30 July 1999
Editors from Scientific American , Discover , Audubon , Popular Mechanics , Popular Science , and Nature spoke at the 27 May 1999 meeting of Science Writers of New York (SWINY) , at bucolic Rockefeller University.
Science magazines want to be first with the news--despite a monthly publishing schedule. "If it's a story about mechanical engineering," said Jim Wilson, science editor of Popular Mechanics, "I want a reader who gets Mechanical Engineering magazine to look at the cover and say, 'I read about that in Popular Mechanics.'"
Some of these stories could be written by the proverbial good journalist who knows how to interview the experts. But others are written by freelancers with staggering expertise, like David North, who described for Popular Mechanics what it was like to fly the B-1 Stealth Bomber . Some writers who have finished a book will write a well-backgrounded news story on the same subject for Scientific American.
They want a good magazine story with strong narrative, strong personality, controversy, social commitment, or other strong driving force. Magazines and writers should have personalities matched to their readers, like Steve Mirsky in Scientific American, or the environmental activists (who need not be established writers) in Audubon. Some have mostly male audiences, some are evenly matched. The readership tends to age--which isn't good for ad demographics--so publishers try to attract younger readers.
Story-telling is about people. Scientific ideas are interesting, but those ideas are far more interesting when delivered through the story of the scientists who study those ideas--who examine nature, struggle to understand it, and finally experience the shock of insight. "I felt a powerful shock of recognition. I heard a roaring in my ears, my vision dimmed, and I felt as though my head might explode." That's how an embryologist felt when she realized that a woman with autism, and a mouse with a developmental gene knocked out, had the same brain malformation. (Patricia M. Rodier, "The Early Origins of Autism," Scientific American, February 2000.)
Here are the new rules: Write for your readers, not yourself. Generic stories are out. Newspaper-style objectivity is out. Point of view is in. Stories must be entertaining and fun for your readers. But you can have fun too. You can be funny and free and creative. You might go to the Amazon, or to an aircraft carrier, or to a level III biohazard lab. (But dull old Nature is an exception. Business-related science stories, please.)
You could line these magazines up along the information feeding chain from research report to popular account. Nature prints articles on original research by scientists for scientists. Scientific American prints articles on notable research by scientists, heavily edited, readable and interesting for the intelligent student. Popular Science, Discover, Popular Mechanics and Audubon print magazine articles by journalists in an even more popular style. Magazines have tradeoffs: more technical vs. more popular, more comprehensive vs. more concise, more basic vs. more applied, more biology vs. more engineering. The absolute constraint is that they must attract the kind of readers that attract advertisers that pay the bills. They must be interesting or die.
"Check with your sources," said Mariette DiChristina, executive editor of Popular Science. "Go to the research institute." Find out what they're doing now before they write the press release.
The single most common reason for rejecting queries is, "We just did it," added DiChristina. Search the Popular Science web site first, she suggested.
"Everybody gets EurekAlert ," said DiChristina. Adrian J. Ivinson, editor at Nature, agreed. "If you're getting it off the web it's probably too late," he said.
But the web makes it easier for freelancers to follow the standard advice, "Read our magazine to get a sense of our style." The web versions have at least a sample of the magazine's stories, though there's no substitute yet for paper.
In-house writers also read the major journals. But you can find good stories in specialty journals. "We don't get a lot of specialist journals," said Carol Ezzell, an editor at Scientific American. At Science News, "we got 240 specialist journals," but now she has to depend on you. You can also find good stories at conferences, they said--not just the presentations but also what they're talking about informally. So buy a biologist a beer.
The editors expected that some day, their contents would be downloaded from the Internet and read on electronic books, something like
. How long will it take for electronic displays to equal the quality and convenience of paper? What will the economic model be? No one knows.
Founded in 1872,
is part of the Times Mirror group, along with Golf and Ski, said DiChristina. She has 1.5 million subscribers, 6 million readers, 85-90% male, average age 42, college educated upper-income professionals. "They have a lively curiosity," she said. After each issue, Popular Science gets a flurry of letters asking, "How do I find out more?"
"The guys who read the magazines like to be entertained," said DiChristina.
Popular Science is the largest-circulation science news magazine in the U.S., with an ad rate of $66,420/color page. (Science News is 225,000, and New Scientist is 100,000 worldwide/10,000 U.S). Scientific American is oriented towards academic and industrial science, including much biology, while Popular Science is oriented towards engineers. (The Director of Crashworthiness Research at NHTSA, for example, subscribes to Popular Science. You can liven up the language, but don't dumb down the science.) For sense of the readers, look at the thread on the Popular Science message board, where an architectural marine biologist asked, "What does everybody here do for a living?" . Respondents included students, engineers, technicians.
