of subscribers, Amateur Scientist typically came in at the bottom."

Cruel equations

"A bit less than 60% of our readership even looked at Amateur Scientist," said Rennie. They were evenly split among "very interesting," "fairly interesting" and "slightly interesting." Most features grab more than 70% and have a preponderance of readers saying "very" or "fairly interesting." In recent surveys, only 18.8% were "very interested." That's worse than Mathematical Recreations, James Burke and the Morrisons -- and those columns are gone too.

There are educational projects in Scientific American Explorations, the quarterly for parents and children, but those are designed to demonstrate a scientific principle. Carlson was helping amateur scientists build tools that would allow them to participate meaningfully in research. "We tried a number of different approaches with Amateur Scientist over the years and nothing seemed to budge its popularity," said Rennie.

Brutal culling, high readership

You have to be "grown-up" enough to say about a feature, "We do that every month, and we've got this person doing it, and it really works out well, but nobody's reading it," or not enough people are reading it, said Petranek. "I have dropped columns with 60% readership. Not high enough." He needs 75% readership for a feature. That translates into an "intensity of readership" in which readers average 3 hours reading each issue, renewal rates are "unbelievable," and advertisers are happy.

Discover's rate base is 1 million. "That's a big problem," said Petranek. "A million is a mass audience. The number of people who really love science and want to buy a science magazine is less than a million. So you have to build a coalition audience." Discover has 300,000 "hard core science nuts," 300,000 school teachers, 100,000 parents who want to get their teenagers interested in science, and a couple of hundred thousand trying it out.

When Petranek took over, a typical reader would read 1 story. They were coming in to find "their story," on their interest -- astronomy, space, cosmology, or whatever. "And then they were out," he said. Discover trained readers to understand that, "if they took a chance and read an article in an area of science that they were not particularly interested in, they would be rewarded." Now, 25% read it cover to cover. The 88-page November issue had 20 pages of ads.

Aging readers

Scientific American, the premier general-circulation science magazine, is caught in a demographic trap, like other general-circulation science magazines. Compare a fat issue from 1980 to a skinny issue today. Circulation has been steady, at 700,000 worldwide. But pages are down, from 200 in 1980 to 100 today. Ad pages are worse, from 100 pages in 1980 to 15 today.

Figure 1

Note: Dollar figures and page numbers are rough estimates, for comparative purposes only, adjusted to current dollars. Advertising revenue is calculated from undiscounted page rate; actual revenue is lower.

Sources: Magazine Publishers of America (1980 circulation figures), Scientific American ABC Statement (2001 circulation figures), sampling of 1980 and 2001 issues (ad pages).

The problem is demographic: Aging readers don't sell advertising. In order to succeed, Scientific American has to draw younger readers, by being more accessible, and more relevant to current interests, without abandoning its traditional strengths or older readers, Rennie said. He's also had to make it more attractive to the older readers. He thinks he's done it, with articles that are shorter, clearer, more lively, and more technology-oriented, while still including the trademark basic science feature stories, but edited to be more readable. He does seem to have done it, although change is painful. He got "less than" 100 angry cancellations, and newsstand sales are steady in a declining market.

But he's still going to Hell for dropping the Amateur Scientist.

Shaky premise?

All this assumes that younger readers are a better advertising market. Advertisers act on this belief, but there's no evidence to support it. The paradox is that aging readers actually have much more money.

"Advertisers use a shaky premise to overvalue younger readers," said Bob Garfield, on the WNYC radio show On the Media, 9 Mar 2002. [Transcript] ABC is wooing David Letterman to replace Ted Koppel's Nightline, because Letterman's Late Show audience is 4 years younger, said Garfield. Even though Letterman's audience is 10% smaller, a 30-second commercial costs 38% more.

According to Seema Nyar, editor of American Demographics, advertisers believe that:

  • 18-34 year olds are less loyal to their current brands

  • they're more willing to try new products,

  • they're more susceptible to advertising and

  • if you get them to choose your brand they'll use it for a lifetime.

