This month, Scientific American unveiled a redesign of its monthly magazine. While not at all radical, the changes said a lot about how print magazines are adapting to a digital age. CJR’s Curtis Brainard asked John Rennie, SA’s editor, to explain how it all came together and what it means.
Curtis Brainard: With recent experiments in Web reporting and now the redesign, Scientific American seems to be taking its place in the digital age very seriously. Why? And when and how did the idea for this redesign come about?
John Rennie: It was gradual. Since our last redesign in 2001, a number of ideas for things we’d like to do started to accumulate. There’s just such a strong awareness these days that print needs to have some kind of robust connection to digital publishing. So when we started to think about everything we would be doing in a print redesign, trying to make that go hand-in-glove with our Web site was naturally part of the thinking.
CB: Brian Napack, the president of Scientific American’s publishing group, has said that the publication “no longer considers other science magazines its primary competition,” and that it must now compete against the likes of Google and Yahoo. How did that factor into the redesign? Were you more concerned, for example, about design and packaging, than about content?
JR: I began by drawing up a set of principles for the redesign for what, philosophically, we wanted to accomplish, and they were a touchstone all the way through. Although there were unquestionably going to be a lot of content changes … fundamentally we were not looking to change the nature of the content in any way that would be unsettling to our readers. We know, for example, that our readers are counting on a certain number of feature articles written by scientists. We had no intention of changing that because we knew it was something the readers valued, and it goes to part of what is distinctive about Scientific American.
What we did recognize was that the packaging of that information needed to be dealt with in a very different way. And you could say that that is partly a result of being in the digital age, but it is also partly the kind of phenomenon that Brian was talking about-for almost any science magazine these days, the serious competition is starting to come from outside of the science and technology magazine niche. What you have to worry about, given that there is more and more science and technology coverage naturally finding its way into general media, is whether a lot of the needs of your audience are being met well enough by newsweeklies, by television, and by what they can get on the Internet.
CB: You’ve said that one of the significant changes to the magazine has been heavier emphasis on explanatory images and bulleted summaries. Does that mean readers will be seeing less text?
JR: Again, we are looking constantly for ways not to have to make a tradeoff between text and graphic space. Those kinds of changes can be justified, but past a point you really do start to feel like you’re eroding the depth that people associate with a magazine like Scientific American. But in the media in general, the quality of illustrations, especially informational graphics, has improved tremendously. So frankly, it was time for us to brush up on some of what we were doing. I know bulleted lists-for example, the Key Concepts boxes that we now have the beginning of feature articles-can seem like the lowest common denominator for presenting information. But the fact is, readers who are pressed for time and have a lot of other demands on their attention really do appreciate lists as way of boiling down information.
CB: Beyond content, one of the goals of the print redesign was to drive traffic to online features. How do you do that?