"Popular Science likes to know about it soon," said DiChristina.
"But for features, the key thing is, it has to be a narrative," said DiChristina--a point echoed by the editors of Audubon and Discover.
Popular Science is half freelance, with "lots of places" to write for, said DiChristina. "The best way to break in is in news," with stories of 100-300 words, pitched to the editor of the relevant section. Features are 500-2,000 words. Medicine is a "recent addition." Rates start at $1/word, and can be negotiated. Exclusivity pays more. "If you travel, or offer something that nobody else has," something that she wants badly, she can pay a little more. "If I can get it from Eurekalert, my staff can do it."
Competition works against you, noted Wilson. "Everybody wants to be a writer." One attendee commented from the audience, "The journalism schools just throw out thousands of writers."
The short version of Popular Science's mission statement is, "What's new, how it works, and how it affects your life." Pitches should include a story angle (not just a topic), sources, length, and art ideas. Pitches should be emailed to the appropriate editor, and replies can take a month, so check in periodically.
With stories like this, who needs Michael Crichton ?
Scientific American also published a feature story, "The Lurking Perils of Pfiesteria," August 1999 (not on line), on the same subject, with about the same content. In Scientific American, Burkholder herself was the author. Scientific American features are traditionally journal articles rewritten with better organization, technical terms defined, and concepts explained, so that an intelligent high school student can understand it. (For a good lesson in Scientific American editing, look up the original journal article in the bibliographies and compare them to the final articles.) In recent years, articles have additionally been edited into a personal, magazine style as well. Burkholder's article begins,
Burkholder's lab also has a Pfiesteria web site , with extensive information, including most of what you'd find in Scientific American and Popular Science. So what does anyone need journalists for? Our jobs are safe (for now), because scientists are trained to write in the boring style of scientific journals. Magazine articles are interesting. Your classic New Yorker science story would give every encyclopedic detail. Increasingly, you can just give the link for all that detail. So the purpose of a magazine article today is to attract the reader by being interesting.
(Scientific American gave the Pfiesteria web link, but Popular Science didn't, so Popular Science gets an A-minus on that one.)
"DNA Detectives," Gunjan Sinha, is another good example of a Popular Science story. The "How it affects your life" angle is that criminals will be caught before they have a chance to rape again. The story got a quote from the ACLU, and linked to other Popular Science stories on DNA.
Popular Science's web site "is ancillary product," said DiChristina. "By no means are we going to put more of our product on the web." Free on-line content would cut into paid sales, "the cow and the milk," she said.
The site has a collection of stories, including major features, from current and past issues of the paper edition. It has about 2 or 3 features from each issue, many briefs, and a search engine, with however a limited capability to browse stories issue by issue.
The web site will be a different product, with its own budget. "We're thinking about animals and nature," she said. "I see a small site with its own staff."
, which recently added a "150 years ago" column, is an American institution, beloved by science teachers, and the scientists and laymen who grew up reading it. But love doesn't pay the bills.
A few years ago, Scientific American was threatened with acquisition by Robert Maxwell, the British press lord, who liked to be called "Capt'n Bob" because of his love for sailing. Maxwell won the enmity of scientists (and librarians) by bragging that he could buy up scientific journals, raise their prices, and there was nothing his subscribers could do about it. Maxwell, who was called "Pirate Bob" by Private Eye because of his love for plundering magazines, turned his covetous eye to Scientific American, which was having demographic problems (advertisers complained that Scientific American readers were not impulse buyers). The imperiled magazine was rescued by an investment from the good Baron von Holtzbrinck, principal of the Georg von Holtzbrinck Group, who was reportedly a Scientific American fan with an aristocrat's love for promoting science and culture. Von Holtzbrinck now publishes Nature and Scientific American. Pirate Bob drowned in a mysterious boating accident, his fortune turned out to be backed by fraudulent collateral, and his investors and sleepy auditors were left to fight it out in a tangle of lawsuits.
Under the new Editor in Chief, John Rennie, the magazine was livened up (or dumbed down, some older readers complained). Circulation is 638,000, ad rates are $37,500/color page, and pay for writers is $1/word and up.
There are 4 avenues for freelancers in Scientific American and its affiliated magazines, said Ezzell. You can (1) write news for Scientific American, (2) edit features for Scientific American, (3) write for its spinoff quarterly Presents, and (4) write for its science education guide Explorations.