Furthermore, adds David Verklin, CEO of media buyer Cara International,

  • targeting 18-34s is a good way to aim at the middle of the entire market

  • the youth market influences the entire consumer population's buying behavior, just as inner-city black teenagers influence shopping mall culture, as Nike believes.

"Almost none of this is supported by empirical evidence," said Garfield, and Nyar agrees.

Betsy Carter, editor of My Generation, published by the American Association of Retired Persons, says that the 35-64 baby boomers are "the wealthiest demographic segment in the history of commerce." There are 104 million Americans age 35-64, versus 64 million 18-34, and they have more money. The 25 million households under age 35 have aggregate income of $1.3 trillion, said Najar, vs. 46 million households age 35-54 with aggregate income of $3 trillion.

"Which group do you want to target?" asked Nyar. "The 25 million households with a trillion dollars worth of income? Or the 46 millon households with the $3 trillion in income?" Carter believes advertisers will eventually recognize the 35-54 market, and the first ones to do it will make lots of money.

But Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age, recalls that in the 1990s, CBS had the oldest demographic of the leading networks, and tried to convince advertisers that this audience was a great audience with more spending power, "but advertisers didn't buy it" and CBS finally aired Survivor and went after the younger audience.

CNN effect

According to a librarian who reviews science magazines, the consumer magazines are getting to look more like TV, and linking to the Internet, but the professional journals aren't changing much.

"Most of the undergraduates prefer the science magazines like Discover, Science News, Science Scope, and Popular Science because they have short, easy-to-understand articles," said Amy L. Paster, MLS, Head of the Life Sciences Library, Pennsylvania State University. "There has been an ebb and flow in the number of these magazines."

"Scientific American has been a mainstay and is always looking for ways to attract new readers without alienating longtime fans," said Paster, who wrote the chapter on science and technology magazines in Magazines for Libraries, Bill Katz and Linda Sternberg Katz, eds., the librarian's standard reference for evaluating magazines.

"I see it as more of the 'CNN effect'," said Paster, "short, flashy, brief reports, usually just enough to catch your interest and leave you wondering where to find more in-depth information," she said. "There has been more of trend toward the technology issues in recent years, but again I believe that to be a cycle."

"With more magazines going on-line, the print publications are serving as a sort of guide or table of contents to the web page," said Paster. "The print contains short bits with instruction to go on-line for more information."

"I deal mostly with professional science journals," said Paster (whose undergraduate degree was in entomology), "and the only changes I have seen there is the increase of on-line publications."

Popular Science

Popular Science did its redesign for similar reasons, said William G. Phillips, executive editor. "We had a perception problem among our customers," said Phillips. "By 'customers' I mean our readers and our advertisers." People still think Popular Science is a do-it-yourself magazine, and don't appreciate the product reviews. They made "dramatic changes" in the 90s, which were largely unnoticed. Young people would "stumble into" the magazine and say, "Oh, you cover personal digital assistants? I didn't know you covered that." So they emphasized product evaluations and pop culture, and redesigned a confusing news section into a color-coded design that emphasizes what the magazine has to offer. The 100-page November issue has about 36 pages of ads.

In the focus groups, readers said, "Popular Science is really the authority on this stuff. I love the way you test all this stuff."

"Well actually, we don't really test everything," admitted Phillips, "but they thought we did." So they created a section, "First Hand," where they did test products for the reader. The November issue has a cover story on the 10-foot electric minicar, which the author drives to the grocery, and plugs in to the 220-volt, 20-amp dryer outlet.

There is a media section, "where we tap into pop culture," said Phillips. "Does this movie get the science right?"

"Readers appreciate that," said Phillips. "Science and technology is everywhere, in Newsweek, in Time. We can't ignore that, so it's very important to let the reader know that we're in touch with the pop culture side."

