At Scientific American, Shirt Now Matches Socks

A Q&A with Editor in Chief John Rennie

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?

JR: Obviously, almost any subject you can point to in the magazine has a library’s worth of things that one could say about it, depending on the level of depth you want to get into. Part of what we did with the redesign-and this is the sort of partnership you can get out of digital-is to think, all right, you know that some print readers are pressed for time, looking for a glossy read, and thinking about how to get through an article fast. Some are looking for feature-length treatment of the information, and then they’re done. And some of them are looking at the feature as a springboard into everything else they might like to learn about the subject. So what we do now, when taking on articles, is figure out how we can structure the information into those kinds of tiers.

Then, as far as online, you start to get into, what are things we could put online that would really extend the experience beyond what we could or might want to put into print. For example, you can look at points that you know you’re struggling to explain in words. You can try to do something about them with graphics on paper, and sometimes you can get across the main points well enough. But if we can create some sort of animation, or some other kind of interactive presentation, boy, that will really make those points that much better. Now, in the early stages of an article, we try to do more brainstorming where the art people and the editors are all sitting down together and thinking it through, trying to develop some real ideas about how to go into the subject online and in print.

CB: Is the redesign a two-way street, insofar as you are using the Web site to drive traffic to the magazine as well? Or is this, in some way, a signal that Scientific American is shifting emphasis from print to the Web?

JR: There’s a strong sense that somewhere down the line, the Web may become more the center of all of our operations. Of course there’s also no question that for some years to come, the heart and soul of Scientific American’s business, and really its editorial identity, are going to rest very strongly on what we’re doing in print. So yes, I really do see the redesign as using the things we’re doing online to try to drive interest back over to the print magazine. On the Web site, we can arrange huge amounts of a lot of different sorts of content. But one of the great advantages that print still has over digital media is that the elegance of its presentation is far superior. So there’s great opportunity in thinking of what you’re doing in print as making the most polished presentation of the best of what you’re doing online.

CB: How do you expect the redesign to affect the magazine’s circulation and advertising?

JR: Bruce Branfon, our publisher, is telling me that the reception of our redesign in the ad community so far is very, very good. But the major reasons for doing the redesign were not to rapidly pursue more circulation or more ads. The happy thing is, our business is good these days. The redesign is important for keeping Scientific American current. You could say that it was kind of a defensive move, because we felt like if we didn’t redesign, it would hurt the fortunes of the magazine in the future. Scientific American is not just a print magazine these days, but to the extent that it is kind of a flagship product for us, we need to make sure that it’s an extremely attractive flagship.

CB: What advice would you give to other editors trying to make their print publications more current in the digital age?

It’s very important, if you do have different staffs working on the print side and the Web side, to have them all involved in the process as much as possible and be working toward unified strategies and philosophies of what you want to have show up in both media. Something that our Web site people have pointed out is that you don’t want your Web site to become this dumping ground for everything that you didn’t have space for on paper. In the interest of efficiency, start thinking about ways in which the things you’re doing for print can slide over, as is, into some digital manifestation. For example, the Key Concepts boxes we now have at the beginnings of features, they’re very nice as a quick, abstract summary for the print reader. They also happen to be something-because they’re short and punchy-you can drop right onto the Web site and use as the introduction for something else. Maybe we will have the main text for the article in a paid, digital archive, but we can still put up that kind of good summary of all the main points so readers don’t feel frustrated.

CB: What kind of new science stories can we expect in the first six months of the new look?

JR: This redesign opens up a lot of doors for us, and there are a lot of those doors we haven’t stepped through yet, and that we don’t have clear plans for stepping through. Some of the things that we’re doing: for example, in the July issue we have this conversation, or debate of sorts, between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. That’s something that we really haven’t done much of in the past with the magazine. There are another couple of features like that planned for upcoming months. There are also some other kinds of features that are coming up that may be a little more pictorial in nature, which is not something that Scientific American has done a lot with in the past. But we’re going to see whether or not that’s a form that serves us well. I don’t feel like we’re reinventing the wheel in any of this. The way we approach and treat content, rather than the content itself, is what will be distinctly different from Scientific American’s past.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.