News stories are posted on the web site, with many interesting links, although sometimes the links are whimsical or pointless ( in the turtle story ). But when the links are well-done, an linked article can be in effect a front end to the Internet, like this one on biological scaling . (You can also compare the Scientific American story to the New Scientist and New York Times story on the same subject.)
For an example of Scientific American at its best, see the September 1996 single-topic issue on cancer , which won one of its 2 National Magazine Awards.
The editors decide on 4 titles every fall. Some articles are reprinted from previous issues of Scientific American, some are new features, and half are journalist-written. "It's more chatty, in less scientific tones than the regular Scientific American," said Ezzell.
As an example of personality in writing, Steve Mirsky's report on bicycle saddles and impotence will probably join the classics of science writing.
Presents decides on a theme, and then makes assignments, rather than accepting pitches. Stories are 800 to 3,000 words, base pay $1/word. Freelance editing assignments are also available. Mail resumes and clips to Ezzell at the above address.
One of the great satisfactions of science writing is that (George Lundberg notwithstanding) you can write about science subjects with important social consequences that in the major media are ignored, or covered in stories that miss the point. During much of the cold war, Scientific American printed challenges to the nuclear arms race. The Science and the Citizen column continually reports on important economic and social issues that aren't recognized as news elsewhere--on diabetics who are suffering from starvation and ketoacidosis because of food stamp cutbacks , on income inequality , on health care costs , and on the huge U.S. prison population . ("The charge is liberalism," wrote author Uri Broffenbrenner. "I plead guilty.")
The Scientific American web site is one of the great free lunches of the Internet, with at least 2 of the feature stories, and most of the magazine's other contents. There are no plans to provide full text on the web site--but there are plans to sell the complete contents of Scientific American from 1993 for $3 per article in Adobe Acrobat format.
A web site offers the advantages of timeliness for a monthly like Scientific American, said Ezzell. Their site is updated weekly. It also contains selected news and features from that month's issue. They have a long-term relationship with a stringer who provides freelance copy.
"We have no use for science writers," said Wilson. The instinct of science writers is to "back away from the really hard questions."
Wilson needs science journalists. "If your day job involves pleasing your client or government institutions, you're not going to be comfortable asking tough questions."
Military science is "most difficult" to cover, said Wilson, but it has a huge budget, and is significant for its effect on the economy and its spinoffs to civilian technology.
Wilson's March story accused the Pentagon of planning and perhaps actually hacking into enemy computers. Wilson's evidence was that Air Force experts have retired to start up companies that claim expertise in offensive computer attacks, and an Aviation Week & Space Technology article which claims that the National Security Agency has planted special chips, in hardware like printers, that will disrupt anti-aircraft missiles. The Pentagon and NSA denied everything. "It has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster," he wrote. (Which is what it takes to write a good science story these days.)
Wilson is responsible for the science section , which covers aviation and space, medicine, sports, military, transportation, robotics, and police.
It's guy stuff. Take medicine. "We're not interested in women's or children's health," said Wilson. They regularly report military medicine, "which is fairly far ahead," and aviation medicine, tissue engineering, genomics.
Wilson's story on 3 new drugs for spinal injury is wrapped around a sports celebrity victim--Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd, who was injured in a game against Kansas City. For my taste, it's based a little too heavily on interviews with presidents of the drug companies, and I wince at the term "miracle," but Wilson did a good job of explaining the anatomy and function of the spinal cord, an organ that lends itself well to metaphors of telephone wires.
Popular Mechanics covers a lot of military aviation. Writer William Garvey, a former jet pilot, commands an enormous knowledge of mechanical detail and technology (it *is* rocket science), and a sense of ironic detail that an engineer could appreciate ("It was the B-52, an airplane designed with slide rules and T squares, that turned out most of the lights in Baghdad.") Writer David North (actually editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology) observed in his pre-flight walk-around that unlike most other planes, the B-1 bomber didn't leak any fluids. The floor underneath was clean.
Wilson wrote a cover story on the next generation of aircraft carriers, and was on the deck of a carrier "watching a young man do his first landing." Hearst pays for his special high-risk life insurance policy.
Wilson does a lot of traveling to adventurous places. "I carried the Popular Mechanics flag to the South Pole," he said. In a cover photo of submersibles, "I'm driving the submarine."