Color-coded sections

"We wanted to improve the architecture of the book and add entry points," said Phillips, "add visual cues for the reader so you could get into the stories easier."

They needed a cohesive cover strategy, said Phillips. A year ago, every cover looked different. Now, every cover looks like Popular Science.

"We needed to create a more approachable, more engaging inside for the reader," said Phillips. "Our sections were a mess."

"Before we had 6 different news sections," said Phillips. "You never knew what you were in." Readers, in tests, didn't know whether they were in science newsfront, medical newsfront, automotive newsfront.

"We took all those newsfront and created one newsfront," said Phillips. The section, "Newsfronts" is color-coded red, with a red banner across the top of the page.

IEEE Spectrum

IEEE Spectrum had Scientific American's problem of being a hybrid of a magazine and a research journal, and Scientific American's mission of explaining science to technical people outside their field, said Susan Hassler, editor in chief. But Spectrum doesn't have to worry about luring subscribers or adjusting the demographic mix -- every IEEE member gets it. As long as her readers, and the IEEE board, like it, she's successful. Spectrum won awards with articles like the one about how Iraq reverse-engineered the bomb. But too many of their 365,000 readers were "getting Spectrum in a poly bag and not opening it up." As their articles grew longer and more technical and too hard to read, the readership declined. The survey respondents reading 4 out of 4 issues went down from 70% to 65%, "enough to make management take notice." Their careful, systematic redesign, with careful reader and market research on a budget of $1.5 million, went according to schedule, and people are reading it again. It's still pretty technical, but it's accessible to their readers.

The IEEE'S members are not necessarily electrical engineers, said Hassler. They're computer scientists, biomedical engineers, or other professionals. "They're very bright and very interested and very critical, but once they get outside their area of expertise they're not experts." When a biomedical engineer reads about nanotechnology, he's a layman.

Designing a magazine is not just a matter of getting a nice look. "You can't just say, 'Do something brighter, do something Wired,'" said Hassler. "You have to talk about who your readers are, and what their expectations are." They did focus groups and market research.

The new Spectrum is clearly a magazine, not a research journal, said Hassler. The old Spectrum had one type of article, which was a long feature, she said. "There were little Speakouts [opinion pieces] but there wasn't a lot of variety in length and pacing." Now there are lots of places to fit content that wouldn't fit into the old formula.

Spectrum now has 4 sections. The opinion section has a commentary called Speakout. One Speakout defended the safety of cell phones in cars, and letters debated traffic statistics. A software engineer described how he hacked the chips in his car. The news section has technical stories on gallium arsenide transistors and heart pacemaker leads, and also stories about the jailed cryptographer Dmitri Sklyarov and complaints about Windows XP. The feature section has stories on biological warfare sensors and music copyright systems, and profiles of IEEE members doing interesting things. They are often opinionated and provocative. The resources section has career advice, like how to write a book. A lot of it is generic topics, like intellectual property, customized for engineers.

Spectrum has to give readers something they don't get in everything else they read. "Our readers are not reading us to get stock tips," said Hassler. "They're reading us because they're actually interested in how things work. We're providing some of the business around the things, and were also trying to put the technology in some kind of context, why it's important at this particular time, or why it's a big puff of smoke."

Positive letters are outnumbering negative by 3 or 4 to 1, said Hassler.


"I never got 6 months to figure it out," said Petranek. "We had to do our redesign overnight." He was on the job 2 days when the departing publisher told him that they had made commitments to their advertisers that the next issue, closing in 30 days, would have a new redesign. "I was scared to death," said Petranek. Like Scientific American, Discover had to redesign itself with no increase in budget (although they threw a $1 million party for the advertisers).

Discover was unreadable, said Petranek. When he read through the past 2 years, he couldn't get through the stories himself. It read like a textbook. His redesign used all the tricks to make the magazine more accessible and readable. "Narrative, super-readability, news, a cosmic paragraph fairly high up on why you should waste your time reading this."

