Last week was yet another turbulent one for science journalism. Scientific American, the United States’s oldest magazine, and the American Chemical Society, which publishes a magazine and a number of journals with news content, cut staff in an effort to reposition themselves for long-term stability.
Portfolio (which closed just days later) broke the news about Scientific American, and there were follow-up stories in Folio and The New York Times. It was hard to tell what to make of the changes from the short articles. The Times described them as a “shake-up” and Portfolio wrote pointedly that fifteen-year editor-in-chief John Rennie is “out.” President Steven Yee is leaving as well, and the combined New York office of Scientific American and the Nature Publishing Group (which the former recently joined) has reduced its staff by 5 percent. All three write-ups also mentioned that the magazine’s advertising pages dropped 18 percent in the first quarter of 2009.
“The stories in the press about this want to dwell on the hand-wringing,” said publisher Bruce Brandfon in an interview. “But trying to position this as the overall story about the decline in advertising and print in general misrepresents what the background is.”
Brandfon argues that the changes should be viewed as a move to secure a long and stable future for Scientific American, which recently joined the Nature Publishing Group at Macmillan (it used to be a separate entity there). It’s a “strategic alignment of two like properties,” Brandfon said, and the layoffs are the result of eliminating redundant administrative and support positions. But sources at Scientific American who are familiar with the changes (all of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisal) say that, far from hand-wringing, the three press accounts actually understated the layoffs.
“We’re all tired of looking at the media accounts and seeing a highly sanitized version of all this,” said one source. It is “highly misleading” to say that only 5 percent of the whole Nature Publishing Group office has been laid off, the sources argue, because it belies the fact that all of the cuts have come from Scientific American. According to the sources’ calculations, there have been eighteen layoffs since last week’s announcement (about what the media reported), but there have been twenty-five since early March, amounting to about 30 percent of Scientific American’s total staff.
Most of those eliminations have, as reported elsewhere, come from “back-office” administrative and support positions—but certainly not all of them. Nine editorial jobs (including various editors, fact checkers, photo and art personnel, and a blogger) have also been eliminated, sources said. And even when it comes to the legitimately redundant positions, they complain, all the cuts seem to have come from Scientific American, with Nature shouldering little of the burden. (E-mails and a phone call seeking a response to the sources’ calculations and criticisms were not returned.)
Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American’s executive editor, will serve as “acting” editor-in-chief when Rennie steps down this summer. In an interview, she praised Rennie’s leadership and said she is pleased he will continue to contribute to the magazine.
According to Brandfon, there is currently no plan to seek another permanent editor or to make any editorial changes to the magazine or Web site. Sources at the office say they have heard the same, but most seem to expect that there will be some kind of re-evaluation of the company’s editorial direction as soon as it completes the move to the Nature Publishing Group’s lower Manhattan office this summer. The group’s managing director, Steven Inchcoombe, who will oversee the business side of both Scientific American and Nature, wrote in an e-mail that:
Scientific American is publishing an excellent product in print and online, but the world is changing rapidly and we want to ensure that we are making the most of the available opportunities. Therefore we will survey and research our target market – current, prospective and lapsed readers and online users – and, based on that evidence determine how the business needs to change to better meet their needs, to be more relevant and to be more valuable.
Brandfon, DiChristina, and Inchcoombe all said that current changes represent a shift in marketing strategy and are designed to build a stronger and more dynamic media company. The idea is to reach a scientifically interested market that stretches all the way from high school classrooms to the very top of academia, industry, and government.