Thursday, August 29, 2013

Interview With Scientific American Magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina

What distinguishes Scientific American from other magazines? For starters, Scientific American, founded in 1845, is the longest continuously published magazine in the U.S. It offers its readers a means to satisfy their intellectual curiosity about the wonder and beauty of science as well as to understand the complexities of the modern world—which increasingly requires a working knowledge of science-related issues such as climate change, energy sources, medical advances, and a digitally transformed society. It also is unique in that it features both the writing of expert journalists as well as that of the scientists who are at the forefront of research today. Scientific American has a circulation 450,000 in the U.S., and more than one million worldwide in 14 translated editions; its Web site averages more than 4.5 million unique visitors a month.

How do you promote your unique editorial voice amidst a sea of clutter? Science itself is a collective effort, and our contributors—our staff editorial team, the journalists we commission, and the scientists and other experts who also author our articles—all play a role in broadcasting their work inScientific American. We use a combination of traditional public relations, our own editorial social media (both through individual staff personal accounts and the branded ones); speaking as experts at conferences; and appearing as subjects in other media coverage—such as this!

How can we get more of our youth turned on to science and the marvels it holds? Kids are born scientists. You don’t have to believe me—research backs this up. What I mean by that is they naturally ask questions and set about through “experiments” to understanding the world around them. So the secret is to keep that spark of interest kindled through inquiry-based learning. We offer several ways to do that at Scientific American. Bring Science Home, for instance, is our free series of weekly science activities for parents to do with their kids ages 6-12. 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days is our program that matches (by location and discipline) teachers with volunteer scientists who can visit classrooms. We add a new Citizen Science project, which anyone can do to help make science happen, to the site each week. And we funded one of our own citizen-science project, called Whale.FM, which lets you help scientists to “speak whale” simply by spending a few minutes whenever convenient listening to snippets of whale songs and matching them up. Last, Scientific American is a founding partner of the Google Science Fair, a global online competition for kids ages 13-18.

How is Scientific American utilizing digital media to grow its readership? To me, every magazine is like an organic creature—it evolves and adapts over time, or it doesn’t survive. In the same fashion, Scientific American has long embraced digital media—starting with its own site launch almost 20 (yes, 20!) years ago, as part of the initial offerings by, before magazines had their own sites. Today, Scientific American’s Web site provides more than a complement to the print edition—it is the larger (by far) of the two, both in terms of content we offer and total audience size. We have optimized the site for mobile—and more than a quarter of our audience now consumes the site content that way. We have a tablet edition as well. And those are just for the regular offerings. Naturally, we also offer themed selections from our 168 years of digitized archives, ebooks on various topics, and special editions as well.

What trends do you see in magazine publishing? We continue to see several trends at once in magazine publishing. For one, audience demographics/interests are shifting based on people’s preferred platforms for content consumption. For instance, we tailor content for our print audience in a different way than for our Web site, because the audiences now differ (online is 10 years younger, for one, with a nearly 50/50 male/female ratio, whereas we have a greater percentage of males reading print). Another trend is the continued commoditization of news; fortunately for Scientific American, its audiences find its offerings unique enough that they are worth paying for. Both advertising sales and custom products have continued to be smaller revenue sources than they historically, particularly in digital. On the other hand, consumers have never been more directly engaged in content—both in responding to it and in assisting with it, through user-generated platforms. The result is challenging for business models, but I would not go back to the pre-social-media world.

What do you find most rewarding and challenging in your job? The rapid rate of change is BOTH the most rewarding and the most challenging in my job. Many of us who went into journalism partly did so out of the sheer joy of learning something new and then sharing that understanding through our stories that inform and entertain our audiences. But we also partly did so because we are very curious people who get bored when we are not adequately challenged. I never lack for challenges in today’s marketplace—and I am often greatly pleased by how Scientific American’s readers have generously responded to our various initiatives and experiments. I feel as if we’re all figuring things out together, and that is gratifying indeed.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2013

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