But he avoided 2 easy tricks -- illustrations and people. The illustrations had looked too much like science fiction. "Wow! What planet am I on here? It's all blue mirrors."

You have to write about people to tell a story, but "I know on pretty good research that most of our readers could care less about people," said Petranek. "They're very interested in science and stories about science." You need people to tell a story, but he tries to keep people out of it as much as possible. He killed a lot of "bad profiles."

Petranek got 2,000 angry letters in the first month. "You've ruined my magazine. It's no longer about science. You've dumbed it down." A magazine is your friend, he explained, and it comes into your house. You don't want to see your friend suddenly show up with red hair.

You must redesign a magazine constantly, not once every 5 years, said Petranek. "We are continually redesigning the magazine," he said. "That better not stop, because the magazines that got into trouble in the 90s were the magazines that didn't change and evolve almost constantly."

Explaining science

Gerard Piel, the retired publisher of Scientific American, explained how he explained science.

"The narrative is the way to do exposition," said Piel. "That's the most painless way to explain."

"You tell a story," said Piel. "A story has a plot. It's a narrative."

The plot is: The scientist is confronted with a problem or question. He defines the problem. He frames a hypothesis, and designs experiments to test his hypothesis. He tells how he designed his experiment, how it worked, what evidence he got, and how that evidence changed the understanding of what he was working on.

"Francis Crick wrote the story for us about how he and Watson perceived the wisdom of Nature in having 2 strands in the DNA molecule," recalled Piel. Their problem was, "How is the design of an organism conveyed from one generation to the next?" The experiment was to find in the X-ray diffraction pattern the 3-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule. One hypothesis was that the strands were tightly twisted together like a rope. Another hypothesis was that they were held apart from one another, "by the bases holding hands across the winding staircase," said Piel. "He discovered that the polysaccharide strands of the DNA molecule were held apart from one another, as the helixes wind around each other, inside the spiral staircase, by the bases holding hands with each other."

"The use of image and metaphor is very helpful," said Piel.

"Scientific American is a heavily, strongly illustrated magazine, and the illustrations took a lot of stress off the words," said Piel. "And a winding staircase is a perfectly accurate and correct image for the bases as they rotate around in between the separated double helix," he said. "And that was the Watson-Crick discovery."

"Above all you make a narrative story about how the work was done," said Piel. "Because in the work of science can be seen the values of science."

"The most valuable thing Scientific American did was not convey a lot of information," said Piel. "We were in the business of understanding, not information. The valuable thing we did was to show how the work was done, what the grounds of scientific knowledge is, towards public understanding of science. That's the most important thing for people to know."

Piel expanded on this in his new book, The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the 20th Century (Basic Books).

"The values of science ought to be more widely respected in our society," said Piel.

Those values start with "autonomy of the individual," said Piel. "A scientist can't accept any authority about a question he's interested in except his or her own judgment. He or she has to hold that judgment in suspicion. He can trust no judgment but his own, but has to look at that judgment 10 times over. And then when he's done his work he has to submit it to his peers. And they'll argue like mad about whether he's right or wrong and what the significance is. And there we have the democracy of science. And the governing principle of their discussion is rationality and reason."

(For an explanation of the scientific method see the Internet Science Room, especially Richard Feynman.)


The competition today is not with each other, the editors agreed. The competition is the expanded science coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Time, Newsweek, the nightly news, and the rest of the media. The strength of the science magazines is that they are authoritative, credible, with a loyal reader base, and they can go into greater technical depth -- although they must avoid the danger of upsetting their reader base with changes, and they have to steer Icarus' path between dumbing it down too much or getting too technical.

"For us," said Rennie, "the real problem is making Business Week readers want to come in."

Female readers still elusive

Discover's readership has now reached 40% female, but the other magazines are predominantly male, despite vigorous efforts.