Law and order includes, for example, a politically incorrect story on the weapons technology used by the LAPD SWAT Team to bust drug dealers. No need for any whining about civil liberties from bleeding-heart liberals. (Anyway, not until they start busting the guys who advertise cable TV descramblers in the Popular Mechanics back pages. Hey, guys, here's a descrambler kit that you can build yourself for only $14.95.)
If you're going abroad, said Wilson, let them know beforehand. Popular Mechanics might want you to cover a story that they've heard about but can't get to. "It may require flying on a wire," he said.
Popular Mechanics' web site is updated daily, said Wilson. It allows them to expand on their articles. Companies provide B rolls for video, which can go right on the web.
Payment starts at $300 for a story, and a feature can go to $5,000.
has a circulation of 1 million and a readership of 6 million, said senior editor
. The readers are slightly more than half male, diverse, educated, usually with some college but not necessarily a degree, and a curiosity about the world. They assign freelance feature stories, but everything else is in-house. In a query, she looks for a "sense of story that works."
Discover covers a wide range of subjects, including archaeology, medicine, cosmology and particle physics. A story describes a scientific finding with "flair" and without jargon. According to Richardson's written handout, "We want to provide the history of the work, the personal motivations of the researchers, and the work's impact on future research. Most of all, we look for stories with a strong narrative that will fire the reader's imagination and enlarge his or her understanding of the world.... Profiles of particularly engaging or controversial scientists are welcome, as are stories with a strong visual appeal."
Articles are 2,000-4,000 words, and pay more than $1.60/word. Proposals should be 1 to 1 1/2 pages, and may be sent to articles editor David Grogan ; senior editor Corey Powel for physics, cosmology, and technology; or Richardson for biology, medicine, anthropology and archaeology.
Discover has a new editor, Steve Petranek (who addressed a SWINY meeting on 28 July 1999). So the formula is changing (and the pay scale is rising).
"We're not just a bird magazine," said Gretel Schueller, associate editor of
magazine (circulation 454,000, color page rate $26,885). That's a phrase that Audubon editors use a lot.
(Former Audubon editor Bruce Stutz, now editor of Natural History, compared himself to William Boot, the nature writer in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, whose press lord, Lord Copper, confuses him with John Boot, the foreign correspondent, and sends him off to cover a war. Stutz himself was on assignment in the Mideast to write about water problems on the Jordan, and was suspected of being a spy. "What's Audubon doing here?" another reporter asked. "We're not just birds," Stutz explained. Water indeed is central to middle-east politics. Stutz argued, at a 1996 NASW meeting in New York, that you can't just write about threatened lemurs in Madagascar, you also have to write about the economic hardships that put pressure on the environment in Madagascar.)
Neither is Audubon a house organ for the National Audubon Society, said Schueller. The bi-monthly is an independent publication. But it does speak with "authority," she said. (One recent issue had good, professional stories that explained the debate objectively--and came down on the Society's side.)
Audubon's audience is about evenly divided between women and men. They range from the hard-core environmentalist to the casual outdoors person. "We're trying to broaden the audience," said Schueller.
The magazine tries to "entertain and teach people about the natural world and conservation," said Schueller. There are different levels of sophistication. And it tries to "inspire people to get involved." If the story is "even vaguely conservation-related," you should mention that in your pitch.
The topic might be about how to build a bird feeder, or a true nature story about how a beaver dam works, or the role that earthworms play in the soil, or how lightening works, said Schueller.
But it must be a strong story with a strong narrative, said Schueller. It must have a beginning, middle and end. It must have people in it. "Even an animal story must have people doing something, saving them or researching them." For example, in a profile of a scientist who studied parasites, the writer described him walking through the woods.
Environmental writing means controversy and decisions about objectivity. The controversies are not with corporations and developers, but within the big happy environmental family of hunters, conservationists, animal lovers, and scientists. For example, "Management by Majority," by Ted Williams, a former information officer with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, May-June 1999, defended leghold traps. A Massachusetts ballot initiative, supported by the ProPAW coalition, prohibited trapping cute little beavers in cruel steel jaw traps. The unintended consequences were that the beaver population exploded, with the !#$%& beavers damming ponds, flooding property, spreading septic pollution, and threatening spotted turtles. In California, a ban on leghold traps made it impossible to prevent alien red foxes from destroying endangered birds, and was a "litmus test that determines whether people are conservationists or animal rights people." The National Audubon Society brought lawsuits as conservationists. Williams explained both sides, and got quotes from the Humane Society, but didn't quote any of the hard-core animal rights people. Did the extremists *really* argue that feral cats don't eat birds? His conclusion is that harmful, misinformed ballot initiatives are avoidable if game and fish agencies would "smarten up" and use good scientific arguments rather than knee-jerk defenses of the hunting lobby.