Scientific American has gone from 15% to 25% female. "What's really maddening," said Rennie, is "how abysmally the male-female results will skew along the most stereotypical lines you can imagine." It's almost, "If you make it pink the women will like it," he said.

For example, said Rennie, in reader surveys, an "abysmal" 22% said they were "very interested" in an article on breast cancer. However, 73% women, 16% men were "very interested." It wasn't because breast cancer is a female issue -- men weren't interested in prostate cancer either.

This creates a demographic trap. If you make articles more interesting to women, your overwhelmingly male readership declines. About 90% of Discover's newsstand sales are to men, said Petranek. "In order to increase newsstand sales, we do more guy-like covers, because the female covers do not do well on the newsstand."

"It's funny," said Hassler, whose readership is defined by IEEE's 94% male membership. "My 13-year-old niece sees this magazine her aunt works on and she goes, 'Eeeww! It's geeky.'"

One irony is that many of the editors are women. One reader wrote to Scientific American, "I've noticed a decline in your magazine. It seems to correlate precisely with when you started letting women work for you."

"It's really ultimately about advertising," said Petranek. "The intensity of readership is highest among women." Women feel stronger about a story, and are more likely to clip it and send it to friends. "So we view the female audience for Discover to be extremely powerful. The problem is that the advertising community doesn't." You're a better advertising sell as either a women's or a men's magazine, he said.

Scientific American Explorations, which is distributed at science museums, has a 70% female readership, since mothers read it to their children.

Scientific American

"Even people who are very well educated and very committed to the idea of science are much less willing than they used to be to sit down and read some kind of long article," said Rennie.

"If you want to communicate with the general public, you have to be willing to communicate with them on their terms," said Rennie, "and that means even if you dearly love the long essay form, and you have a deep appreciation for the aesthetic that gave birth to a magazine like this, you do find a way to reinvent it."

"We try to retain many of the same values," said Rennie. "We keep the science authors. We did open ourselves up to make use of some more journalists because we found that journalists could probably approach some kind of articles and present them the right way better than a lot of the scientists."

Scientists or journalists

So again comparing 1980 to today, instead of a 12-page article about the basic science of monoclonal antibodies (October 1980) by 1984 Nobel laureate Cesar Milstein, the October 2001 issue has a 6-page article on the current technologies and products of monoclonal antibodies by editor Carol Ezzell .

Milstein's introduction might not grab the casual reader: "When a foreign substance enters the body of a vertebrate animal or is injected into it, one aspect of the immune response is the secretion by plasma cells of antibodies: immunoglobin molecules with combining sites that recognize the shape of particular determinants on the surface of the foreign substance or antigen, and bind to them." The feature articles, as Piel described them, were well-selected journal articles with the conclusion moved from the back to the front, with definitions and explanations added for specialized terms and concepts.

Ezzell's lead is more inviting: "Molecular guided missiles called monoclonal antibodies were poised to shoot down cancer and a host of other diseases -- until they crashed and burned. Now a new generation is soaring to market."

Scientific American continues to publish authors who go on to get Nobel Prizes. Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman wrote in March, 1998 about the Bose-Einstein condensate; in 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in physics . Stanley Prusiner wrote in January 1995 about prions; in 1977 he won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine . And Richard Smalley, who wrote in the September 2001 issue debunking self-replicating nanomachines, won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fullerines.

"We were not offering passive entertainment," said Piel. "Our readers had to work. They were willing to and they were rewarded."

"I guess I was lucky I lived when I did," said Piel.

Advertising considerations

A large circulation of loyal, aging readers isn't enough. "We have audiences that are not just the readers," said Rennie. "We have an advertising audience that at some level also needs to be served."

"It seems traitorous for an editor to talk about how things get perceived in the advertising community," said Rennie traitorously. "So be it."

John Rennie, Editor in Chief, Scientific American

The 4-color page rate for 1 insertion is $45,000, though this is often heavily discounted. (It was once fashionable for journalists to profess contempt for advertising considerations. But it's a lot easier to pay a freelance writer another 25 cents a word, or a staff writer another $5,000 a year, if the magazine has another $100,000 to spend on the editorial budget.)

The advertising community, said Rennie, would look at Scientific American and say, "We don't understand why anybody under the age of 65 reads that magazine. We don't understand why we should be putting ads into it."

"We've got a big backlog of readers, many of whom stick with us forever," said Rennie. So in order to improve the demographics, they have to grow and add younger readers.

"We've also pretty much cornered the market of disembodied brains floating in aquariums," said Rennie, "and those guys just last forever and don't buy anything."

"If you're going to be a commercial magazine, said Rennie, "the reality is that those are the kinds of problems we have to deal with."

"We started to put a little more emphasis on some areas of technology," said Rennie. "Partly because there was a lot happening there and yes, also, being able to say, 'Look, we have a biotechnology slot,' makes it easier for the ad sales presentation."

But, said Rennie, he tried to keep "the same wine in a more attractive bottle."

"How you define biotechnology can overlap a lot with exactly the same sort of basic biology, molecular biology that we were doing before," said Rennie. "Well," he said conspiratorially, "that's my little secret."

"This has worked for us," said Rennie, "to make it the same Scientific American in terms of its strength and values, but one that works today in much the same way the old version worked before."

Madision Avenue idiocy

There was one important audience that Piel could never educate. "I never succeeded in getting Madison Avenue to understand the role that science plays in our culture," said Piel, "that scientifically-trained engineers, and managers that came out of those ranks, were significant people and made important decisions."

"They thought of scientists as coming in by the service entrance," said Piel. "We were able to show that our audience was very well-heeled so that we made a huge success in the 1970s and 80s as an upscale male consumer magazine."

But the advertising community didn't appreciate the financial clout of Scientific American's readers as investors. The advertising directed at investors in Business Week, Forbes and Fortune "all belonged in our magazine," Piel said enviously. "U.S. Steel, Alcoa, all the others should have been seizing the opportunity to talk to the most powerful audience in the country."

"Our people were very shrewed investors," said Piel. "They knew what they were buying because they were buying on the technology."

By 1980, Scientific American was a "huge success," said Piel. Time Inc. and Hearst created competitors, which could never compete with Scientific American on its own terms but "thoroughly confused our identity on Madison Avenue."

The advertising agencies had a "simple-minded idiocy and we never could bust it," said Piel. "They thought that science had nothing to do with money."

"We founded the best magazine about science that we could publish," said Piel, "and found an audience of 600,000 in the United States."

"I never got to understand Madison Avenue," admitted Piel.

Not that bad

A comparison of the new Scientific American with the old is reassuring, at least for me. The main thing I want is articles that identify and explain important areas of current research, particularly in biomedicine, and give me the basic background I need to go on to read the scientific literature, or interview a researcher.

Since April, there are features on unbilical cord stem cells, genetically modified food , violence, antibiotic resistance , the Rorschach test, insect flight , sign language, hair, nanotechnology in medicine, hypnosis , biofilms, cyanide fishing, human cannibalism, macular degeneration, mass extinction, anti-viral drugs, the evolution of human birth, school class size and angiogenesis. (One recent practice, which drives librarians crazy, is cute titles that don't tell you what the article is about, like "Behind enemy lines".)

The macular degeneration article, for example, is a bit short but gives me what I'm looking for. It explains the role of the retinal pigment epithelium, which clips off the ends of rod and cone cells, and the current treatments (although it's not on the Internet). Let's face it -- if I want a review article, I should read the New England Journal of Medicine (which is now also written to be more accessible).

Internet access

My biggest disappointment in Scientific American is its use of the Internet. Scientific American has been promising us the computer revolution with good accuracy for 50 years, but now it's the only major science magazine I can't read in full text on-line. They've become like the man in the joke who stayed up all night describing how wonderful it was going to be.