The magazine is 95% freelance-written, said Schueller. "We have published a lot of unknown writers who didn't have any clips," because they sent in a good query. Pay is about $1/word.
"The news section is not the best way to break in," said Schueller. "We probably know about it."
Audubon has the least content on the web of any of these magazines. "We use the web to showcase stories," said Schueller. "We want to provide forums, especially for readers who want to be involved." You could direct them to call their congressman, for example. "We're working with a news service to provide daily news."
(But about 30% of Audubon's advertising pages will be web-related by the end of the year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Already, Internet advertising has helped Audubon reach its highest annual revenue in its 100-year history, wrote Matthew Rose, "In Print, a Shower of Dot-Com Ads," WSJ, 17 September 1999. Even web companies concede that they can put more information into a 2-page magazine spread than they could in a web banner ad, and that they can make a "bold statement" with a print spread. "You can't yell online," said John Batelle, CEO of Industry Standard.)
The Nature magazines
are completely different from the newsstand science magazines, said Ivinson, editor of 7 journals of Nature America Inc., 5 of them based in New York, under the wing of von Holtzbrinck. With the flagship Nature (circulation 55,600), they are "hard-core research journals that go to the hard-core research community," he said, and are often good sources of science news. The hard-core articles are peer-reviewed. (They do have a growing editorial staff, though many of them are PhDs, and they are having a proliferation of proposed or committed new titles.)
But even bench scientists need news. "We're always looking for good freelancers" for Nature Medicine (circulation 15,000) and Nature Biotechnology (circulation 15,000), said Ivinson. "The news section tries to give the research scientist the overall picture of the policies, politics, funding and some of the personalities involved in the field," he said. If the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the Pasteur Institute or the Hughes Institute announce a new direction or new area for research, that's news.
"If you're at a meeting and somebody says, 'I've just heard that Craig Venter is starting a new company,' that's what we're interested in," said Ivinson.
"The readership is very international," he said, with 20% in Japan, for example. A good story "could be national news but big enough to have international appeal." Rates are about $1/word. Nature magazine has a highly-regarded news section, which is less open to newcomers, and the other titles may be adding news sections in the future. (Their competitor, Science magazine, has a similar news section, and pays around $1.30/word.)
"We are not looking for narrative and story at all," said Ivinson.
Only Nature offers full contents on-line--to paid subscribers to the print edition. There are concerns about losing personal subscribers when their institutions get a site license.
(The editors of Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology told writers how to freelance for their magazines at an April 1998 meeting of the Editorial Freelancers Association .)
It's easy to stick to a successful, familiar formula. Before you know it, your readers have moved out of the desirable ad demographics. Aging readers are an ominous sign.
At Popular Science, "Our readers have been aging steadily for 15 years," said DiChristina. "Our new editor changed the style," she said. "We got rid of things that appealed to an older generation," like craft projects. "We turned the magazine back towards its original intention," she said. They ran shorter stories, and dropped the ten-dollar words. "The writers hate it, the readers like it," she said. "The age started to drop."
At Popular Mechanics, "we reversed" the age creep, said Wilson. A year ago, they made "subtle changes," in the graphics, for example. They set text in ragged right. The subscription people became more aggressive and targeted. The median age declined from 42 to 40.
Like other magazines, they dropped Publishers' Clearinghouse, which brings in untargeted readers who tend not to renew.
(When I came back from the meeting, I gave some extra copies of the magazines to a neighbor, a young architect. His girlfriend noted that the "Men" issue of Scientific American Presents, with a rock climber negotiating a difficult overhang on the cover, looks "just like any other newsstand magazine"--except for the content. They liked it. His father, on the other hand, has long subscribed to Scientific American, but doesn't like the changes.)
(Ad rates, and some circulation data, are from Publist .)
Happy ending: Folio, 1 Jun 2003, The New Rage of Science, Michael Learmonth. "In the first quarter of 2003, old gearhead standby Popular Science -- revitalized under a new editor and with a largely new staff -- scored a 55 percent increase in ad dollars over 2002; Scientific American shot up 40 percent; and Wired, whacked hard after the tech bubble burst, came roaring back with a whopping 77 percent revenue increase. Technology Review, in the midst of an international expansion binge, is gasping for oxygen after increasing revenue by 56 percent."