Internet links are supposed to give me further useful information, and they could compensate for the brevity, but they usually don't. The macular degeneration article links are either too simple or too specialized and technical. For further reading, "The evolution of human birth" recommends the authors' article in Evolutionary Anthropology. I wonder how many readers looked that one up. Actually, this article is related (joined at the pelvis, as it were) with an earlier feature article on the evolution of walking -- but neither are on the Internet. There have been many related articles, and I'd like to be able to read them together.

Some magazines, like Discover (and many medical journals , notably the British Medical Journal) are on-line free, in full text, to everyone. Some magazines, like Popular Science and Scientific American, have free, abbreviated, on-line editions omitting some of the best stories. Some magazines, like the New Scientist , Science News , and most professional science magazines, like Spectrum, have free, abbreviated, on-line editions, plus full text archives for subscribers.

As a subscriber, I want everything on-line. I want Vannevar Bush's Dynabook . I've invested a lot of time reading the magazines I subscribe to. Those magazines are much more valuable if I can look up an article that I remember reading, or look up related articles. When I recently wanted to review cardiology, I searched the New England Journal of Medicine , downloaded a few review articles, and got in a day what used to take a week. I can search BMJ. I'm even willing to pay a little more ($12 a year for the Science archives) -- but not $5 per article for the Scientific American archives .

Amateur Scientist

And finally, I can't understand dropping the Amateur Scientist. It is a loss of Scientific American's core values. It was like an uncle that taught you science. It's not my decision to make, and it's easy for me to talk when I'm not responsible for the financial viability of Scientific American. But it makes no sense to me.

The business argument is that less than 60% of the readers read Amateur Scientist, and less than 20% are "very interested." That's not enough for a modern magazine, where a feature needs 70% of the readers to survive. This is the Darwinian process that creates a magazine that attracts more readers, younger readers, readers who read the entire magazine, and the advertisers that it needs to survive and prosper.

I'm not convinced by that mathematical argument. If newspapers followed that logic, they'd never have science sections.

It's possible that a feature can be very important to a small but important part of its audience. Petranek said you have to build a coalition. That 20% can drive your coalition in a completely different direction, just as the far right drove the Republican party in a completely different direction. 20% of your readers can characterize your magazine. They can be the ones who recommend it to their friends, assign it to their students, write news stories about it, cite it in the scientific literature and on usenet, go on to become scientists and economists and win Nobel prizes. Try to imagine those 130,000 people who are "very interested" in the Amateur Scientist.

A small Japanese supplier was bought up by General Motors. At the signing of the merger the Japanese president gave a toast to the GM executives: "We would like to be a small but important part of General Motors -- like the testicles of a bull, a small but important part."

The Amateur Scientist was a small but important part of Scientific American.

Experimental science

There's something dramatic, exciting and essential to science about going into your kitchen and extracting DNA from an onion with ordinary household materials. It demonstrates the experimental method.

There's an important lesson in the process of trying something that doesn't work, figuring it out, and persisting until it does work, a lesson that would even be useful to investors wondering why other labs weren't able to reproduce Judah Folkman's angiogenesis compounds. You can't get that lesson from a magazine, from the Internet, from a computer simulation or from a teacher. You can only get it by doing it yourself.

Here's an example: In my New York City apartment, my cockroach population exploded. I heard that boric acid could kill cockroaches, but who can you believe these days? If boric acid works, why are they selling all those expensive chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides? So I formed a hypothesis: Boric acid can kill cockroaches. I bought 2 pounds of boric acid in plastic squeeze bottles in Columbus hardware on 9th Avenue. I cut open a cardboard cockroach trap and sliced the gummed bottom side into 1-centimeter-thick strips with a paper trimmer. I taped a gummed strip to the top of the sink overnight to get a baseline. Next morning, I counted the cockroaches stuck to the strip: 23. I repeated it a few more nights for statistical confidence. Then, came the experiment: I squirted boric acid on all the corners, concealed surfaces and hidden spaces in the kitchen and bathroom. Next morning, I got up and ran to the gummed strip: 6 cockroaches! The next day, and for several days after that, the strips were empty. The cockroaches were gone. I now know my conclusion: boric acid can kill cockroaches. I didn't read it in a book or magazine, I didn't learn it on the Internet, I didn't learn it from any authority or teacher, and nobody told me. I set up an experiment and saw it for myself. Science isn't something you do in a laboratory. It's something that pervades your thinking all day. And that's what the Amateur Scientist taught me.

There was an anecdote that appeared in Scientific American which I can't find and fact-check because I can't search for it in full text. So I'll have to recall it from memory:

    In 1895, in an American university laboratory, the first news arrived from Germany of the discovery of X-rays. A professor said to his students: "Gentlemen! We have everything here at hand that we need to reproduce that experiment! Let's go forth and do it ourselves!" After a day's enthusiastic work, they had done it, for the first time in America, right there in their lab.

That enthusiasm for experimentation, the ability to do it yourself on impulse, is so central to scientific thought that you can't understand science without it.


Further Information

I wrote a similar article, on how to write freelance for science magazines .

Media Life covers science magazines generally:

Growing importance of science in business: Talking with Scientific American's Bruce Brandfon

Popular Science sheds gramps look

Discover reinvents itself for a hipper readership

The BMJ: moving on. Editorial announcing British Medical Journal's redesign, and discussing how the paper and electronic journal work together, clarity vs. dumbing down, how magazine research is unreliable, and problems doctors have with information.

Science News Has Some News , Wired, 13 February 2002

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National Writers Union Says Discover Underpays Writers

From: Norman Bauman
Sent: Thursday, August 23, 2001 3:42 PM
To: Petranek, Stephen <Stephen.Petranek@disney.com>
Subject: National Writers Union says Discover underpays writers


I saw the following passage on the web site of the National Writers Union. They say that Discover is underpaying writers. They say that, according to the following calculations, you could afford to pay $19 a word and still turn handsome profits.

Somehow this calculation doesn't sound too realistic. Did they miss something here?

What would you say to a writer who asked you for $19 a word?

I'd like to pass your reply on to other science writers.

Norman Bauman


    National Writers Union web site

    How much can publications afford to pay? We also compared publication income with words of text published to get an estimate of income per word and to determine what fraction of total revenue is paid to writers. For example, for Discover magazine, 500 pages of ads a year at $50,000 per full-page ad gives $25 million a year in gross revenue. (This underestimates their income, because half-page ads cost two-thirds as much as full-page ads). Since the magazine has one million subscriptions at $25 per year, it has another $25 million a year. (This ignores newsstand sales, which make the total even larger.) Divide by 500 pages of text a year at 800 words per text page and Discover's income is more than $125 per word. Discover pays its writers $1 a word. So they pay their writers less than 1% of their gross income. If they paid them 15% of gross income, the way book publishers manage to and still turn handsome profits, they would be paying at least $19 a word.


From: Petranek, Stephen <Stephen.Petranek@disney.com>
To: Norman Bauman <nbauman@escape.com>
Subject: RE: National Writers Union says Discover underpays writers
Date: Thu, 23 Aug 2001 16:35:09

[Expletive deleted] No magazine, not any magazine anywhere except maybe People is making that kind of money. I wish we had 500 pages of ads! I wish we could get $50,000 per page. We don't have a million subscriptions. We don't get $25 a year for each of them. We print 850 pages of text a year, not 500. They didn't compute the cost of printing a million-plus circulation magazine (or salaries of staff or office rental, etc. etc.). AND--WE PAY A LOT MORE THAN $1 a word! Where did this bad reporting come from? Did we reject this person's article or something that he's got it in for us??